Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. – Robert Henri
I’ve been trying to create in the kitchen, and by that I mean preparing my own meals well. Inspired by Robert Henri, I let myself play and cook, in the hopes of someday (soon) being able to do it well, and with as much love as possible.
I made it my personal mission to master a signature dish before my 35th birthday in December, and so far, all I’m getting is frustrated. There have been promptings that perhaps the kitchen is not my domain, but onward, we go!
I am not a picky eater, but I’m not easy to please either. Good, satisfying food for me is straightforward and true to its flavor. I can be perfectly happy with a fruit as is, or transformed to help bring out the flavors of its friends in a pot or baking dish. If a dish is going to be rich in flavor, let it be textured, but not overpowering. If it’s a simple dish, I want to be able to actually taste the individual ingredients. I don’t like lazy food, or food prepared without thought or care.
That being said, the truth is that most of the food that I do consume on a daily basis does not satisfy. This is why years ago, I entered a diet phase/lifestyle change that my brothers like to call “eating like a bird”. In the absence of inspiring food, I opted just not to eat as much. I ate as needed: for nutrition, and not for pleasure.
Charge it to nearing 35 that I have reached full circle and am now exploring the wonderful world of flavors and culinary delights again. I will confess: I once tried being raw vegan because I believed in “live foods” and conscious eating. This was long before the green smoothie and juicing outbreak swept the Philippine foodie circles. There are still remnants in me of that healthy lifestyle, but I have since opted for a more middle path diet (i.e. I want my social life back!). I stock up on natural, unprocessed food with as little to zero artificial ingredients as possible, such as fruits, vegetables, and high-nutrition add-ons aka superfoods like cacao, maca, carob, spirulina. I also go all out when I eat junk, and my favorite I-can-eat-it-everyday food of the moment is pizza (in Manila, S&R pepperoni pizza is king!).
My approach in the kitchen has been spontaneous: putting together what’s in the refrigerator and pantry, somehow trusting that I’ve stocked up on the right basics. So far, this has meant looking at what’s ripe or about to go bad, scouring the net for recipe ideas using that main ingredient, then intuitively substituting others that are not available on hand. Is it wishful thinking to assume that order comes out of chaos in the kitchen (as in any creative space) and that, in time, a system to my spontaneity will come about?
On the plate last week were lentil burgers (from scratch, and with no eggs — because I wasn’t sure if raw eggs were safe to keep in the freezer), buckwheat chocolate pancakes (came out too dense), sitaw and kalabasa pasta with sundried tomatoes (was actually good if not eaten for three meals in a row), and Japanese potato salad (yummy but will slice raw onions smaller next time).
On hindsight, I may have been ambitious as a beginning, haphazard cook. As someone who believes that anything can be learned, though, why not aim high? The bonus in all this is that every dish I made came with lessons I wouldn’t have known nor paid attention to if I didn’t get my hands dirty to begin with. It’s the same process as art-making: one gets lost in the act of perfecting a work or dish, which in this case means getting it right to the point of an aha (or yumm!) moment.
Kitchen hacks that I learned the past week:
- Less is more. Restraint is best. When in doubt, don’t.
- But also don’t be scared to use salt. My version of a pinch is much less than what I see chefs put in.
- Suddenly cooking shows are magical. Any favorites to suggest? I chanced upon a youtube channel of ochikeron, a cute Japanese woman who makes easy dishes.
- Ground flaxseeds are good binding agents for cookies, pancakes, patties.
- Experiment with all sorts of nuts, oats, grains to make flour!
- Ginger can be pre-peeled and frozen, makes it easier to grate.
- Not all “berries” are good for dessert: Juniper berries (I saw them in Santi’s) are best for savory dishes, not with yogurt. Lesson: sometimes it’s best to research before diving in!
- Massage raw onions with salt to soften, then wash with water if you want to lessen the strong flavor. Good with salads.
- Omelets are great go-to quick meals.
- Oils and sauces bring out different flavors, even when using the same ingredients. I have on stock: olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil (Minola), sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, balsamic glaze, fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce.
- Hot sauce is my go-to secret ingredient. I use: siling labuyo in oil, Sriracha, chili oil (from Chinese takeout).
- Quick dessert: yogurt smores. Ran out of marshmallows so just made do with chocolates and graham crackers in the toaster, with yogurt on the side. Yum!
Areas that need work:
- Getting more efficient with the washing. So much pots and pans and knives and boards! What’s the secret? I used to enjoy washing! Now the meditative aspect is overshadowed by the time it consumes. How do moms do what they do–clean, cook, laundry, work a full-time job, AND take care of little children who need their attention 24-7? Serious question.
- Getting more efficient in general. I’ve come to appreciate the building blocks of kitchen work: peeling garlic and onions, deep frying (all that oil!), rotating flavors. Any general tips from experienced cooks/chefs on how to minimize prep time, especially when cooking for one? One trick I’ve learned is to do bulk preparations in one go (cook a big batch of rice, then just reuse in fried rice, etc.).
- What to do with the rest of the sliced onion when all you need is half?
Contenders for my signature dish so far:
- Lentil burgers.
- Coconut pudding. Tried this in Malaysia. Light and refreshing, just heaven! If I get to do this right, I am sure it will win votes at potlucks. Have yet to experiment on it though.
How about you? Care to share your kitchen and food hacks? What are the basics in your pantry? All help and comments are welcome!