Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cooking and Critical Mass

As long as I can remember, my cooking has been this oddly schizophrenic activity. It happens in one of two ways. Either I'm Cooking, with a big trip to the grocery store or farmer's market (or both) and a big chunk of time devoted to it, or I'm just cooking a meal to eat, which entails knocking something relatively mediocre out by an easy formula.

Now that I'm really sinking some time and energy into my cooking technique, now that I've cleaned out and organized my pantry, now that I make an effort to keep staples stocked (and, lo and behold, my grocery bill hasn't increased, since staples are so cheap), that's slowly but surely changing.

And it's a really pleasant change. More and more I'm finding myself hungry and am able to open the refrigerator or glance in the pantry and put together, with relative ease, something serious. Something closer to Cooking, something that would until very recently have taken 5 hours, including a specific trip to Central Market, complete with fanfare.

Tonight I had Kristine, Jessica, and Ian over for dinner on a whim, because last night I made some ravioli and there was no way I was going to eat them all. But furthermore, I threw together a full meal, with the help of a couple tomatoes and a pepper I got for the sauce, some figs I'd had around for a week that I needed to use, and a bunch of staples I just... happened to have around. Kristine brought the salad, too; I haven't quite gotten the knack of keeping greens on hand, because they wilt so fast. That's still pretty premeditated for me.

Tonight's Menu:

Spinach salad with sweet bell peppers, chevre, and avocado dressed in lemon and white wine

Chicken, zucchini, sage, and brown butter in whole wheat ravioli with heirloom tomatoes and roasted pepper, with a tomato-pepper coulis

Black Mission figs poached in a pinot noir reduction, with vanilla gelato

Sugar cookies with caramel and roasted cacao nibs

The figs seemed like they'd be good poached, and I had some pinot noir. Then I couldn't really see serving them unaccompanied, so the gelato just kind of happened. I had a vanilla bean, I had some whole milk, I had sugar, cornstarch, and best of all, a tested recipe. What's more, it took almost none of my time. I threw the milk on with the bean on the back burner. I mixed the rest of it and poured it in when the vanilla-milk reached a simmer. I threw it in a cold bath since I didn't have hours to refrigerate it. And immediately before serving dessert, I fired up the ice cream maker and poured it in.

The wine reduction happily simmered away, too, on the side, as I worked with the ravioli, blanched the tomatoes and roasted the peppers (which Kristine then adeptly peeled), and when it was time for dessert, 5 minutes poaching was all it took.

For once, I was able to prepare a full meal, each course ready just as it was served, nothing staying warm (and drying out) in the oven, and yet still able to sit at the table through most of it and socialize. All four burners were on most of the time, and it never felt overwhelming.

Furthermore, it didn't take a special trip to the grocery store.

I was able to improvise well, too. This morning I made the caramel for the cookies, and lacking heavy cream, I just used whole milk. I cooked the sugar syrup longer for a bit more browning, eyeballed some measurement changes to compensate, and after a brief crystallization scare, ended up with delicious, dark brown caramel of just the right texture.

I think this is all a good convergence of my increasing intuition (thanks in large part to this exceptional book) and my more diligent effort to keep those foundation ingredients around.

All I know is, if I'd tried to make a meal like that before, it would have taken a couple days of cookbooks, shopping lists, trips to and from the store, and careful planning, and even then I doubt it would have gone so smoothly. Progress!

Actually, that's a lie - that's not all I know. I also know that after a few hours of running all four burners, the oven, and now my dishwasher, while outside it hit 100 degrees today, it is now really, really hot in here.



steph said...

I love that you're such a good cook! I'm hoping that once I move into my own place, I'll become much better at it!

August 13, 2007 7:02 AM  
And said...

Congrats on your successful meal! We were just talking at book club yesterday that if you enjoy or love cooking, and don't regard it as a chore, it is easy and delightful! Your meal sounds delicious!

August 13, 2007 10:53 AM  

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