On Cooking

Mom was the cook in our house for the vast majority of my formative years.  Dad did weekend breakfasts and the occasional fancy meal.  I learned to properly mix pancake batter, operate a microwave, and sneak cookie dough when Mom wasn’t looking.

Then a series of events converged to change my view of food.  First I went off to school, and spent five and a half years living in a dorm and eating all the terrible things one eats when living without a proper kitchen.  Somewhere in that span of time, my father discovered he is gluten intolerant.  Then I graduated, moved home, and discovered the Food Network.  In other words, I had a very serious desire to have real food, Dad’s new diet required that we actually put some serious thought and creativity into household meals, and the television was giving me ideas.

The key to a gluten-free diet is controlling exactly what goes into the food. This is most easily accomplished by cooking from scratch (analyzing ingredient lists on box meals will cause painful eye strain). My parents were largely satisfied reusing the same dozen or so recipes from GF cookbooks, but I was itching to get more *creative.*
My hypothesis was simple: gluten-free dining can be achieved by cooking normal recipes, either with GF substitutes or using recipes that don’t call for wheat products.
It was a great idea.  The logic was sound.  Just one issue:  I really hadn’t ever cooked from scratch before.  Those pancakes?  Bisquick.  Mom made waffles from scratch, but those required separating egg yolks and… well, that seemed complicated at the time.

I tackled my new project just as I had every other creative endeavor – I dove in head first, and learned by trial and error.

First I found recipes that never called for flour.  My sister-in-law pointed me toward the free recipes on the Williams-Sonoma website.  There was this recipe for enchiladas verdes, with chicken in corn tortillas topped with a tomatillo sauce.  I learned to cook chicken until it falls apart, and that there are tortillas actually designed for use in enchiladas.  I also learned that serrano peppers are really quite hot, even when doused in sour cream, and that sufficiently spicy food actually can cause someone to break a sweat.

I became addicted to Ace of Cakes.  Honestly, who wouldn’t?  There are cakes, and pretty things, and super-nerdy New Englanders.  I, too, wanted to learn the Ways of the Cake.  My ultimate goal was to successfully produce gluten-free baked goods that were actually edible, unlike most of the mixes we had already tried.  I quickly discovered that the best way to proceed with GF flour substitutes was with a variety of flours, and that said flours are kind of ridiculously expensive.  So I started baking highly glutenous cupcakes and muffins with cheap normal flour, just to get the hang of this baking-from-scratch thing.  My predilection toward modifying instructions made the learning curve a little steeper than it needed to be, but I soon found my savior in Alton Brown, who translated the small words of the average recipe into a more detailed language I could understand: science.  (Seriously – I started taking notes while watching Good Eats.)  Eventually I was producing baked treats that were both tasty and aesthetically pleasing.  My coworkers and neighbors nobly sacrificed themselves, ensuring the experimental pastries didn’t go to waste.  Once I was confident with a recipe, I made smaller batches with the GF substitutes and proudly presented them to my father.

As I spent more time in the kitchen, I learned a few more things.

I learned that my mother’s favorite meal is anything that she didn’t have to cook.  (Just… try to take it easy on the garlic.)

I learned that spices are fun!  My boyfriend introduced me first to Italian herbs, then white pepper, then red pepper.  My life has not been the same since.

Most importantly though, I learned that cooking is cathartic.  There are so many things to do, so many sensory experiences.  Hot and cold.  Dry spices and cooking wine.  Garlic. The transformation that occurs when you add corn starch to a skillet full of tasty things simmering in their own juices to make an even tastier sauce.  Watching meat cook.  Trying new vegetables.  The happy burbling sound of a rolling boil.  Chopping.  Slicing.  Crying your eyes out over a really fresh onion.  The careful chemistry of baking.  Tasting the sauce as you go along until it’s just right.  Cooking utensils. Trying something new, and discovering that it tastes better than the stuff that comes in a box.  It generates all the satisfaction of beads and charcoal and yarn and clay, but then you get to eat it too.

Now that I’m no longer living with my parents, I don’t have the pleasure of a sit-down meal with an appreciative audience, but I still live in my kitchen.  No matter how stupid things get at work, I can come home to my refrigerator full of raw ingredients and make something.  I can dump all my frustrations into my over-sized pot of tomato sauce along with the red pepper and garlic, knead out my exhaustion with from-scratch pizza dough.

Last night I made a really fantastic deep-dish pizza, with a sauce spiced just the way I like it (a lot), and a heaping pile of cheese. Tonight I’ll be slow-cooking the pork butt that is currently marinating in my refrigerator.  Why spend six hours cooking something I won’t even get to eat until tomorrow?  Because it feels good.

…and because I’ve been craving the stuff for months, so waiting one more night won’t kill me.