Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Food Difficult, or Making Do?

 Quite often, as I am hanging around food and recipe forums and blogs, looking for inspiration, a new approach to an old idea, or maybe even-- shock of shocks-- to learn something from other experienced cooks, I find myself disheartened as I read, by the human need to deify some process or skill, tool, or recipe. It's happened so much recently, I want to speak about it here.

Example: making your own pie crust used to be the norm, but because it is not anymore, people now fear it; and when they fail the first time, they assume it is due to the recipe, or that pastry-making is such a difficult and arcane process that you must have wizard-like powers and a magic spell to pull it off.

 You don't. What you need is practice, so that you can get beyond the fear that leads to the few mistakes that may ruin your pastry. And a little understanding of the chemical facts, though just practicing will get you there. It's actually very simple and straighforward, but try telling that to someone that messed it up once. They won't believe you, no matter your experience and skill.

 Instead, they'll spend hundreds of dollars on specialized equipment, cookbooks and flours. They'll listen closely to authoritative blowhards who tout "foolproof" recipes or complicated methods. The fact that my grandmother made superlative flaky, light and tender crusts with the cheapest of ingredients, a simple old rolling pin and a floured tabletop, makes no impression on these people. Her lack of formal culinary education doesn't convince them they could do the same with practice. They want instant success, they want Credentials, and they want to learn something more impressive than the fact that the chunks of cold fat, barely blended into the flour, will cause the forming dough to puff around them, and then melt in the oven, leaving hollows that make that flaky crust. It's just the truth-- it's not sexy, it's not scary, so why make use of it?

 When you complicate it, you rob yourself of the chance to grow naturally as a cook. It's sort of an odd idea, to want to avoid giving yourself time to make mistakes and learn from them, when you could just pump cash into the problem. The approach extends to everything from cookware to the proper way to use EVOO. People get a little information, and then let guidelines become sacred laws; people see a professional on TV use a technique, and then defend every aspect of that experience, making it precious. And when it isn't working, they go looking for a new object of worship, a new guru, a pan made with more expensive metals.

 It's cooking, it's baking, and though there are some truths that hold-- like the temperature at which water will boil at a given elevation (and depending on the purity)-- most things about cooking, indeed, about recipes themselves, are changeable, adaptable. Most elements of cooking get better with practice. If the recipe didn't work for you, why not try to figure out why, instead of deciding that the person who encouraged you to try it was wrong? Why not read up on the process a little more, so you can see where you might have gone wrong, then try it again and see what happens? Surely, if you have extra cash to spare going from recipe to recipe in search of perfection, you can afford to retry a recipe; and the bonus is, you'll have some understanding of it already, having tried it once. You're more likely to succeed the second time, with care and attention. It's far more practical than starting over from scratch with another unfamiliar recipe.

 Learning to make the recipes, techniques and tools at hand work for you, is learning to rely on your own taste, your intuition, yourself. It is, in fact, learning to cook. And once you've given yourself permission to explore what once went wrong, you'll better understand why when it goes right. You won't need to search for the right recipe to fit your ingredients most of the time-- instead, you'll understand how to adjust recipes to suit what you have, how to substitute one tool for another, how to make a dish go from "meh" to "wow!" without a run to the store.

 Cooking is a most personal endeavor, and you alone can set your comfort level-- but you alone can push your own boundaries. That, I believe, is a better type of search.

Peace, Mari 

1 comment:

  1. that's so true, I'm always amazed when people are impressed by the fact that I can make pastry, it's not difficult at all as you say!