Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Problem With My Cooking

I've been working hard on my cooking ever since I left Chowhound. I'm at the point now where friends find excuses to be nearby at mealtimes. But a lackluster effort at shrimp scampi linguini has left me pondering some serious deficiencies.

I have two strengths:

I'm good at dreaming up combinations of ingredients to create harmonious flavors and textures.

The most underrated faculty for any creative pursuit is taste. I don't care how smart, clever, experienced, and skillful you are; if you don't know what "good" is, you'll rarely produce it.

I'm meticulous.

If a musician tries to play in tune, he'll, inevitably, sometimes play out of tune. But if you try to play really in tune, you'll play reasonably in tune even at your worst. This is a critical life lesson! My toast, for example, is never more or less than a half second from optimal brownness. I stand there and watch, in a state of poised alertness. I would never imagine glancing at my iPhone while cooking.

But I'm absolute crap at seasoning.

I get away with it, because my normal cooking doesn't require seasoning precision. Salt's not an issue, because I use almost none. And I can't go wrong with chili, because I'm happy with the full range, from bland to fiery. In fact, I prefer variation!

I can create a vague wash of garlickiness, but, getting back to that shrimp scampi linguini, the garlic needed to be nutty but not pungent, and should have dovetailed gracefully with the lemon - just enough to cut through the oiliness without smelling like air freshener. The salting needed to be assertive (this dish wouldn't have worked salt-free, of course), but not obvious. And I've never completely understood black pepper (if you consciously notice it, you've probably over-applied it).

When it comes to seasoning, I can barely hit the target, much less a bullseye. I've gotten away with this because my ad-hoc, improvisational cooking approach thrives on entropy. My go-to seasonings - chili, onion, scallions, coriander, cumin, and vague/sloppy garlic - taste good at any level. So I've grown lazy and stunted.

I suppose I need to develop a "feel", because there are too many variables (e.g. variety and freshness of garlic, fineness of mince, quantity of pasta, etc) to rely on strict calculation. But it disturbs me to realize how far away I am from having that feel. I've avoided it by developing an entire cooking style that lets me duck out of the issue!

It runs in the family. I once wrote:
My father, a wonderful sculptor, always wanted to try painting, but he knew he had no facility with color. Finally, he came up with a dazzlingly creative solution: he'd paint only with primary colors. Brilliant! And the results were distinctive and appealing...".


Unknown said...

My approach is "less is more". For the most part, a simply salted and peppered protein is perfect. I use pink sea salt and penzeys ground fine pepper. I have the black peppercorns, but use them sparingly...they can overpower a dish.

Garlic, an Italian blend dry spice and fresh dill and tarragon are all i need. If you ever need to brighten a muddy dish try tarragon or dill. They are transformative spices

Jim Leff said...

I agree, Michelle! But I don't need more excuses to avoid acquiring the knack of seasoning. I've done exactly that for the last decade!

You can't get around the fact that if you're making something like scampi pasta, the garlic needs to be right. The lemon needs to be right. The salt needs to be right. The pepper needs to be right. Deft, disciplined control of seasonings is essential.

Sure, I can retreat to my usual simple proteins....but the point of my article is that I'd rather not hide from my weaknesses.

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