Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kitchen Magic

As a kid my school offered after-school activities like aerobics, karate and recorder and one year my sister signed up for a class called "Kitchen Magic." Each week she would bring home a new creation - nothing extravagant, mostly simple snacks like peanut butter balls or ants on a log. At the time I thought it was lame. Who wanted to spend time in the kitchen? I wanted to play sports or create art. If I was hungry I grabbed a bowl of cereal and returned to my preferred activity.

Fast forward twenty years. When I moved to Seattle I used to tell people that I did not know how to cook. Sure I knew how to boil water, scramble an egg or bake a lasagna, but was terrified to stretch beyond my kitchen comfort zone. I distinctly remember my first visit to the Ballard Farmer's Market, amazed at how many stalls were set up and overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar produce on display. I decided that each weekend I would commit to trying a recipe with a new ingredient and see what happened.

The results were pretty discouraging. I only owned two pots and I consistently burned them. Fiercely scrubbing my cooking tools with steel wool, I felt defeated but the next weekend I would recommit my resolve to learn to cook and tried again. I spent the winter experimenting with new beans, the spring and summer with new vegetables and the following winter making soups. I realized that I was burning my pots by setting the flame (in this case, electric burners) too high. I initially believed that increasing the heat would speed up cooking time but I learned instead that, as in life, patience is a virtue in the kitchen (a lesson also learned from repeatedly burning my tongue). I began to notice that I burned dishes when I would leave the kitchen to go do schoolwork, check my email or hop in the shower. Cooking required not only my time but also attention and presence.

There are many lessons to learn in the kitchen. Recently the New York Times featured a piece focused on a cooking as science class at Harvard. (As a side note it sounds just like the food science course I am taking this quarter - a fairly standard required course for any nutrition student.) Cooking is not typically seen as an application of science, though any baker will tell you that it requires precise use of ratios. Understanding the relationship between heat and pressure will significantly affect cooking times and outcomes, as I learned when I tried to cook for my friend at a high altitude in Boulder, CO. The kitchen, in some ways, is the perfect lab. Armed with Harold McGee's magnum opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, you can enter this space with hypotheses about outcomes, relying upon materials and apparatus and careful measurements. Eventually, though, with time and confidence the kitchen becomes more than just a science lab, food more than just an experiment, as I learned by trial and error by burning pots in my own kitchen. Since then I've successfully cooked many delicious meals. I've tried different spice combinations, played with Thai, Indian and Japanese flavors, and made new grains like amaranth and millet, tested greens and fish and braised and poached and roasted and blanched. With time I finally came to a place where I feel comfortable in the kitchen.

That said, this morning as I was getting ready for school I decided to throw some quinoa and lentils in a pot so I would have a decent lunch. Then, as I went about my morning tasks the disturbingly familiar smell of burnt food wafted up to my room. In my attempts at multitasking I had forgotten that I was cooking and was back at square one with yet another burnt pot. While I may now feel confident in my culinary abilities - I know how to cook and can even teach basic cooking classes - it seems that I still have a lot to learn from the kitchen.

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