Not long ago my stepdaughter Bronwyn remarked that she loved to watch me in the kitchen because I was like a child, I was having so much fun. And daughter Audrey years ago observed about my husband and me, “You two no sooner finish one meal than you are talking about the next.”
I plead guilty on both counts. It is true that I love to cook. I love smashing the garlic, squishing a tomato, kneading and punching the bread dough, stirring a sauce mindfully, then tasting and tweaking it, as the kitchen comes alive with good cooking smells. When I am making something, I am already thinking of ways to give what’s left a second round. The challenge of making one dish into another with a character all its own is one of the creative aspects of cooking and I find it endlessly satisfying, perhaps even more so now that I am alone.
But I realize that many people consider cooking a chore and they aren’t really comfortable alone in their neat little kitchens. There is no one there to turn to for help when the sauce begins to curdle or to ask a simple question such as how lively should a simmer be. Most recipes today are written in what I call recipe jargon, succinct formulas that don’t explain the whys and wherefores of a technique so you really don’t know what you’re doing.
I have been blessed over the years because as an editor I have worked with some of the great cooks of our time. And I have learned so much watching them and asking questions. They have become the voices in my kitchen: Julia Child reminding me to be sure to dry that meat before sautéing it and not to crowd the pan; Jim Beard showing me how to temper an overly assertive onion to go into his heavenly onion sandwich; Michael Field insisting I rub salt on the steak before searing it (Julia and Jim did not agree); Madhur Jaffrey demonstrating how to fry a paste—a surprising technique I thought peculiar to Indian cuisine only to discover years later that Lidia Bastianich does exactly the same thing when she pushes aside the aromatic vegetables she has sautéed to create a dry spot in the pan, where she then fries the tomato paste to enrich its flavor before blending it into the sauce.
Julia wrote in the introduction to her Kitchen Wisdom, “Once you have mastered a technique, you hardly need look at a recipe again, and can take off on your own.” How true. But we need those expert voices in our kitchens grounding us in the right techniques. And I think we need each other to exchange ideas and goad one another on creatively.
Last year when the Washington Post started a weekly column on cooking for one, I was asked to do an introductory piece and then to participate in their chat room at lunch time on the day the food section came out. It was a very lively exchange about all sorts of food matters. I particularly liked the question, “What do you do with the duck fat?” In the recipe section of my food memoir The Tenth Muse I had written, “Be sure to save the duck fat.” But my questioner was quite right: For what? And it started me thinking how delicious potatoes are pan-fried in duck fat, to say nothing of browning meats in it, or drizzling a small amount onto the breadcrumb topping of a casserole or bean dish such as cassoulet. It is a pure, unadulterated fat that has real flavor, and I find it a treasure to have on hand.
So let’s share our treasures and our experiments and add to the voices in our kitchens as we learn from one another.