food and cooking

I’ve been cooking for as long as I’ve been eating. I have fond memories of being sat up on the kitchen counter gnawing on a raw cubed potato and smashing spice jars together while my dad conducted an orchestra of scents and sounds in our kitchen. Our first house in America had those old fashioned electric burners that look like flattened metallic cinnamon rolls. I burned my finger on one of those when I was in 1st grade and my father did not see it as a time to scold me about touching things I wasn’t suppose to touch, but rather an opportunity to invite me into the world of food and cooking. He put some toothpaste on my swollen and reddening finger and taught me how to fry an egg.

I feel as if aside from bowls of sugary cereal and bland pieces of toast, eggs are the first thing everyone learns how to make; scrambled, boiled, fried sunny-side up or over easy, poached if you’re brave, an omelette if you’re even braver. It’s all good and you learn it all eventually. The way my father taught me how to prepare fried eggs for breakfast is the only way I can enjoy fried eggs to there utter most optimum deliciousness.

He starts by taking a pan, preferably non-stick — because who in their right mind would cook an egg in a stainless steel pan? Do you enjoy scrubbing and scrapping crisped and burnt remnants off a pan? If yes, then by all means use stainless steel. He would turn the stove onto a high heat until the pan was hot and periodically over his hand over the pan to tell if it had come up to temperature. He lowered the heat and with a bit of olive oil in the pan he would carefully lay away from him a piece of ham. The slimy cold pink slice would bubble and pop in the hot oil. Using both of his hands he would crack two eggs on top of the ham. The whites of the eggs would disperse about the pan, oil would spit up, and the yolks usually found their place happily centered on the ham. A bit of salt, a bit of pepper, a bit of herbes de provence or Italian seasoning. Once the whites had set, he’d place a piece of soft untoasted brown bread on a plate and slide the ham and egg duo onto the bread. Next to the egg delight I would always find some tomatoes, a piece of fruit, and a few cornichon pickles. I make it the same way to this day, cornichons and all.

Cooking is something that I believe can be second nature to some people or a completely foreign language to others. From the produce, products, and meats bought in the grocery store to the way certain cookery supplies are intended to be utilized and cared for I have discovered is not completely common knowledge to some people. Especially in college when everyone is meant to fend for themselves in the kitchen, laundry room, bedroom, classroom, and other rooms of life.

A standard chopping block usually has more knives than any average home cook truly needs. There’s the large chef’s knife that is intended for most chopping, dicing, slicing. There’s the long serrated edge knife that is perfect for slicing bread. There’s the other long curved knife with a flexible blade; a boning knife meant to turn a whole chicken into two breast, two legs, two thighs, two wings, and leave just the carcass, which is actually perfect for creating a stock (but a stock is different from a broth, which is made more from the meat). There’s the small pairing knife that is ideal for peeling or other intricate work, such as deveining shrimp(in a lot of foreign countries they do not devein the shrimp, nor do they refrigerate their eggs for they go unwashed which keeps the protective outer almost invisible layer intact, unlike the eggs in America). All these knives are great and wonderful to have in the home, but each one has its own preconceived duty in the kitchen.

Produce is something that holds a dear place in my heart and seeing any of it go to waste or turn bad due to poor care can sometimes ruin me. To open up the trashcan at home and see a bundle of strawberries or container of mushrooms lying in their wake at the bottom of the bin absolutely tears at my heartstrings. But you can elongate the life of so many of your fresh goods by just understanding what each lil guy needs. Mushrooms will keep for weeks on end simply in a paper bag. Strawberries need to be allowed to breath, aerated baskets are where they love to live; just like the plastic green ones they sell them in at farmer’s markets. Fresh herbs and even green onion enjoy the same treatment a beautiful bouquet of flowers do; a small jar with a bit of water followed by a sandwich bag covering their tops to create a greenhouse atmosphere within the fridge will do the herbaceous folk wonders. Do not put tomatoes in the fridge. I lived with Italians for a year and I once committed the equivalence of high treason by placing household tomatoes in the fridge. They let me go on account of blissful American ignorance, but they set me straight that day. “You-a do-oo not-a put dee to-ma-to ee-nna frigo be-ah-cause-ah it-a-loses it’sa flavor.” To this day, no tomato of mine has ever seen the inside of a refrigerator and they 1) last a hell of a lot longer and 2) taste a hell of a lot better.

Another important aspect of cooking I learned from the Italians is the importance of marrying the pasta with the sauce. Begin with a pot, a large pot, and add water. Once the water is boiling, “and-a only-ee when d-a wa-ter iss-a boiling,” do you add the pasta. Salt the water. The water should have the same salinity as the sea. More than half of the salt is going down the drain anyway, so fret not about your blood pressure. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce; let’s say a marinara. As the pasta comes to completion, take a coffee mug and reserve a bit of the cooking water; the starchy goodness will help with the marriage of starch and tomato goodness. Drain the pasta well and dump into the pan of marinara. Hopefully a large enough pan was selected to accommodate both pasta and sauce. With just a touch of the pasta water you will have wed the two in holy matrimony. Top with parmesan (“the good stuff” as every chef says) cheese, serve, and gobble up to hearts content with family and friends.

The one aspect I love most about food and cooking is the camaraderie aspect it has the capacity to create. I love nothing more than inviting friends over — opening up a couple bottles of wine and cracking open a few beers — cooking a marvelous meal or whipping up delicious bites for everyone to sit around and enjoy. I read once in some book somewhere that opposing countries during war put down their weapons in order to dine together. I don’t remember what book it was or what countries it were, but I remember it. I remember how beautiful I found it to be that despite all of our differences we can come together through the grace of food.

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