I like to cook. I don’t often have the time these days, and I don’t have nearly enough experience to make anything grand, but when I do have a chance, I go for it.
It’s difficult to point to exactly why I enjoy cooking. I’m not a great chef, so I have plenty of failures (but being stubborn and unwilling to waste anything, they are generally still eaten). I don’t have lots of money or fancy tools, so the meals I make aren’t exotic or fancy. I don’t have anyone to cook for besides myself (generally), so there isn’t much satisfaction garnered from others.
At least part of it has to do with memories of my childhood. My mother is an excellent cook, once in her long and varied life even holding the position of short-order cook. I grew up poor, but never hungry; she made meagre meals last and taste good, and I learned from her most of the basic cooking skills which have enabled me to survive.
Part of it is also that I love to eat, and since it is extremely rare that anyone cooks for me, and I can’t afford to go to real restaurants (not fast food!) very often, the only opportunity to get some of the food I like is to make it myself. Granted: I don’t know how to cook many of the things I really like, at least not yet..
Part of it is undoubtedly the fact that I learn something new each time, and I love to learn. This cooking, too, is learning by myself, and I like the self-sustaining nature of it.
So, tonight I experimented, not just with one thing, but two: bacon-wrapped chicken thighs and molasses cookies.
The bacon-wrapped chicken thighs came at a bit of a necessity: I had the one ingredient (the chicken thighs) that I really needed to use up right away, but wanted to try something fancy. I adore things wrapped in bacon (as do most), and a recent visit to the VIP after party of the Go Fred X conference reminded me of the idea. (They had bacon-wrapped scallops and bacon-wrapped turkey as hors-d’oeuvres.)
So, what does bacon-wrapped chicken thighs involve? Well, I got some bacon, and I had the chicken thighs, and… Well, I wrapped them. That’s about it, really. I put some sage and freshly-ground pepper in it as I wrapped it, pinned it with a couple of toothpicks, put it on a rack inside a plexiglass pan (to avoid it sitting in what I expected to be lots of juices) and baked it, for about an hour at 400.
It tasted great! Nothing to it, and that will become another simple-yet-fancy thing I’ll make on occasion. As I watch my salt intake for heart-health reasons, tho’, I’ll limit my use of normal bacon. (Normally, I use pre-cooked low-salt bacon only.)
The other thing, the molasses cookies, that was work. I’ve only ever made them with my mother doing most of it; I tend to be all thumbs in these things, but I had something I wanted to prove to myself. I pick out my copy of the Barbour’s cookbook and spotted multiple molasses cookie recipes. As is typical for me, I looked at the common elements, then simply combined what I liked.
In this case, I chose an egg-less version (for the vegetarians who might want some at the pot-luck I’m preparing them for), and chose to include the nutmeg and ground ginger from another recipe.
But here’s where it got difficult. There weren’t any instructions.
For computer programming newbies, cooking recipes are often used as the analogy for a program. Naively, perhaps, we suggest that a program is just a series of steps, all acting on some data (ingredients), and producing some outcome (cookies).
But now I realize that, for a certain segment of the cooking-aware, this analogy is completely false. And yet, perhaps even more accurate than ever, just for different reasons and for a different thing in computer science.
These recipes in this book, I realize, are telling you the essential design criteria for the final product: the essential but unusual ingredients, the unexpected exceptions the chef will have to consider. Exact quantities for other, well-established ingredients are left out, such as the call for “enough flour to allow you to roll out the dough” (paraphrased) in this cookie recipe.
What’s more, basic knowledge of techniques and the exact sequence of steps is omitted. These things are either assumed to be well-known by the reader or adapted to whatever cooking situation you find yourself in. How hot was the oven to be? Only one other recipe gave any indication of that, and it said “hot”. How long should they cook? No one told me the obvious: “until done”.
I’ve been too used to modern recipe books which not only don’t assume much knowledge and background on the part of the user, but also have very specific — almost overly-detailed — instructions.
I like the Barbour’s book even more now, despite how frustrating it was in the beginning. It feels more like real cooking, more work but ultimately more involving the very thing that sets humans apart: our ability to abstractly think and reason things out..
Oh, and another thing the recipe gave me no indication of: just how big the recipe would yield. I now have 85 cookies from what seemed like a very modest recipe. I burned a few, but they seemed pretty reasonable.
And extremely cheap.
And pretty tasty, too! Although they aren’t the super-sweet cookie you buy in a store, nor are they exactly the kind my mother makes. But then again, I suppose that makes them mine.
This follows some other recent cooking I’ve done, too.. Last week, my bread maker failed me. Well, to be fair, it was probably the dodgy, old yeast I tried. I had two bottles, one younger than the other, and I think I used to older one. So, I decided to test the younger bottle, and proofed some yeast.
Proofing yeast essentially tests it to see if it’s viable, but it also happens to be the first step to making your own bread. So I went ahead and made the bread, by hand. That is very much a connection to my mother, who makes the best bread anywhere, and does so without breaking a sweat. She makes bread almost every couple of weeks, by hand and in pretty decent quantity. One of the side benefits of visiting when I can is to snag some bread to bring back.
My bread wasn’t as impressive, but it’s one of the few times I’ve made my own bread from scratch in years. The bread maker has done that duty for a long time, but I’ve been getting somewhat tired at the very heavy loaves it makes.
Plus, I actually really like getting my hands into it..
I also made cinnamon rolls, a trick my mother showed me once. If you are going to make bread on a semi-regularly basis, this is a great and relatively easy side trip.
So, go cook something! If you can find yourself at a pot-luck supper this year (or at any time), it’s a great excuse to cook. But frankly, if you can learn to love leftovers — and be creative in the ways you use leftovers! — they you can save lots of money, have lots of great food and just maybe save the world.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: I only had three cookie-cutters which I felt had a good holiday vibe to them: a simple circle, a (newly-purchased) snowflake, and a bat. Hey, doesn’t a bat say “Christmas!” to you? 🙂
And speaking of cookie cutters: spray oil on them and shape your eggs with ’em. I’ve had really amusing maple-leaf shaped sunny-side up eggs..