Jan 28, 2010

Dum da-da, dum da-da…

Are you a, “Man/woman on a mission?” I am. I have a mission to get us cooking. If we make it ourselves then we know what’s gone into it. At the very least we understand the waiter when they’re discussing the specials, or know what a huge deal it is when a local chef posts live Maine Lobstah, or boasts of rutabaga in a subtly sweet gnocchi – a vegetable we would never eat otherwise.

We’re all so distracted – so much information from so many media. It’s overwhelming, but if we have access to a computer, how is there ever an excuse for not knowing where to start? Whenever I asked my Dad how to spell, or drove him nuts with, "Dad, dad, dad, what’s that?” Dad would say, “Look it up!” Look it up for us meant a 2-hour trip to the town library. Look it up today is as easy as getting the kids, or spouse off of Facebook so we can get a turn with the computer.

I’ve been half-heartedly ‘learning’ Italian, French, and Spanish for a decade. Ten years is enough time to be reasonably fluent in any of these languages. Technique fascinates me. Not being able to communicate drives me nuts. I don’t just mean traditional spoken languages, what about so called, “Insider jargon?” In other words - when a TV chef discusses a, “rolling boil,” or, “Brunoise/finely dice,” or, “the acid in the lemon brings out/ruins the balance of…” Martha Stewart shows us how to debone a chicken, having just crocheted a pot-holder and carved a cutting board out of a single block of maple. There’s a little bit of Martha in us all, but I think we get overwhelmed, instead of learning how to selectively focus and learn by incremental steps.

I’ve just been listening to a chef on the radio discussing pasta and pasta sauces for simple mid-week dinners. He knew his stuff – making of pasta: bronze die cuts, hand rolling, air-drying, which shape to choose for which sauce… However, he lost me at hello! He began by instructing us to buy our pasta at our neighborhood pasta store. What the fricasse?

Before we all go searching our hood for our pasta store, do we know how to make a basic sauce? Can we budget out a weekly shop, navigate the internet scanning for ingredient glossaries, print recipes, download a video on how to chop an onion so we get just onion and not the finger? Do we know how to prepare meats and vegetables, how to dice, puree, buy the minimal number of pans, knives and kitchen gadgets we really need, how to balance acid and sweetness, understand the role of fat in a recipe? The poor chef cannot possibly cover all this in his allotted 30 minutes.

Chef did a great job: advocating making inexpensive sauces from scratch, and hand-making ravioli in large batches for freezing and use ahead. However, again, I felt overwhelmed at the volume of what I didn’t know. Faced with this, it’s natural to give up and buy an unsatisfying junk-laden pasta sauce - overly salted to disguise inferior ingredients. I felt like I was being taken from the linguistic equivalent of learning how to ask for the bill, to discussing whether the Director’s cut of Bladerunner is the better version.

I’ve set my bar so high with language skills that I’ve let fear of not knowing enough, or wanting to be an expert lead me to a destination ten years in the making. I still can’t ask what’s in my meal when ordering on vacation. I don’t need to be able to discuss Kafka with my specialty food vendors for whom English is not their first language. Their English is fluent enough for that! I would however like to be sociable and to be able to connect with them. This year, I will become proficient with basic Italian to ask my cheese vendor how his family is, which type of milk is in the cheese, and what time of year the cheese is made instead of just, ‘looking it up.’ I will re-kindle my high-school French enough to pass the time of day with my lovely local French lady customer at the store. I will learn basic Spanish so I can find a supplier of authentic Dulce de Leche when we’re in Argentina.

Studies show that people who cook for themselves maintain better control over their weight and physical health, not to mention financial health, and the social benefits of sharing a meal! We’d all benefit from learning some basic cooking skills.

Don’t be so intimidated by the volume of information you don’t know, or by the need to get it perfect, that you never try. If all else fails, have a few takeout menus in your kitchen drawer. If you love to eat out, plan restaurant visits into your budget, shop the specials and, if they’re not too backed up in the kitchen, talk to the chef and understand what you’re enjoying. I was quite surprised recently to discover I was enjoying a Chocolate Balsamic when I always said I don’t like vinegar! I got an impromptu lesson in acid, the powers of reduction, and a command to avoid so called reductions that are really cheap vinegars thickened with sweet syrups.

I remember basic cooking classes, and financial planning games at grade school. Ask our younger generations, and the answer may be, “Is that available on Wii?” So, here’s my mission for our school systems. I believe this is a Mission Possible. I’d like to see basic cooking skills, along with project management skills such as cost estimation, long-range planning, and financial acumen being taught as a pre-requisite for high-school graduation. We don’t need to be chefs, financial planners, or contract negotiators to budget our households and put together a toolkit of culinary basics, but these basic skills will give us a start in life and may even inspire a few careers.

Tutto Mangia!


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