Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Intuitive cooking: inherited and learned

I own an obscene number of cookbooks.  And I collect recipes, only a small portion of which are organized in binders.  I refer to my cookbooks and recipes regularly and I'm always eager to see new ones.  I can spend hours sifting through them, looking for ideas and inspiration.  That's my favorite way to relax and I can do it for hours and not know that time has passed.  Do you have experiences like this with something you absolutely love doing?

When I first began cooking (I gave my first dinner party at 12--complete with LBD and pearls), I referred to cookbooks and other's recipes exclusively.  I followed directions meticulously.  I tried to replicate exactly.  And most of the time I did.  But as I learned techniques, gained experience and realized that I had been gifted with a sharp and rather discriminating palate (read: Hellman's Mayo over Miracle Whip and European butters over Land O' Lakes), I discovered that I could deviate from recipes with a high rate of success and what's more, trust the creative instinct I had been blessed with and just plain wing it.  Most of the time, my creative instinct produced outstanding results.  We won't talk about the time I made coq au vin with Mogen David Concord Grape Wine, however, because purple chicken with an oddly sweet sauce faintly redolent of Welch's grape juice (and adorned festively with purple pearl onions and lurid green parsley, of course) is not in the least bit appetizing.  In defense of my reputation however, and due to circumstances, I must say that no appropriate red wine was available.  Furthermore, I was not even of legal wine-buying age.

But if there are genetic markers for intuitive cooking, I must have inherited mine from my maternal grandmother.  Oma, as we called her, was an incredibly intuitive cook.  She owned cookbooks, clipped recipes from magazines (how many years did we have Bacardi Rum Cake for Christmas???) and would cook from those recipes from time to time.  She managed to produce food in this manner that was good, but tended to be very literal about it all.  If the recipe said to bake the cake for 45 minutes, then darn it, she would bake the cake for 45 minutes even though it meant that the cake was burned on the bottom. 

Watching Oma make bread and pastry without a recipe, however, was a wondrous process--using her hands as scoops for measuring the flour, knowing exactly by the texture of the dough whether she needed more water or more flour for her Christmas nut roll, gauging by eye how much butter and cream cheese she needed to add to make the tender, flaky fruit and nut-filled kolaczi that we devoured by the dozen.

She made substantial, tasty dishes as well by eye and by the guidance of some inner knowledge.  Like the time she made what trained cooks would recognize as a savory charlotte--she used mushrooms, herbs, leftover bread and lots of butter for a beautifully golden brown side dish that went perfectly with a Sunday roast beef dinner.  Or how she would season an Easter leg of lamb with plenty of garlic, rosemary and olive oil.  But instead of the typical mint jelly, she produced a lovely apricot sauce.  But what I really remember about her cooking, though, was what she referred to as Imaginary Soup.  That was Oma's way of using up all the leftovers from the week and making a most fabulous kettle of hearty, rich, flavorful soup that left us all commenting about it for days. 

And that is the nature of intuitive cooking.  Following one's inner voice, inner knowledge, inner palate and often, ingredients on hand to guide the creation of something that can turn out to be quite magical.  Something that is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but that achieves a level of culinary synergy that makes even the cook who created it marvel at its deliciousness.  Many of you have this talent and probably don't even know it.  How do you do it?  Start experimenting with a recipe or favorite dish, tweaking it here and there, substituting ingredients, trusting your inner palate to guide you.  Combine what you have in your fridge and pantry in some inventive way.  Think about what you'd like to taste and, more importantly, how you'd like your finished creation to look on your plate.  Maybe it won't be a fabulous attempt, but quite likely it will.  And you're off!

Last night I opened a bottle of Dona Paula Estate Malbec 2009 (Argentina), one of my favorite budget-friendly red wines.  It's full of cherries and strawberries with just enough acid, leather, chocolate and tannins to make it interesting.  And as I sipped, I thought about dinner--and about what I had on hand to make dinner.  And this is what happened:

Imaginary Pasta

1 lb. spaghetti or linguine
4 Tbs. EVOO
2 to 3 very large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/2 lb. bacon, cooked until crisp and finely crumbled
1 tsp. crushed red pepper (adjust to your taste)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1 heaping Tbs. salted capers (if you use brined capers, drain and rinse them before adding and add an additional 1/2 tsp. salt)
1/2 cup dry or off-dry red wine (I used a little leftover pinot noir that had been a disappointment)
EVOO for drizzling
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup or more Asiago, Romano and/or Parmesan cheese, shredded (plus extra for passing)
1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1.  Cook pasta according to package directions.  Rinse, drain and keep warm.
2.  In same pot, heat 4 Tbs. EVOO over medium heat.  Add garlic, red onion and bacon, stirring frequently and monitoring heat carefully so that garlic doesn't get too brown. 
3.  Add crushed red pepper, thyme and capers, stirring to blend.
4.  Add red wine and increase heat to boiling.  Reduce sauce until thickened and syrupy.
5.  Add cooked pasta and toss to coat evenly.  Cover with lid, turn off heat and let sit for about 5 minutes.
6.  Turn pasta onto large platter or into large bowl.  Drizzle generously with EVOO, grind plenty of black pepper over the top of the pasta.
7.  Garnish with shredded cheese and chopped parsley.  Serves 4.

Spinach Salad with Browned Mushrooms and Toasted Walnuts

This spinach salad is slightly wilted from the toasted walnuts, the browned mushrooms and the vinegar reduction.  It's a perfect foil for the richness of the pasta.  It's also my attempt to reconstruct a salad that a friend made for me one sultry summer night when we were, coincidentally, also sipping Dona Paula Malbec.

1 lb. baby spinach leaves
1 small shallot, minced
1/4 cup walnut pieces
2 Tbs. EVOO
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
flake salt to taste

1.  Place spinach leaves in large bowl.
2.  Scatter minced shallot over spinach.
3.  Toast walnut pieces over medium-low heat in medium-sized skillet until fragrant.
4.  Scatter walnut pieces over spinach.
5.  In same pan, heat 2 Tbs. EVOO over medium heat.  Add mushrooms and brown well. 
6. Scatter mushrooms over spinach.
7. In same pan, over medium-high heat, pour in the vinegar and deglaze pan, reducing briefly.
8. Pour warm vinegar over spinach and toss gently; season with freshly ground black pepper and flake salt to taste.  Serves 4.

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