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...

1 comment:

  1. I think that food is ALL about context. You can't divorce a meal from the company, season, or place that it will be consumed in. Nor, should you ignore what you feel like--both what you feel like eating, what you feel like preparing, and of course your own mental state is at that moment. There is a time and place for the 18 ingredient recipe, just as there is a time for opening a can of refried beans, adding some shredded cheddar cheese and piling it all on a soft tortilla and calling it dinner.