5.23.2008

Doing it Well, Doing it Well-Done

From a suggestion by my friend "Fritz".

I’m a man that likes to cook.

I often say that if I never went to school for Theatre, I would have gone for Culinary Arts… and that’s 100% true.

When I was in middle school (6th-8th grade)… they had the “Extra” courses of Music, Gym class, Shop Class and Home Economics. Over the course of each year, you’d hit all of them, one per quarter.

Music class… I was passable. One year I did piano, the next the trumpet, and the third was saxophone. If you asked me at any point in the last 20 years to pick up any of those instruments and “show you what I got”… you’d see I got nothing. “Passable” simply meant I faked it enough to pass the course, and that’s it. Once the class ended, the information left my brain.

Gym class… I was miserable. I was small, scrawny, geeky and made fun of. I was also yelled at by the other kids for screwing up during the games, and being called an “idiot”. The fact that no one ever took 5 minutes to actually explain the RULES of the games… may have contributed. The coach just assumed everyone inherently knew ALL the rules to ALL of the games. I knew None to None, because I wasn’t a competitive person... nor did I ever watch sports. I preferred the activities where I didn’t have to compete against anyone but myself… so even if I didn’t follow the rules, no one cared. I’d be lucky to hit maybe one of those activities during any particular year.

Shop class… I was okay in… I liked woodworking and making things, only I never really got to do the big elaborate projects, because the more “macho” guys were hogging all the equipment. The first year was leathermaking… and while most people were making elaborate wallets and cases… I managed to make a leather wristband. With my initials punched into it. I didn’t even get to do my full name, because I was only able to wrangle those 2 letters. Second year was a CO2 Derby Car… sans cool designs, carvings and paint job like most others… and the last year I made a very simple clock.

Home Economics… I actually did really well. The Home Ec course was actually divided in half… one half doing the cooking/baking, and the other doing the sewing portion. So, you actually didn’t get as much of a focus as the other Extra courses, that could pick one activity and do it over the whole quarter. Here, just as you were really getting into the project, it was suddenly over, and you were moved to the other area.

The sewing was kind of relaxing. You’re still “making” things like in Shop Class, only these are softer, cushier, and my cat could sleep on them. (I don’t think my cat wanted to sleep on my octagonal wooden clock) Most of the other guys obviously hated being in Home Ec because it challenged the “manly” views of their 13 year-old selves. So, they half-assed it just to get it over with. (Kind of like what I was doing in Music and Gym class) But I liked it. It was quiet… I was pretty much left alone, and materials were more plentiful then in Shop Class. First year, I made a pillow in the shape of my first initial… I even did an extra one, and had both first and last initial. Second year, the project was another pillow… but a more elaborate one. I did a pizza-shaped one, and I still have it. The last year was a pair of Jams. (Ah, Jams… the lame late-80s euphemism for “ugly shorts”. No, they weren’t Pajamas… that’s “Jammies”. This was just “Jams”.)

But the other half was over in the kitchen area. No big main project… just several little recipes we learned. And by “learned”, I mean they were photocopied and handed to us. But we were shown and practiced the specific “techniques” like sifting, creaming, rolling, etc. I do still have those recipes (somewhere)… but most of the cooking was all “baking”. We never learned to do any stove-top stuff… only the stuff where all the work was in the prep, and the oven did the rest. Nothing about messing with the food WHILE it was cooking in a pan or pot.

To me, *that’s* real test of “cooking skills”. Most people can follow a baking recipe to the letter… but I think it’s more impressive when your own judgment is involved in the process… by putting in a “dash” of this, or a “smidge” of that… or looking at, or even tasting something and saying, “yeah, this seems ‘done’”.

They never offered Home Economics in High School… least that I can remember. If they did, I for some reason wasn’t eligible to take it… why, I don’t know. They still had shop, music and gym. But Music and Shop were now fully “Electives”… Freshman were forced to take a full year of Gym Class (which isn’t fully a bad thing)… and all other Gym Classes for the rest of the years were all Elective. But the next time I started to learn any kind of cooking… was when I was being paid for it.

My first job was washing dishes at this little family-style restaurant (well, if you don’t count the paper route from 8th grade). After a while, they moved me up to train as a short order cook… and within a month, moved me back down to Dishwashing. Yeah, I wasn’t picking up on that menu as fast as I hoped. It was intimidating, not knowing how to cook a whole heck of a lot, and then suddenly having to manage an entire grill full of different orders. I was overly self-conscious… and easily got flustered, and made a LOT of mistakes. If I had chilled out a little bit… I think I would have done much better. But I did get another chance several months later… and did succeed. Wasn’t the best cook they had, but I did okay holding my own. The food itself was fairly basic… mostly burgers, salads, fries, a stir-fry, stuff like that. Occasionally, you’d get something a little different, but it still entailed throwing it on the grill, flipping it, and then setting it on the plate.

Though I will say… when I was moved down to the Ice Cream section to make sundaes and desserts… I was the Undisputed MASTER. You see, you can’t just slop down a couple of half-assed scoops, randomly spray on some chocolate sauce, and call it a decent dessert. The whole secret was “eye-appeal”… people want their dessert to look JUST like it does in the picture when they order it from the menu. I was complemented by the owner and Big Boss himself when he flat-out told me that *My* sundaes had the best eye-appeal of anyone. They looked BETTER than the pictures. The scoops were perfectly rounded… the sauces poured over just right, the whip cream symmetrical with no chance of falling over into a glop… I was the king of a very chilly and messy little castle. But I took pride in it, as sad as that sounds.

Life in the food service industry comes with it very interesting stories, and any short order cook or wait-staff will tell you such. Because of my years of experience in it, I always try to be generous with my tipping, I never raise my voice to my server… and even when a horrible mistake is made (or finding a bug on the food), I never insist on anything more than a quick apology. I try to be the kind of customer they would *like* to serve… plus, it’s generally just not a good idea to f**k with the people that are handling your food.

Probably the biggest leap in my cooking education… came when I started living on my own, and HAD to cook for myself. No longer did I have parents or a school cafeteria to rely on to make my food… I had to start doing it myself. It’s about that time when you start to realize that you need to get in the habit of making MORE for yourself than just Ramen Noodles or Macaroni and Cheese.

So, I started experimenting.

I’d actually try recipes that I saw and liked the sound of. I tried to learn how to cook fish, or cook chicken in different, healthier ways. (Not to say everything was a resounding success… quite the opposite.) Eventually, I got me a George Foreman Griller (that was such a great appliance!). Also, I learned about Flavored Olive Oil.

No matter what I’m cooking… if I’m using Flavored Olive Oil… I feel like a Gourmet. I’m a big fan of the Basil-flavored. A close second would be the Garlic flavored.

Speaking of garlic… that is such a wonderful thing to add to so many dishes. I used to know a professor in Grad School that believed “have garlic-press, will travel”. I learned from an Asian roommate I once had about 4 years ago… to add a clove of garlic into your Ramen Noodles. Actually ups the health-factor of the cheapo 13-cent package of noodles, and really helps give it an extra kick when you bite into it. Now, whenever I make Ramen Noodles… I put a clove of garlic in. I can’t imagine it *without* it now.

Just go easy on the garlic if you have a sweetie… for their sake.

In most of my relationships… I was “the one who did the cooking”. Occasionally, they would cook… but admittedly, it never got too fancy. It was usually pasta or something like that with not that many steps. I’m definitely not complaining… just knowing someone was making the effort to cook something, anything for me, gave me the warm fuzzies. But I was mainly the one doing the occasional “experiment” with new dishes.

I don’t claim to be the greatest cook… but I do think I’m pretty darn good at it. Much better than a lot of people I know. My best friend, at once time… quite literally … burned water. Don’t ask.

And I’m still willing to learn. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is learn to roll my own sushi. I *love* sushi, and would like to have it more often than I do. I have an actual Sushi-Roller pad… and a nice little serving set for sushi… (a good part of cooking is in the presentation)… and I know where to get the nobi and rice vinegar. I just don’t know where to get sushi-grade fish (cause I want to do the kind with fish), nor do I know how to cook the rice “just right” (so it’s fluffy and sticky in just the right way). One of these days, I’ll learn… and hopefully be in company that’s willing to try it. (My family isn’t too big on the idea of sushi… even the all-vegetable kind.)

I like cooking. I like cooking FOR people, especially. For a sweetie or just dinner guests. Give me the opportunity for a PotLuck… I’ll always break out one of my favorite recipes… and my favorite form of Chicken… Chinese Chicken Wings. If you have a pot big enough, you can make enough for a small army. Growing up, I remember EVERY family party having Chinese Chicken Wings to munch on (not so much in the last few years… unless I was the one that made them. But my memories contain chicken wings. Grilled or baked in the oven… then hot or cold… them is always good eatin). And they’re fairly simple to make… but you do have to start them at least 12 hours in advance, because they need to marinate. Usually I’ll start them the night before a party or event… let them sit overnight, and then throw them in the oven about an hour before I leave (leaves enough time for multiple batches).

Would you like the recipe? Well, here it is:

Chinese Chicken Wings

Ingredients:
5 oz. Soy Sauce
Chicken (12-15 pcs.)
¾ cups brown sugar
1 ½ cups water
1 Tbsp oil
garlic powder (approx. 1 tsp)
ginger (approx ½ tsp)

Put all the ingredients in a large pot and bring it to a boil. Let cool and place in refrigerator overnight. Next day, warm up pot just enough to easily remove chicken pieces. Place chicken on baking sheet. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or cook over grill until brown, and skin is crispy.


See? Easy. Normally, I’ll double or triple the recipe for a party, and also because I just want lots of leftovers. No sense going through all that marinating and trouble just to eat all the chicken in one sitting…

I always get compliments on it… I hope you do as well.

On the DVD for the movie Once Upon a Time In Mexico, the director Robert Rodriguez has a special feature called, “10 minute cooking school”, in which he shows you how to cook a slow-roasted pork dish that’s featured in the movie. (“Puerco Pibil”…I’ve yet to try that recipe… I don’t know where to get banana leaves) But he nicely (if not bluntly) sums up a neat little philosophy about cooking:

“Not knowing how to cook… is like not knowing how to f**k. You have to eat for the rest of your life… might as well do it well.”

(Forgive me if I’m misquoting at all.)

I agree. Especially if you’re open to learning how to do BOTH those things well. Now, *that’s* what I call quality of living.

2 comments:

Agent Cake said...

There's something very sexy about a man that can cook, and cook well.
Although I can cook well, you cook I'll watch the sports!

fritz said...

Ah, the difference between baking and cooking. Yes, baking is more of an exact science--the proportions have to be just right to achieve the proper texture. It's actually quite challenging for a lot of folks to follow a recipe to attain results they're happy with--mainly b/c they don't have the experience to realize that the recipe they're using will give them flat, crispy cookies when they really wanted high, cake-like cookies. Or, their oven temperature is off. So people blame themselves instead of the recipe, and get quite discouraged. I happen to love baking b/c I love baked goods (cookies are my number one favorite food). However, to save our waistlines, I rarely bake anymore. It used to be my therapy, though (both the baking part, and the eating--I am an emotional eater).

Cooking though, is far more open to artistic flair and variation. I'm glad you enjoy it! Herbs and spices--oh, the variety! Check out Penzey's if you get the chance (they have online catalogs, snail mail ones, and brick & mortar locations). Great quality for decent prices (about same price you'll pay for grocery store spices, but higher quality).