Culinary Conundrum

This post has been about three weeks in the writing, mainly because life kept getting in the way. Big workshops at work, my 27th birthday and subsequent celebrations, last minute school projects for Jason — whoever said something about “getting married and settling down” was lying through their teeth.

This post has also gone through some evolution. Originally, I wanted to capture a set of the food-related questions that I had so I could go back and answer them. Along the way, it’s become a bit of a soapbox about the term “foodie” and about cooking somebody else’s food. Let’s dive in.

Seven-sided vegetable preparation started this whole train of thought. I’ve seen passing references to this in a few places, usually referring to classic French cooking, but I haven’t been able to find any information or explanation for why this is. Is it for presentation? Is it for consistent size and shape (for even cooking)? Is it some sadistic chef hazing ritual? What’s behind the seven-sided potato?

Then, I came across an entry in Geoff‘s blog shortly after he and I met up that talked about his neighborhood party. (Before I go any further, let me be clear – I have the utmost respect for Geoff and his knowledge about all things IT and food related. I’ve worked with Geoff; he’s as close to a picture of “what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up” as I’ve found.) In his post, he made reference to preparing Nigel Slater’s trifle, which received rave reviews. Therein lies the heart of my issue – the development of one’s own cuisine.

It’s not that I have a problem cooking from a recipe – I’ve made plenty of good recipes, and more than a few bad ones as well. However, one of the joys of learning more and more about food is the development of my cuisine, of my style in cooking. I’m in the very (very!) early stages of this, but it’s something I want to continue to develop. By style, I mean preparing and serving foods that speak to my interests and loves. There are herbs (like basil) that I love to work with, and others (like dill) that I’ve had few occasions to use. I want to prepare food that is interesting and a bit unusual, more than the barbecue and chili that Texas is known for. I’m trying to develop a few “reliable standbys” (like Mike’s Kickass Chicken) while pushing myself to try new and different things. Ultimately, I want the food that I serve my guests (or more frequently, my family) to reflect the stories and tastes that I enjoy – whatever those may be.

Back to topic. (There’s a reason that posts take me hours to write.) If I worked purely from recipes and names, then, I could serve Julia’s Duck Confit, Jacques’ Roast Chicken, Emeril’s Spicy Shrimp, and Nigel’s Trifle. I’d end up with a table of other people’s foods, that I had no attachment to, and worse off, I’d be using big names to try and impress the guests. I’d much rather build up my own skills and showcase my interests to my guests. There’s a fine line between being influenced by the greats and pretending to be one.

I have no illusions about this. What I’m talking about is a lifelong journey undertaken by people who work with food all day, every day, as their living. Food may be my passion, but so is learning. I have an IT job that I enjoy and am good at, and a wife that loves me and supports me. (And would divorce me if I dropped everything to become a chef. Then again, I’d divorce me.) I only have the weekend meals, occasional evening meals, and dinner parties to experiment with – and unlike being single, I’ve got other people dependent on having a meal ready at mealtime. Other people with their own tastes, palates, likes, and dislikes.

As anybody who has been to the house will tell you, I’m still mastering the art of preparing food ahead of time. It’s a skill I’m working on. I love seeing people and having company at the house. At the same time, I get a real thrill out of feeding people good food, even if I don’t see them eat it – I know they got something they’ll love.

My other pet peeve in all this is the term “foodie”. While I understand and respect what the term has come to mean – somebody who is a devoted follower of food history, preparation, diversity, and specialities – it smacks of pretentiousness, superficialness, and just plain being fake. Don’t take an evening course on All About Italy! and tell me that you’re an expert on Italian cooking. Don’t read Julia Child and profess to know everything about French cooking. Study it. Do it. Do it again. Learn the basic techniques, learn the basic ingredients, and continue to build on your knowledge. And if you catch me doing any of that, smack me upside the head – preferably with Larousse Gastronomique (hey, learning by osmosis!).

I had a list of questions to put here, but after ranting, none of them seem important just now. I’ve got a lot more to read and cook first.