Sunday, January 31, 2010

The why, the how, the what

Ten years ago, I lived with my older brother on the second floor of a three-story brick apartment building in the student section of University City, MO. By the time we lived together, we had both lived and cooked overseas, in Japan, Taiwan and China.

We would cook together out of necessity and desire. We were raised to be helpful around the house, and in our house, that meant cooking as well as cleaning and looking after our younger brother. “Dinner’s on your own” is one of the stock phrases I remember from my childhood, and because there are only so many times even a teenager can stomach Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, we both took to cooking for ourselves.

Instead of viewing it as a chore, though, we both came to love it. I remember him making beef stroganoff when he was still in high school because he’s eaten it somewhere and loved it. He made the title dish of “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest” to present with the cookbook of the same name as a birthday gift for our mother. I was more of a chocolate chip cookie gal, but I remember enjoying the chopping, frying and grating involved in taco night.

Now that we’re in our 40s, we wax nostalgic over memories of shared meals and talk excitedly of what we’ll make next. Holiday phone conversations inevitably include discussions of what everyone’s having for dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I cooked Indian food for him and his family the last time I visited them in LA, hoisting my two-year-old niece to my hip from time to time so she could see what I was doing.

He is the first-born, whereas I am the middle child, and the only girl. He is precise and by-the-book when he cooks; I am laid-back and approximate. When we routinely cooked together in that student apartment, he measured and followed to the letter, and my cavalier ways with measuring and substitution made him cringe. His objection, as best I recall, was that because someone took the time and energy to work out exactly how to make something, their directions and measurements should be followed – precisely. Whereas it has always seemed to me that a variance of 1/32nd of a cup couldn’t possibly ruin a dish, and I’m confident that almost any recipe can be improved by the addition of vanilla and/or nutmeg.

So this is how I cook: I am constitutionally incapable of following a recipe to the letter. I look for things to tinker with the first time out, and make notes on what works and what doesn’t. Most of the time, it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I chalk it up to experience.

This blog will be me, cooking a new recipe every week, and of course tinkering with and writing about it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I will.


Leah Rubin said...

I'm with you-- precision is overrated. Besides, I often think that they just give you the closest measure they think you will adhere to, so perhaps our tinkering refines the process! --or returns it to the level of perfection they sought! Looking forward to trying your recipes...

Anonymous said...

I'll be reading ya' wherever you be. Goetz

Brandi Wills said...

I can't wait to read this every week! Btw, have you cooked much from Mastering the Art of French Cooking? I have found that following it to the tee yeilds the best results. And by "to the tee" I mean following every. single. word. Mrs Child bothered to write. However, for everything else, there is always room for improvement!

HMDean said...

Thanks, everyone, for pledging your allegiance *before* I start!

B, no, I have not made anything out of MTAOFC, but if and when I do, I'll heed your advice. It will make me itch, though.

Anonymous said...

What fun! Things I never knew about you and your oldest brother. I am so sorry it was necessary to say, "Dinner's on your own" as often as it was. But then, the two of you might not be the enthusiastic, creative and competent cooks that you are today. You have taken one of life's many ingredients and created a satisfying "dish". In addition, I have the wonderful memory of the most thoughtful, creative and tasty birthday gift--"The Enchanted Broccoli Forest". I continue to use the cookbook as a reference (I also mess around with recipes.) and treasure the memory every time I use the book. Mango Mama

HMDean said...

What's this sorry business? Haven't you always told me that all our experiences make us who we are? I, for the record, think we turned out pretty damn well.