Living and Breathing Ingredients

I grew up cooking. I browned frozen ground meat with my mom at seven; Shredded cheese and helped pour pancake batter with my dad before that. In fact, if such a title can be bestowed, I was the official cheese shredder until I was about fourteen and didn’t spend so much time at home.

This early experience gave me a great start in the kitchen. It also let me build a strong sense of intuition surrounding food, which I put to good use right away in college. I took an abnormal route and worked for rent in a small trailer, with my own private stove. Instead of stuffing cafeteria food down my gullet between class and the next big social event, I came home, rode and fed horses, and cooked my meals. Between cookbooks, the Food TV Network, and having the courage to experiment, I expanded my capabilities and started making beautiful, delicious food.

About this same time, I started chatting with a boy in Idaho from little trailer on the Northern Coast of California. Long before the days of Instagram and a societal obsession we have with taking pictures of the stuff that sustains and nourishes us, I described nearly all the meals I made to him from a computer terminal. Sauteed mushrooms with balsamic vinegar sauce. Fresh, homemade bread, pasta, and granola. Roasted chicken (yes, as a college student I regularly roasted a chicken). Each recipe was painstakenly typed between papers and projects and coffee to keep my hands warm and my eyes open.

He’s admitted he may have fallen for me before he met me as a result of my food.

Years later, I took all that intuition and knowledge and experimentation further with that same boy. We shared a small house in Boise, ID, and I cooked for him. I made him some of the same things I teased him with in college, and I ventured in to cooking game and limited myself to locally produced items. Nothing processed.

And he helped me in the kitchen.

“How do you know when it’s done?” he said.

“I just do,” I said. And I tried to show him what I look for; how chicken and steak and game all talk to me when I flip them in the pan. How a chicken leg can ge wriggled to test for doneness without poking into the bird. How dark greens will take on a sheen when they’ve cooked just enough to be softened, but not so much to lose their crunch, before they head toward the mush zone.

Twelve years after I started talking to him about food, I think he’s starting to understand.

And, I think Samuel Fromartz may have said it best: the food is alive.

No, it’s not wriggling and squirming on my counter or in the pan. But, it is talking to me. The color and shine change on onions as the cook down; they become translucent before they start to brown. The change in a steak’s texture is noticeable just from a poke. There’s no need to cut in to it to determine if it’s done to your liking.

And even more than doneness, each ingredient is different from one day to the next. Brussels sprouts are sometimes almost sweet; honey can have a sour quality; and of course not all apples are treated the same. Time spent in the kitchen builds a knowledge and intuition that allows a recipe to be adjusted on the fly: add a bit more milk to the pancakes in the winter, or a bit less in a humid environment to get to the right consistency; a mealy apple may be unpleasant to sink teeth into whole, but will bring an excellent sweet quality to a pan of braised greens. And sure, there are plenty of recipes out there that will make suggestions such as apples with greens, but, they can’t be made without time spent in the kitchen. The more time with an apron on and a cookbook open, the more the ingredients breathe on their own, and the more tantalizing the meals become.

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