Monday, December 20, 2010

What an Inexperienced Cook Sees

Monday night is Boyfriend's turn to cook. He volunteered to take Monday dinners on a regular basis, realizing that he could often plan ahead and do most of the shopping and work on Sunday, when there is no rush.

So now on Saturday, he'll ask, "What should I cook on Monday?" and we'll flip through cookbooks or brainstorm together. He likes to try recipes that are just a little outside his comfort zone without being too far or too intimidating (teachers might recognize this as "ZPD" or Vygotsky's zone of proximal development). He's got the basic braising technique down to the point that he now seems to veto most one-pot slow-cooking meals. He can already do that, and he wants to try something a little more difficult.

This Saturday, I was sipping coffee and flipping through a new issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine. "Anything good in there I can make for Monday?" Boyfriend asked. I skimmed the pages, found the issue's special section, and said, "Ah frittatas! You love frittata. We haven't made tortilla [Spanish frittata] in a while. Let's do one of those." I sped-read some more. "How about a risotto frittata with gorgonzola? It's just eggs, cheese, rice..."

"No no no," Boyfriend said. "I'm not doing risotto. And besides, you don't like risotto."

"You're right. I don't like risotto as a dish in itself. But I don't mind it in things. Remember how much I liked those risotto cakes?"

"No," he said. "I'm not making risotto."

My head down, I glanced over the recipe one more time. It really seemed quite simple: cook rice, whisk eggs with other stuff, tap breadcrumbs around a pan, pour it all together, and bake. Done.

Then I realized how long the instructions were. They bled onto a second page. I read over sections of the recipe more closely and saw how needlessly complicated it all must seem. The instructions for cooking risotto require the cook to measure out precisely half a cup of piping hot half-water-half-stock every 10 minutes and slowly pour it into the rice and stir and stir. The inexperienced cook will read that and see a list of complicated steps that require multiple pots of ingredients and carefully timed actions. And that's not even the whole recipe. That's just one part!

The experienced cook, on the other hand, sees "Rice in pan. Hot water in another. Add water to rice here and there. Easy. So, what else can I be doing while that part is working itself out?"

Experienced cooks can read short-hand. Here's an example of recipe short-hand in action. A friend on Facebook asked for a recipe the other day, and I wrote:
Recipe: graham cracker crumbs + butter. Mash into bottom of square or rectangle baking dish=crust. Layer walnuts, choco chips, coconut. Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk. Bake until ... baked. For more precision, Google "seven layer bars" or "magic cookie bars" and omit butterscotch chip, because butterscotch chips are nasty.

An inexperienced cook would panic. How much? What does "mash" mean? Don't I have to preheat the oven for baking? How many minutes does it need to bake?

The experienced cook sees that this recipe doesn't actually require any proper baking at all. It's an assembly job with heat added to help hold it all together. There's no chemical composition change. Sure, the top gets toasty, but that's about it.

Notice how in this post I used the terms "experienced" and "inexperienced" rather than "good cook" and "bad cook?" Those words actually got drilled into me when I was taking master's level courses in composition. We always referred to "experienced writers and inexperienced writers," in part, I think, because it leaves the understanding that anyone can become experienced. It's not about talent. It's about how much practice you've had, and cooking is the same.

Sometimes with cooking, I personally view it more as "competence" that comes through experience. Once you've gained a certain level of competence, it's very easy to practice and become more experienced; but before you've reached competency, the curve is quite steep.

2 comments:

Leigh said...

So what did he cook last night?
And yes, the first few times I made risotto, I was scared by those long instructions. Now, I know how easy it is.

Jill E. Duffy said...

Last night, he made one of my favorite dinners: nicoise salad with sesame crusted tuna, seared rare (instead of canned tuna). He has been mastering eggs: fried, then poached, and now soft-hard cooked (that is, hard boiled, but with soft yolks).

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