amw (amw) wrote,

how i learned to cook

Yesterday i went on a wonderful and picturesque bike ride around the airport, but a comment on my last entry got me thinking about writing something different today.

How did i learn to cook?

This is a great question, because my mother was never a very interested cook and my father (who after the divorce i only saw occasionally) is a hit-and-miss cook who throws stuff together and hopes for the best.

I take after both of them.

My mother's philosophy on cooking (and, in fact, all housework) was to be lazy. That is, not to let a mess pile up, but specifically to not make much mess in the first place. She figured make less mess, don't need to spend so much time cleaning. She taught me to do the dishes as you go, so there are never more than a couple of dirty things at the end of the meal. She also liked to spend more money on less things, which influenced how i think about ingredients that pack a lot of punch.

What i took from my father is a willingness to experiment with anything, especially exotic ingredients, even if you don't really know what they are supposed to be used for. I never measure anything, i never write down a recipe. I just taste a new thing, get a sense of its flavor profile, then add it to whatever to see how it works. Dad's influence got me to pick up random stuff like plantain and palm sugar and sumac and fennel seeds.

But there are other people who had an influence on my cooking too.

Firstly, my first boss and chef-owner of a fancy French restaurant. I was the dishwasher. He taught me to put some fucking elbow grease into every job. Not piss around, not complain, just go hard till closing. He also taught me how to plate, which was a job i helped out with during big services. I don't really do any serious plating at home, but i have learned that when food looks pretty, it tastes better too. I also learned that you don't need to put a mountain of food on the plate to make the customers happy.

Secondly, my first roommate after leaving home. He owned an electric wok and that was it. He taught me the vegan bachelor staple of gussied up beans on toast. That is, don't just put a can of baked beans on toast. First fry up some garlic and ginger and chilis, then put the beans, add some soy sauce, add some cream corn or whatever other veges you have on hand, then put it on whatever starch you can find (doesn't need to be toast - could be rice or noodles or crackers). From him i learned how to cook on the cheap, and how to make a full meal in a single pan.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Tony fucking Bourdain. Rest in peace, my man. I read his book Kitchen Confidential, and it was like reading a memoir of my first job, washing those dishes in a French kitchen. At the end of the book he gives some key advice that every cook should know. Always use shallots instead of regular onions. Always put in way more fat than you think you need. Always add more salt. Also, get a big fuck-off chef knife and stop dicking about with that serrated dollar store nonsense.

Fourthly, Gary Regan and his book Joy of Mixology. This is actually a book about making cocktails, but it's structured in a way that teaches you how to mix flavors together. The most important cooking advice i got from that book was that it doesn't matter what ingredients you use, it matters that you get the right ratios of acid and sweetness and bitter.

This takes me to my mid-20s, i guess, at which point i had some quarter life crisis and thought the only other career i knew besides software - which i hated then almost as much as i do now - was cooking. So i took a knife skills course. And then i started cooking school, but i only made it through the theory classes before dropping out. I think that's the most interesting stuff anyway. The course book was Practical Cookery by Victor Cesarani and David Foskett. It is an excellent book.

Cooking school tied together all the stuff i'd already started to learn by osmosis. Always add more fat. Always add more salt. Balance the acid, sweetness, bitter, umami. Learn some of the ingredients that form the basis of all sauces. In France that's mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery). In Spain it's onions, garlic, tomato. In India it's garlic, onion, ginger. In China it's garlic, ginger, chilis. Also, always deglaze the pan, because that's more flavor that you don't want to just wash down the sink. Oh, and always get your complete mise en place ready before you turn on the fire.

To this day i still never follow a recipe, which is why i will never become a working chef. But i have developed my own sort of fusion cuisine that was born out of my history, and out of necessity - living in very small apartments, sharing limited fridge space with roommates and cooking for one.

My first rule is i never use more than one pan. If you can cook the whole meal in one pan, do it. Otherwise just cook in batches. And don't forget to deglaze the pan at the end. You can throw some liquid and try make a sauce, but i've found the quickest way to clean the pan and also transfer flavor is to toss some watery vegetables in. Usually that's greens (bok choy, choy sum, mustard greens, napa cabbage), but you can also just toss some diced cucumber in a pinch - having a warm salad isn't so bad when it's sucked up all the flavors of your main.

Using one pan and deglazing it also follows my mother's rule of making as little mess as possible, which means it's easier to clean up. And it works very well in small or shared apartments where you might only have access to a single burner or there's no room in the sink.

My second rule is don't worry about how much fat is in the dish. When i was eating omnivorously at home i used butter and cheese, but now i just use oil. Lots of people complain "oh the food is too oily", but what they're really saying is "oh i'm scared of getting fat". Here is the trick if you're watching your weight: just prepare less food. The end. I'd rather eat less of something with a ton of fat than eat twice as much of something bland. Fat carries the flavor in it. If it tastes good, you won't need to eat as much to feel satisfied anyway.

My third rule is not to be fussy about the starch. Lots of Asian food calls for rice, but unless you're making a paella, rice is always going to need a second pan, so why bother with that mess? Use rice cakes instead. Or get some rice noodles that you only need to leave in hot water to soften. Or - fuck it - eat your Chinese food with tortillas, or bagels, or whatever. It's not a big deal. Also, fuck Italian noodles that don't soften by themselves just by adding them to a bowl of hot water. Buy fresh noodles if you must, or just go with the Asian ones that don't need to be boiled.

My fourth rule is to try find ingredients that pack a lot of "balance" flavors, so you don't need to mess around with building those flavors yourself (which would probably need another pan). This is where it's useful to learn the Asian condiments. Soy sauce is salt and umami. I never use actual salt in my cooking, i use soy because it's a two-in-one. I also highly recommend mushroom soy sauce, which is less salty and more umami. Balsamic vinegar is a good choice for sweet and acid. Chinese vinegars (the dark ones) also work. Kecap manis (Indonesian soy sauce) has sweet and umami. Tomatoes have acid and umami. Worcestershire sauce. Chinese rice wine. Regular wine. Beer. Lao Gan Ma. Kimchi. Marmite. Olives. Capers. The point is to find ingredients that have a strong flavor out of the box. Less messing around. More bang for your buck.

My fifth rule is a critical part of eating vegan, but it's also very important in Vietnamese cooking and haute cuisine, and that's to not forget the texture. Veges should still have some crunch when they're cooked. If you're eating a lot of mushy stuff like beans, make sure to add some pine nuts or peanuts or something else crunchy. Or use a crispbread for your starch. Even just putting some raw carrot or apple at the end will give your teeth something to play with, which makes the food more fun to eat and therefore more delicious. (Same philosophy as plating it nice.)

And lastly, just use whatever you have, keeping in mind the balance of acid, salt, sweet, bitter, umami, texture, fat, starch and so on. It doesn't matter what the traditional way to cook something is. If you get the balance right, it's going to taste good regardless of what the original ingredient you used was. It might not taste "authentic", but who gives a fuck? Everyone has their own favorite balance of flavors. So just find the balance you like and keep building the same thing. You can use different ingredients for variation and still ultimately end up with a flavor combination that makes you happy.

Tonight i made something that is hard to do in China because the ingredients aren't readily available - baked beans on toast! There is hot dogs and peanuts and garlic and ginger and jalapeños and kimchi and mushroom soy in the beans. I deglazed with some bok choy i still had left over and added the rest of the garlic and ginger, plus a tiny bit of Lao Gan Ma. Starch and texture comes from rice cakes.

Maybe it doesn't look so pretty, but it hits all my favorite taste buttons.

I stayed in all day with a hangover. At the bar last night i met some oldtime Kamloopsians while out for a smoke. One guy was like "hey, didn't you used to own that games store downtown back in the day?" Then they talked about how their dads used to come to this bar, and one guy mentioned a school friend who disappeared. Small town stuff. One guy invited me to his table to keep chatting, but i refused because it goes against the social distancing guidelines. I don't want to make the wait staff's lives any more difficult than it already is.

Wait staff here have to hand your food to you from a distance, sterilize everything that goes to a table (salt and pepper shakers, sauce bottles, the works) and make sure that people don't switch seats or move the tables. I was talking to one waitress out for a smoke and she said she was quitting because she hated having to be a police officer at work. "Drunk people don't follow the rules. Hell, even sober people don't follow the rules!" Going out for a smoke is the only way we can bend the rules - that's where we can chat outside of our bubbles, the only place where the bar is something like it used to be. Not gonna lie. I would love to quit smoking (again) for my health and fitness, but seeing as it's the only way i have to actually talk to people right now, it's become a social crutch. Fuck you very much, corona.

So that's my food story. I'm going back to bed.
Tags: food

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