Cooking by the book

So here I was on Friday, cooking up a storm. Boss man wanted things done, and he wanted them done in a timely fashion, so that he could get home before sundown. "We need two soups, a grain, a vegetable, and a bean." Wow. Looks like we really are running through the stuff, and will have to make more. So I set to work.

The first thing that popped into my head was biriyani. It's a North Indian dish involving basmati rice, lots of fragrant spices, lots of yummy vegetables, and lots and lots and lots of fat. OK, so maybe that's not the best fit for Chow, seeing as how everything here is on the healthy side of things. He'll never ask me to go fat free on something, but Boss Man cringes when I start to break out the heavier hand when it comes to fats. So I chose to go the route of pilaf instead. Far fewer vegetables, a hint of saffron, some other fragrant spices, and that ever so lovely Basmati rice. I typed out the recipe for myself, and showed it to Cliff. He said, "You know what you're doing. Go for it."

Here's the thing. Although Cliff and I are highly creative when it comes to the kitchen, we're very careful to write down the recipes first, for various reasons. For one thing, when it's all laid out in front of you in black and white, you can quickly cost it out. It's part of the reason that the biriyani would never work: on paper, it's a fairly expensive and fatty dish. It'd have hit the cutting room floor as soon as he saw how much oil it calls for.

Another reason is so that one of us can hand it off to the next person, if need be. If I don't know what he's doing precisely, I won't step in to do more than stir the pot really quick, or turn down the heat if he asks me to. If it's all written down in detail, then we can jump in and take over if one of us has to dash off and take care of something else.

Of course, when it's written down, you have a roadmap to the dish. You tend not to forget things, like that pinch of nutmeg, or that dash of black pepper that just make the dish sing. And, when all is said and done, you can look over your work, and see if it all came out as expected. Unless there's some sort of starting point, there's really no sense of where to tweak to fix it. And how many of you can actually remember exactly how much of something you put into the pot? And what if you want to repeat your results? Any good chef (and scientist) knows that if you don’t record everything, there’ll be a step that you missed. There’s a few things that I’ve made so many times that I’ve got it memorised. Even so, I’ll still pull the recipe when I’m at Chow, because I can’t afford to be inconsistent with the results, or to lose an ingredient. (At home is a different story; I tend to be a little lazy when at home.)

However, all this said, Cliff does trust my judgement, and will give his opinion only if he thinks I’m making a choice that’s not good for Chow.

All that being said, I didn’t bother to write down a recipe for the soup (black eyed peas with collard greens, and the other was an African groundnut stew). All those things that I said would go right when you have something in front of you went wrong when I made the soups. The pilaf went off without a hitch, because there was still a fair bit of time. But then, time started ticking, and I had to get a move on. Soup number one came out just fine, because I had the time to do it. Soup number two came out fantastic, but I had to do it all myself. This meant that I couldn’t really pass on the baton to the next person, until it was at a point where it was “OK, when the timer goes off, turn off the stove.” D’oh! This meant that I wasn’t out the door till fairly late on, compared to when I’m usually out.

Lesson for the day: write it down!

So there I am, toasting the spices, toasting the basmati rice, simmering those veggies for the groundnut soup, simmering the beans for the other soup, and making the whole place smell lovely, and just generally grooving to the cooking vibe, when Cliff and I got to talking about the spices I was using. The spices I was using for the pilaf were: cumin, coriander, nutmeg, salt, pepper, fennel, cardamom, and saffron. All of them would have been equally happy on Cliff’s pantry, just as it would be in my own. It’s not because we’re both into International cooking, but because both of us come from cultures that love complex flavours! Aside from the saffron and cardamom, all the rest of those spices could be found in any home with a reasonably stocked pantry.

It’s interesting how we do come from far-flung corners of the globe, but here in the USA, we’ve all brought a little taste of home back with us, and now people in middle america are familiar with coriander (the spice and the herb!), which was unheard of 50 years ago. We borrow from each other, and take what we like from each others’ cultures. It’s a wonderful thing, because we’ve got so much to learn from each other, and it all starts when we come together and vibe to it.
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