Monday, June 27, 2011

Weeknight Meals, Comfort Foods, and Perfection (or Not)

Nom nom nom
It's no surprise that I usually spend a whole day cooking, especially in the summer. Whereas most people hate cooking or "being tied to the kitchen," I feel most peaceful, happy, fulfilled, and sane when I'm in the kitchen.

At the same time, I have writing projects, syllabus planning, organization projects, and lots of reading and writing I want to do this summer.

So some evenings I see what's in the fridge/freezer and cook up what we have. And it's these meals that are probably my favorites. I know the recipes like the back of my hand, and I have the cooking down to a science.

Such as was the pictured meal. I wasn't really anticipating guests, even though we had more than enough, but I was more than happy find out two of our all-time favorite people could stay for dinner: flat iron steaks with chimichurri sauce, ex-wife potatoes roasted in duck fat and smoked on the grill, sauteed greens, grilled asparagus, and Sarah L.'s homemade roasted red pepper sauce I had scored earlier that day.

I'm quite critical of my own cooking. Every meal I figure out what flavor profiles need to be edited, what elements need to be added, and how a recipe should be revised. Most meals I'm only partially happy with the results. But this meal was almost flawless. The only revision: I would have braised the greens instead of sauteing them.

What I'm wondering is why these meals happen. I think about the ones where I cook elaborate dishes that take two to three days, the holiday ones that involve brining, marinating, intense butchering, fine chopping, etc. These meals are delicious but there never perfect. And then here comes this barely-planned, use-what-you-got, throw-it-together-flavor-combos of a meal that was simply divine. Was it the weather, the vibe of the day, the element of surprise, the delightful guests, the boxed wine? It was a meal that I ate slowly, that I savored, that I will remember. Lately these are the meals I live for, that sustain me. They are so few and far between.

Comfort level with the recipe has everything to do with it, though. Later in the week we invited good friends over last minute for dinner. I was trying four new recipes for one meal (totally crazy, I know): grilled chicken thighs, ginger cilantro rice, bok choy with braised Shiite sauce, and sesame broccoli salad. The broccoli salad was great, but I heeded the reviews to cut the dressing portion in half. I charred the thighs because I decided it was time to test out lump hardwood charcoal rather than use Match Light, which I have mastered. Thankfully, our guests were gracious and kind about having to bake the thighs because charring them didn't cook them all the way through. I suck at rice; period (more on that topic soon). And the bok choy was stringy, bitter, and droopy. I wasn't trying to impress our guests; it was a meal I planned to make even if it was just for me and FD. These were recipes I wanted to test and I wanted an Asian them. But I had hoped for more of a magical meal, like the one we had earlier in the week. But no. I think it's because I tried too many new things at one time. And experimented with new methods (new charcoal). I'm an adventurer as a cook, so I have to take it in stride that not every meal is perfect. But even in imperfection, my cooking is usually edible and above par. But I'm a perfectionist with OCD and an overactive palate. I always expect more.

So does it all boil down to the comfort level we have with recipes? And does that comfort level equal comfort foods? I cook and eat ex-wife potatoes almost every night in my dreams (for real); I've grilled asparagus eight million times; I've sauteed greens for all three meals in a day and did it again the very next day; and I can indirect grill with Match Light almost better than any BBQ joint in Ohio. Give me comfort foods and I can crank out an amazing meal.


I feel like my comfort meals wouldn't be comforting if I didn't have nights where I test four new recipes and fail a little (or a lot). I think most people cycle their comfort foods or the foods they think they cook well each and every week. I remember when I was a kid my mom recycled a lot of the same meals: mac and cheese with green beans; burgers and Ore-Ida fries; bubble and squeak; etc. At some point, though, these comfort foods became some of my least favorite meals. "We're having bubble and squeak AGAIN?!?!"

I use true comfort foods sparingly. For those days when I would rather read or write then cook. And trying new recipes (4-6 a week) allows me to console myself with my favorite dishes after a dinner-disaster. But it also allows me to find new favorite recipes, maybe even new comfort foods.

And it keeps my voyage as foodie ever evolving...

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Turning 34

I'm an asshole. I forget to write down the title & artist.
 I was born the year of the snake, which it's description paints me as saint and sinner.

And I'm a Gemini.

This could mean my good qualities outweigh my bad qualities. My bad qualities outweigh my good qualities.

Or that I'm a duel-minded, tortured soul.

Then again, maybe I'm the happiest person you've ever met.

Most days are a little bit of everything. Which is why this year, like every year, I vow to grow, blossom, and maybe even transcend. (Okay, I admit "transcend" is lofty.)

Lately I've been practicing intentional awareness (aka reflecting) as I'm observing my relationships with family, friends, work, hobbies, and self move into new stages and transform into something new things. Honoring my place/not place in those relationships is probably what's most challenging. From a friendship that flourishes immediately to one that fizzles out, I'm beginning to see that we all have our places and times with one another, and that each moment should be cherished, and that sometimes respecting someone else's needs before my own is/is not beneficial.

The snake and Gemini in me is skeptical of all this hippie bullshit.

But I can't deny how food is molding who I'm becoming as I step into a new year.

Food offers me sustenance, but beyond the basics it challenges me, comforts me, eases my worries, creates worries, motivates me, and provides me with connections to others.

Sarah L.'s Hello Kitty Birthday Cake
Take for instance Hello Kitty birthday cakes.

Last year practically-my-sister SEM made me a kick ass Hello Kitty cake.

And this year Sarah made a gluten-free version with all of my FAVORITE flavors: rhubarb, strawberries, pistachios, meringue, lavender, and chocolate. Thoughtful and fucking delicious.

It's a blessing to me that both Sara(h)s meshed my ultimate icon with my number #1 passion: food.

Being surrounded by love only proves to me that good food is a form of good love. 

[OK, so here's a blogging moment where I don't feel I'm communicating what I want to communicate. Or that it sounds more "out there" than is my intention. Sure, I feel good food means pure, local ingredients from local farmers, butchers and gardeners. But more so, I just love how food brings people together, and how those who love me know my stomach and heart are the same organ. And I fully appreciate that. From the-what's-left-in-the-fridge-becomes-amazing dinners with FD to Kiderowski Bakery's cupcakes to Sally's seven-layer salad to Babine's simple syrup to Sarah's Ex-Wife potatoes to Revolver's Polenta to Tator Tots after a very gourmet meal to Better Made BBQ Chips to all the meals I've had and shared with my peeps far and wide, my post-birthday wish is that food continues to nourish my relationships and continues to draw me closer my passions and callings. I appreciate every food moment in the present and past moments. As tacky as it is, it's truly how I feel. Food is similar to spirituality, at least in my forever-clashing brain. And I hope it gives me enough sustenance for another 34 or more years.]

In the next year I wish to make even more good food to show some good love.