Culinary Improvisation

I cannot say for sure when I first tried cooking on my own. I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen. In a family of nine, peeling potatoes and watching the pot of soup was a part of the deal for us kids. I honestly do not know how people function without knowing how to cook for themselves. To me, it was as natural a part of growing up as learning how to drive or wash my own clothes.

Cooking is a form of self-expression. I find comfort in making my favorite dishes. Because I rarely follow a recipe, they never taste exactly the same twice. The steady beat as I chop vegetables is meditative. The sizzle of onions the second they hit hot oil and the aroma of fresh garlic as it heats enlivens my senses. Eating uses many faculties; cooking, to me, is an extension of eating, a journey rather than a chore to get to the end.

Intuition drives most decisions in my life. Cooking is no exception. I browse recipes online and in cookbooks looking for inspiration, usually combining at least two to pull ideas from. It is a dangerous venture when too many of the dishes contain ingredients I do not have. When I shop for food, there is no telling what I will end up leaving with. I worked at grocery stores for many years and I never learned how to shop like a normal person. I buy what I feel like eating rather than what I planned to buy going in. I have often left stores with ingredients for a completely different recipe.

Baking is another story. While it is easy to improvise when making pasta or stir-fry, baked goods are a more exact science. Have you ever tried to just wing it when making cookies or brownies? I have. The result has not always been terrible, but never quite what I imagined. It is necessary to learn some rules, whether through instruction or by trial and error. My favorite is the latter. I can be told numerous times that the chemistry of baking is important, but it takes a few attempts that result in oily brownies and cookies that crumble apart to secure it in my mind. And still, I cannot say that I will not try and improvise baking again. More important than knowing how to follow recipes, is knowing technique. When to sweat onions and when to caramelize them, what flavors go well together, and all of the wondrous ways in which to use potatoes. Baking as a little more exact, but the guideline still applies.

I am a messy cook. I shift through herbs and spices, take out twice as many ingredients out as I need, and never use a bowl twice. Every dish is an adventure. Most of the time whatever I am composing does not turn out the way I planned. Sometimes I even switch what it is after I start. I could plan out a meal, buy every ingredient for each recipe, and follow steps to the exact detail. I have tried. Almost every time, the urge to add my personal taste has won out. My way of cooking has led me to more than a few disasters. But I am fine not doing things the way they are meant to be. I have discovered a lot about what I love and what works for me. And I have had fun the whole way.