Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Announcing: Year of Crackers

A few years ago I decided to step up my cooking. But I wanted to avoid the standard rigamarole. I didn't want to learn how to make a Hollandaise sauce or butcher a chicken or bake adorable little fresh fruit tarts. I rolled my eyes at the prospect of mastering another field, filling my head with know-how I wouldn't much use. I had no interest in becoming the sort of all-purpose chef bot spat out by culinary schools. So I chose the strategy of Guiless Clunk, cannily plotting a route following my father's lead.

My father was a wonderful sculptor who always wanted to try painting, but knew he had no facility with color. Eventually, he came up with a dazzlingly creative solution: he'd paint only with primary colors. Brilliant! And the results were distinctive and appealing, though not very painterly.

Uninterested in plunging into the whole syllabus, daunted by vast realms I prefered to side-step, I, too, followed the path of self-constraint. I'd always been the sort of guy who could cook a few showstopping things without really knowing what he's doing, so I decided to simply build from there (you can always "build from there", however limited and gimpy "there" may be....this is a key to life). I'd add some more showstoppers to my bag of tricks while remaining stubbornly narrow. I bought a panini machine, and commenced my Year of Panini.

At home, I cooked almost nothing but panini. I could wrap my mind around this, without any feeling of Wile E Coyote suspended in air above the canyon. Year of Panini came with its own comfort zone, so I felt comfortably constrained and thoroughly undaunted. I wasn't becoming a chef; I was just futzing around with panini. Always learn via play if possible. Eager futzing is like a golden ticket.

The year-long proposition taught me a thing or two about iteration, generally. As noted here,
Every time you cook something, criticize it like it's a restaurant. And next time, make tiny adjustments to ensure it comes closer to your pref. Think Grand Canyon: macro progress via cumulative myriad micro-iterations.
This wasn't tedious iteration, it was blossoming iteration. The trunk sprouted branches, the branches sprouted twigs and leaves and blossoms, and panini became a full and fertile channel for my creativity. I didn't feel the least bit constrained. Any incipient whiff of boredom just spurred my creativity to devise novel thrills. Creativity flourishes under impediment!

Meanwhile, the overarching process - the iteratation of iteration - built up my confidence. I learned where I need to pay attention, and that part receives laser focus. The rest I deftly manage with swift, unerring motions. I cook panini with full professional swagger.

I learned broad lessons about the interaction of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and developed what might be mistaken for OCD-level devotion to the subtleties of doneness. I developed tricks for evoking luxury without facile reliance on fat and salt. Along the way, I guess I even learned how to cook. You can be a master chef without ever having whipped up a stew. Just get super good at some dim corner of it all. The Sainted Arepa Lady didn't lose points for her unfamiliarity with the French "mother" sauces.

I followed up with Year Of Tacos (tacos ARE sandwiches), and then Year of Pasta (another equilibrium of carb, protein, and fat; just more harmony to achieve and iterations to bloom). Next, I was planning Year of Soup, hoping to finally make use of the Instapot that's been sitting unused on my counter for six years. At long last, stock! But I just couldn't get started. It's too big a leap from panini, tacos, and pasta. It's too damned Hollandaiseian.

So I've settled upon Year of Crackers.

I like crunchy things, generally, and crackers, specifically. And this seems like a non-fussy entry into baking, in case that interests me (if so, the iteration chain will bring me there tidally). Crackers lend themselves to micro-variation; an iterator's paradise. And I really like toasting - the diligent effort to nail the precise point of optimal doneness. Crackers are all about nailing that point, and I'm already calibrated. You can't go wrong leaning on your strengths while pushing into unfamiliar territory. Even better if you're led by primal drives like my omnipresent cracker jones (incidentally the name of my 1970s boogaloo revival band).

Best of all, after Year of Crackers, Year of Soup should feel like the natural next step. What else will I do with all those crackers?

Coming up, I'll share some of the recipes I'm considering for starters.

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