I don’t consider myself a culinary genius in the kitchen. I do, however, believe that much of the success in cooking is in the trying. I think, to a certain degree, everyone can cook (and, of course, some are much better at it than others). However, we’re not all destined to be James Beard Award-winning chefs. You have to step out on a culinary limb encrusted with sea salt, fresh cilantro and sautéed capers to find your footing in the kitchen.
I used to be a slave to recipes, reading the directions time and time again to make sure I prepared my dish exactly as it was written. After a long while, my diligence in following directions to the letter became stifling and robotic. I felt as if I were trapped in someone else’s interpretation of what they believed a dish to be. Breaking out of my self-imposed box opened up a whole new world for me right there in my kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong … recipes can be a great starting point. You just have to know where to take a detour and blaze your own trail.
Speaking of recipes, have you ever wondered how they’re developed? In my mind, the process is as simple as knowing what individual ingredients are palate-pleasing, then coupling those with what my Spidey-senses tells me will taste good together. That kind of creativity is nothing new.
In 1901, the Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics published an article titled “Peanuts and Pralines” by Julie Davis Chandler. In the article, Ms. Chandler deftly instructs readers on the nuances of crafting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a sandwich that was unheard of — at least in print — up to that point. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Tell me that didn’t take some ingenuity and creativity on her part. Okay, maybe not so mind-bogglingly inventive, but at least it wasn’t a peanut butter and sardine sandwich that she was pushing on the masses.
“For variety, some day try making little sandwiches, or bread fingers, or three very thin layers of bread and two of filling, one of peanut paste, whatever brand you prefer, and currant or crab-apple jelly for the other. The combination is delicious, and, so far as I know, original.” ~Julie Davis Chandler
I used to think that my cooking repertoire was doomed to be dull, lackluster and devoid of any form of imagination or creativity. Many moons ago, I banned red meat and pork from my diet. This left me with the thrilling choices of poultry and seafood with which to work. My palate was starving for attention. It wanted pizzazz, it wanted excitement, it wanted flavor. Soon, chicken went from being a ubiquitous dinner table staple and morphing into my very own Frankenstein monster. I was determined to make it my masterpiece. I would pound it, stretch it, stuff it, chop it, mash it and do any- and everything else that came to mind, all in a quest to transform the mediocre slab of poultry into a culinary work of art.
At times, I passed the test with flying colors, while on a select few occasions my miserable failures lay waste in the bottom of a 2-quart shallow 11 x 7-inch glass baking dish. My husband, being the wise and sage man that he is, never complained (although in some cases he had every right to voice his opinion). In his mind, he led himself to believe everything tasted good — he could utter the phrase, “It’s delicious, baby” with a straight face even as I could see the look of horror welling up in his soft brown eyes. It was during these unfortunate meals that I couldn’t help but think that he thought I was trying to cause him gross bodily harm … I do, after all, have a slightly unhealthy obsession with Investigation Discovery channel’s Deadly Women, as well as Oxygen’s Snapped. (Admittedly, I am sometimes nearly blinded by anger, but not to that psychotic degree).
Rest assured, I am not now nor have I ever been on a homicidal rampage and I’m far from trying to make man-sausages out of my husband. What I am trying to accomplish, however, is to condense nearly 52 years’ worth of mouth-pleasing food into something that I can be abundantly proud of … a dish that doesn’t demand a frantic 911 call with thoughts of food poisoning lingering in my mind.
I’ve tried everything from stuffing a boneless, skinless chicken thigh with Italian turkey sausage meat to baking salmon filets covered in a thick layer of sun-dried tomato pesto to creating a buttery, calorie-laden squash casserole loaded with Panko bread crumbs, onions and parmesan, all with the hopes of ending up with something palatable. In my quest for culinary greatness, I’ve had dried bay leaves go up in flames in the microwave, boiled eggs explode in the pan and decorate my kitchen walls, ceiling and floor, and crafted homemade turkey meatballs that looked like something that even Satan would ban from the fiery depths of hell.
By no means am I considered a one-woman wrecking crew. Thankfully (and a blessing to my husband’s stomach), the triumphs have far outnumbered the defeats. Often, I can create a dish and, once sampled, realize that it’s missing that one key ingredient that takes it from being just okay to dizzying heights of magnificence. That takes skill … or, at the very least, luck.
And still I try.
It’s likely that I’ll never cease experimenting with food in my kitchen. Within those four walls lies my proving ground. As long as the likelihood of victory is dangled before me like a lengthy strand of al dente fettuccine, I’ll be reaching for that one dish that I can call my own. The real prize comes when someone excitedly says, “This is so good. Can I please have the recipe?” After investing so much time, effort and bottles of Pepto Bismol in my pseudo-craft, the compliment is in the asking.
There are still times when the best laid dinner plans go horribly awry, and what I had hoped to be a meal for the ages has turned into a jumble of inedible mush destined for the trash. I still keep hope alive, for I know that I learn from each failure.
I may not be the best cook on the block, but I’m not afraid to don my creative toque and give it everything I’ve got.