Thursday, 17 January 2013

How I learned how to cook

I've been musing lately about how I learned to cook.  I've never taken any classes or watched Julia Child say "Bon Appetit!" (much).  So, how did I accumulate my technique (such as it is) and knowledge?

Every cook has an appetite.  Seems like an obvious statement, but as I have discovered, not everyone likes to eat.  And most don't like to eat as fervently as I do.  If you ask my mother, she'll tell you that I've liked to eat since I was born.  So, to cook joyfully, you must like to eat.  Second, it helps to be obsessed with food --  I like to say that I live a "food centered life".  I used to think this was unusual, but then I lived in France.  The whole culture encourages discussion and consumption of food.  Third, you have to like to use your hands.  For me, cooking is engineering on a fast scale.  Typing into a computer doesn't satisfy my construction urges, but cooking does.

I believe I began thinking about cooking by watching my mother.  My mother still cooks occasionally (at age 87) and she's a skilled practitioner.  I believe that a critical aspect of her cooking was her experience living in Italy after the second World War.  She came back with the idea that squid was something she could do at home.  And she did.  My mother also likes asian cooking (particularly Japanese) and so if she brought home a cold octopus tentacle from the  Japanese Market on Castro Street in Mountain View, we had that for dinner.

But, like many,  I would say my real education began when I left for college.  Initially of course I was subjected to cafeteria food.  I can't remember anything about it.  But it was expensive and since I was paying for college, I thought I could do better.  In my sophomore year, the college administration didn't think this one through and permitted students to drop the meal plan.  As a result, I started cooking on the one common stove found in the lounge.  But, so did every one else.  Which meant I was competing with all the guys (I lived in a single sex dorm) baking TV dinners.   But it was the next year when I really learned how to cook.

In my junior year, I shared an on-campus apartment with four other guys (Mike Schway was my roommate).  I was the only one who had a clue about cooking.  As a result, I became the apartment cook.  I learned how to meal plan, how to do the shopping and finally, how to cook as I worked my way through the Joy of Cooking.  It was an education.  I also was investigating simple chinese cooking, after all, Chinese food was (is?) the computer science dinner of choice.

And in my senior year, I moved off campus to share a beach house with Bill Seiter and Don Eigler (in Del Mar, what a place!).  I did a lot of cooking there too, including pancakes.  One meal I remember vividly: I found a recipe for shrimp and invited a friend and her friends over for dinner.  I rode my bicycle (I didn't own a car) up to Solana Beach and bought the shrimp and brought them back home.  The recipe said "devein". I had no idea what that meant.  But Bill Seiter did (fortunately).  So, dinner was later than I had planned because we had to figure out how to "devein" (a better word would be "de-intestine") the shrimp.  But, as I recall, dinner was a success.

But it was my summer in Paris that really changed my view of food and cooking.  Living in France, I discovered that here was an entire culture that valued the quality of ingredients and sophisticated cooking.  I also discovered a world of technique that I didn't know  including sauce construction, charcuterie, and butchery.  I came back from France with a different view of cooking and what was possible.   However,  the US was incredibly backward compared to France.  One must recall that it was around this point that Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) was pushing the importance of fresh, high quality ingredients.

The next phase of learning was grad school, particularly Rochester.  The CS Dept. was inhabited by a fair number of guys (and yes, it was almost entirely guys) who liked to cook.  At this point, I could cook reasonably well and was beginning to branch out.   We discovered Marcella Hazan and began making fresh pasta with our new Atlas pasta machines.  The first time we made Marcella's  Lasagne with artichokes revealed how fresh pasta can make such a difference in texture and flavor.

One summer when I was working on my dissertation, I decided I was bored by western cooking.  Accordingly, I chose to cook my way through Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking.  I had a very good time and learned that what we eat in Indian restaurants is only a pale shadow of what is possible.  Indian cooking is incredibly aromatic and depends on fresh crushed spices.  My clothes began to smell like Indian spices.  They are powerful!  At the end of the summer, I had recovered from my boredom and went back to western cooking.

At Bell Labs, I fell in with Steve Fortune and Howard Trickey.  We discovered we all liked to cook and eat.  So, we started to do joint meals on the weekends.  This really started to push me since we all liked to do interesting substantial dishes.  In a total reversal of the usual situation, our girlfriends (eventually wives) would be on the side, drinking wine while the males would be slaving over the hot stove.  I learned a considerable amount through these meals since I would have to learn new techniques to make the dishes that appealed to me.  Also, courtesy of my back surgery gift, I was starting to use Julia Child's Mastering the Art to improve my cooking techniques and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.  Simple things, like disjointing chickens or making a bechamel sauce became part of my standard repertoire

Unfortunately, we had to leave our cooking group behind when we left NJ (The disintegration of Bell Labs has produced a vast diaspora of former NJ residents).  So, in the last ten years I've been cooking the same dishes, more or less.  But every once in a while, I decide to extend what I do.  As an example, the cookbook from Alinea provides all the challenge I can handle (and more).  But most of the time I'm really a short order cook: how can I get dinner on the table in 45 minutes or less.  And I'm really OK with that (most of the time).

Lately I've been working on my baking but that is an entirely different skillset.  And that is the subject of another blog entry.

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