In the kitchen

19 April 2006
4:05 PM

Three fundamental human needs are air, water, and food. I am generally good at satisfying two of those three, but I have to admit that supplying myself with food on a regular basis somewhat eludes me. For such a basic need, you would think that fulfilling it would be simpler. Thinking just that, I adopted a simple philosophy: to get food, read a recipe and follow the directions. Wrong.

For one, I don’t have an outstanding history of reading directions and following them correctly. As a child, I once decided to make a batch of brownies. I pre-heated the oven, I mixed the ingredients, poured them into a Pyrex dish, and put the dish in the oven. A few minutes into the baking process, I realized that I had forgotten the eggs. I cracked them and poured them into the brownie dish in the oven. Disaster averted. Or so I thought; my parents later came home to a batch of brownies topped with a broiled egg.

Then there’s the problem of vocabulary. Reading recipes doesn’t do you any good if you don’t understand the words. Like in any specialized field, you need certain foundational vocabulary, plus familiarity with less frequently used terms. I missed those lessons in school. When I wanted to make lemon mousse, this made following the ingredient list decidedly difficult. At the grocery store, I got a bag of lemons, but came up empty-handed in my search for “lemon zest.” It turns out, as I learned after asking a number of store employees, that zest is just part of the lemon peel, and you just scape it off (or “zest it”). You, of course, already knew that because you were there that day in school.

My trouble with recipes and directions notwithstanding, it turns out that there’s a lot more to cooking than that. There’s a kind of cooking sixth sense. What spices do I use to get certain flavors? What ingredient can I substitute here? Can I leave it out? (In the case of eggs in brownies, the answer is no.) And then there is the hassle of recipes in the first place. Sometimes I just want to throw something together. With my skill set, when I throw, stuff just falls.

Thankfully my immediate male predecessor Jon left the cooking standards set mercifully low. He was famous for instant mashed potatoes and sloppy joes. Moreover, he was infamous for cooking a batch of baked potatoes without washing the spuds. While he munched away on the end result, a fellow housemate pointed out that the potatoes were, “crunchy.” Now our Good Housekeeping Vegetable Cookbook has the following penciled-in comment at the beginning of the deluxe baked potato recipe: ☆ 1. WASH POTATOES.

I’m obliged to Jon for keeping my housemates’ standards low. Though after the past four months of learning, I’m getting better. I add dashes of oregano, basil, and parsley to sauces to pretend that I know what I’m doing. I know the difference between to chop, to dice, and to mince. I don’t always burn the rice anymore. My housemates sometimes leave me in the kitchen unsupervised.

The other day I even had what I would consider a major victory. I was in charge of dinner for our Thursday community night. I decided to make Texas chili and I picked a recipe that was fraught with peril. I had to convert pounds of meat to kilograms; I had to convert three 14.5 oz. cans of tomatoes to fresh tomatoes; I had to increase all the ingredients by 50%. I diced, minced, browned, spiced, stewed, and served. So far, no one who ate it has exhibited any sign of food poisoning. They even said my chili was tasty.

The next night I was still reeling from my extended culinary effort. I was weak. I broke down and cooked a package of Ramen noodles that someone had sent from the States. What can I say? I’m still learning. Maybe one day I’ll be one of those seasoned pros. For now, I’m content to say that I’m not hungry—I guess fundamental need #3 is doing OK.