June 03, 2011

Some Buried Scent

Last night while cooking dinner, I was overcome with such a strong sense memory that it almost brought me to my knees.

I had sautéed shallots and garlic in olive oil, then put in some broccoli florets and was pouring in some white wine, when the wave of scent hit me so forcefully and took me back some 30 years or so. It was the smell of learning to cook; "real cooking," as I thought of it as a teen.

It packed such a powerful nostalgic punch that I was brought up short and stood there, trying to capture the threads of recollection as they wafted on by in the steam from the pan, lost in memory for a few minutes.

Long enough to overcook the broccoli on one side, at least.

I brought my focus back to what I was doing, rescued my dinner and continued making whatever it was what you would call the concoction I ended up with. I had a bunch of ingredients and very little plan, making up each step as I went along until it just looked and felt right. I didn't taste anything until I had it on my plate, but I knew that the result would all come together and taste delicious. And it did.

But the gulf between that result and the structure of "real cooking" was as vast as the many years between being that teen who thought she knew so much (and yet had so much to learn) and the woman who tossed things in knowing it would work out.

As I sat down to eat my dinner, I thought about what the difference was between 30 years ago and now. Then, "real cooking" meant "gourmet" and was straight out of a cookbook or serious magazine. The directions and measurements were to be followed precisely and to the letter. Those shallots were chopped by hand, as was the garlic, and each piece of broccoli was cut to almost the exact same size so that they would cook evenly, as instructed. The wine had to be dry and there had to be wine in it for it to be grown-up. There was a list of herbs that had been tracked down and purchased, then lined up in order on the counter along with the ones that were scooped out of the cupboard. Once the mise en place was set up, things were added to the pan with a double-check of the cookbook. The timer was set as accurately as possible on those hand-turn dial ones from the 70s.

And always, there was the scent that rose up as the wine went in and started to evaporate. Heavenly.

The resulting meals? Not always so heavenly -- probably killed by over-attention to the letter of the recipe and not the spirit of the cooking -- but they got better and sometimes were even good. I think.

The technique for this meal, however, had been about 180° from that starting place: Glug some olive oil into the pan and crank up the heat. Spoon up chopped shallots from a jar out of the fridge and toss them in; repeat with the garlic and throw in some salt. Hurriedly finish cutting up the least expensive boneless chicken I could find at the store and slide that in. After a few minutes of cooking, decide that starting with the chicken wasn't really the right move; it will be petrified by the time it's all ready. Scoop out the chicken, put it on a small plate and set it aside.Grab the bag of frozen broccoli and a handful goes into the pan. Realize there's not going to be enough liquid and go back to the fridge. A-ha! I have some Riesling in there, might as well have some of that with dinner, too. In it goes.


That's when the scent hits me and the little trip down memory lane starts. Cue the broccoli beginning to overcook; scoop that out onto another small plate and re-assess. Chicken goes back in...hey! There's a lemon; squeeze half of it over the chicken and pluck a few spices from the cupboard to sprinkle in. Thyme sounds good. More garlic? Why not?

Some rice, mix it up, back in goes the broccoli, add some tomatoes that I destroyed with a not-sharp-enough knife. Oh crap, I forgot all about the mushrooms. Make a hole in the middle of the pan (where the hell is my wok?), add a pat of butter and do a quick sauté of the pre-sliced mushrooms. A little more salt, mix it all up...oh, right, I was going to add egg to make it more of a stir fry and get some more protein in it. Make another hole (there's just enough room, the pan is starting to get kind of full...where the hell is my wok??) and crack in an egg. Use a spatula to scramble it a bit...crap, the chicken and broccoli are falling into the middle, pull them out; as I do, more fall in. Oh, forget it, just mix it all up and hope the egg is cooked enough because I'm hungry and I'm sure these are non-salmonella eggs, right? Right? Okay, let it cook for another minute. Done!

As I take my plate out to the living room, I spy the cipollini onions that are still sitting in the bag, forgotten.

So now I'm chowing down and thinking about all of the above. How did I get from there to here? What happened to the recipe-following girl who was determined to do it "right"? When did precision and structure break down into whatever comes to hand? Where along the line did I start to believe that I could improvise and make it up as I go along and expect it to actually work? And why does it taste so much better, virtually effortlessly? (Effortlessly if you don't count the three plates, two chopping boards, one pot, one pan and multiple utensils that now need to be cleaned, that is.)

The answer was so obvious and so simple: I've become my mother...in the kitchen.

And I couldn't be happier about it.