Full Contact Cooking

by Patti Wigington

I didn’t try to become a good cook. I never sat perusing my mother’s cookbooks, thinking, “Golly, I’d love to learn to make a nice au jus sauce someday.” I don’t ever recall being at a restaurant and exclaiming, “I just MUST learn to make this!” It wasn’t intentional at all.
And yet, my kitchen evolution has gotten me to my early forties, where I can cook the heck out of just about anything. Give me five ingredients, and I’ll create a meal worthy of being photographed for a foodie magazine. Give me ten, and I’ll whip together something so good you’ll weep when you sit down and take a bite. How on earth did this happen?
The nearest I can determine, it comes from my ten years spent in the south, where cooking was truly an art form, and practically a cultural event. Dinner in a traditional southern family’s home – particularly in a coastal city -- is a mouth-watering and vibrant display of just-picked vegetables, greens, delicate meats, seafood so fresh that it was underwater yesterday, and fruit pies. I lived just fifteen minutes from the beach, and by default, the fishing docks. If I wanted fresh shrimp, I just got up on a Saturday morning and drove to the docks to get a back fresh off the boat. Likewise, oysters were there for the taking. Living there gave me an appreciation for seasonal, fresh food.
Then I returned to the Midwest, where food tastes are somewhat less fancified. Green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions is the typical potluck dish, everyone loads up on bratwurst and bagels, and meals are more focused on being comfort food than anything else. Living in one of the unhealthiest cities in America, I decided years ago that I didn’t want to be one of those people standing in the funnel cake line at the county fair. Instead, I wanted foods that tasted GOOD. I wanted to taste the flavors, and to do the meat or vegetable some justice. I wanted meals to be a celebration, rather than just the act of slopping ketchup on top of everything like my neighbors did.
And so I started experimenting. I’ve developed a pretty good idea of what flavors work well together, and I’ve also managed to learn that sometimes less can be more. Seasoning is crucial, and the right amount of salt can make or break a meal. I rarely measure anything, unless I’m baking, and I tell people, “You’ll know it’s done when it tastes right.” My table is always open, and no guest leaves my house hungry.
The downside, of course, is that sometimes my family eats things they’ve never heard of. But they’re good sports, and they consume my creations with a fair amount of enthusiasm. The upside is that they get home-cooked meals pretty regularly, pretty healthy ones at that, and they know that if they like something I’ve prepared, they’ll get it again.
Tonight’s dinner is Caribbean jerk chicken served over lemon and cilantro rice, with a side of mango salsa. I’m not using a recipe. But I guarantee it will be awesome. Stop by around seven if you’d like to load up a plate.

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