Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My locavore journey... learning to cook

So, today I had a cooking challenge to overcome, these happen to me all the time and I love them because the food scientist in me can come out and play. Today's News and Record had a gigantic article on CANNING in the Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009 Savor section. Everyone who knows me knows that I have had this thing for canning for the last 3 or 4 years. I keep talking about how it will overtake knitting as America's number one hobby. Speaking from experience with both, I would rather have some incredible jam than another handknit sweater. I mean how many sweaters can a girl wear in the Southeast! And the joy of standing in the kitchen for a couple of hours creating something many people can enjoy the rest of the year is very satisfying.
But, instead of reading the article, I just plunked into the kitchen and started making some strawberry balsamic jam. I made it with strawberries I picked this summer. A fun event with Charlotte's day care class out at Ingram's Strawberry Farm. And I used some 25 year old balsamic vinegar that I picked up in Italy last fall - not so local, but oh so delicious!! The problem was I used liquid pectin a month past it's prime and I ended up making a delicious strawberry sauce. I sent some "sauce" and pumpkin bread pudding (from last night's culinary adventure) off with my friend, Gillian, for a dessert tonight. But, not one to let an unsettled jam dismay me I re-pectinized (is this a word?) the sauce and added a touch more sugar and canned the whole batch over again. It won't be until tomorrow that I can tell if the new gel has set - it appears it might be better. Even if it still is sauce it can be used - anyone up for a strawberry daiquiri or shortcake?

If you had told me about 10 years ago that I would take up the hot and grueling summer tradition of canning I recall from my childhood days I would have laughed. But so far this summer I have pickled and jammed and even canned several batches of salsa. Which I will enjoy all winter. One of my favorite foods is the peach so my favorite thing to can is peach salsa. I have to wait until late in the peach season for the free stone peaches (nothing more annoying than those cling stones with the pit you have to cut around!) This year I played with doing a half tomato, half peach version and it is divine - it was another mistake that worked. I love when that happens! Oh, and canning is not the hot and miserable process it was from my childhood - any joy I had is a repressed memory as I had (still have) a rebellious nature. I love to can now!

But, back to the days of trying to learn to cook. I can not wait to see "Julie & Julia" this weekend. I devoured the book when it came out. I show the original Julia Child videos in my classes and I have read at least 3 Julia Child biographies. I also have attempted to "Master the Art of French Cooking" on numerous occasions and succeeded and failed. The quenelles (a poached fish ball - seriously!) with a lemon sauce was one of my best surprises and most raved about meals. But that was when I had entered the brave stage of cooking - the stage of willingness to fail!

After all, it was an easy stage to enter after I had become accustomed to failure in my numerous low-fat versions of serious food attempts. As I tell my current culinary students - you must learn to cook real food in classic manners before you try to cook low-fat. Hence, my nickname in the foods lab is Dr. Butter! And yes, I use only real butter with the exception of the food science lab where the students make margarine - make, not use. Early in this journey to locavorism I gave up the Country Crock and opted for the Land-O-Lakes butter. Now I buy local butter as I stated in blog #2 or, rarely, European butter for my croissant making. (Again, with the food science - European butter has less water and more fat which makes it easier to roll out and create the 81 layers of love that true pastry requires - you won't find this in the refrigerated crescent roll can - though I always loved banging that thing on the counter and having it split open!)
So, after failing at low-fat cooking I tried real food with real cookbooks. Note here - get quality cookbooks, please. No offense, but many of the recipes in several on-line food sources are not tested and will make an unskilled cook feel like a failure when it was just a bad recipe. I almost exclusively use the site (hosted by Gourmet and Bon Apetit) or the Cook's Illustrated site to find most of my recipes. My go-to cookbooks are Mark Bittman (love you!) and Alice Waters (get to meet her again in Greensboro this Sept - can't wait). Alice and I passed each other last fall when we went to the bathroom at the same time in Italy, at the Terra Madre conference, but I felt too awkward to speak her in that private venue and she was quick in and out! I also use the Moosewood cookbook for my vegetarian dishes and, of course, my Julia Child's. But I have 50 odd more books laying about that I barely crack open.

I use a recipe as a guide and then I improvise from it depending on what I have on hand. The Carolina BBQ recipe I used last week doesn't call for apricots or peaches, but one time I had them on hand and now they are part of my version and it gets raves! Cooking allows for improvisation and baking does not. I actually have a digital scale that I use for my baking. I have some excellent recipes that rely on weights and not cup measures and this makes my baking more consistent (more, not exact!) Cooking is an art and baking is a science. I prefer cooking. Quite literally I have learned more about baking this year than in any other time in my life. I have a mother who bakes and a sister who used to make wedding cakes - that is enough competition for me in one family.

And I had to take classes to learn to bake, the picture above is me and my sister, Susanna, the aforementioned wedding cake maker, and our Johnson and Wales teacher, Chef Harry Peemoeller. He taught me so much at the J&W Chef's Choice programs. I highly recommend their classes. And we had a great time!! So, now I am junior apprentice baker material.

But, I keep digressing. I started my career in foods because of some great restaurant jobs and a stint working at a Gourmet Foods store in Winston-Salem (Maria, I am eternally grateful to you for teaching me about quality foods!) But, as I said, early on I was a cooking disaster and I was choking myself and others with my culinary attempts. Note to others: your own mistakes are easier to handle in private unless everyone has a sense of humor and a pizza delivery number handy - see I am not perfect! Then I started dating a man who could cook and he started to teach me some classics techniques and dishes and I was hooked. One success built on another and another and so it goes. But having someone guide you is almost essential. The Food Network can't watch you and see where you go wrong and help you fix it, but a great teacher and friend can. This project is me paying that forward.

1) Be willing to fail in the kitchen.
2) Learn to master your top ten favorite dishes and then you'll never go hungry and always impress others. It's ok to have stand-bys!
3) Learn from someone you trust and like.
4) Buy the best equipment you can afford and keep it simple at first (I will share more of this when we find our family!)
5) Use trusted recipes and follow them to the letter the first time and then you can play the next time.
6) Have fun in the kitchen - make it a location of love, laughter, communicating, joy and pleasure. Indulge your senses and be proud of your creations.
7) and as Julia says, "Never apologize"
8) and as Anne-Marie says "Always improvise" (nod to Steve ;-)

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