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A Cook's Book

 The Larder

I am not a chef. I am a cook. And a pot wizard. And a cheap-assed shopper. 

I do not wear a toque. I only occasionally wear an apron. My knives need sharpening. They were not imported from Germany. 

My cookware does not match. I have way more Corningware than I will ever use, purchased for next to nothing at an old family friend’s estate sale. It holds more meaning than utility.

My favorite cast iron fry pan has a crack in the bottom of it, but I cannot bear to replace it. I found it in the oven of the old gas cookstove in that crummy apartment I moved into when my first wife and I separated. It, however, holds more utility than meaning, though it holds a lot of meaning, too.

I am a picky eater. I almost never eat bacon, which I consider to be illicit if only because it smells so much better than it ever tastes. Beef I can eat, but usually don’t. When I do eat it, I prefer it raw. Or rare. Or else exorcized of every molecule of bejesus it ever possessed. 

I like poor people food. I love beans. Pasta’s next. Bread’s a necessity, but next to impossible to come by. Potato. Lamb! Chicken. Fish and shellfish. Rabbit on occasion. Dark colored veg. Milk. Beer. Decent red wine (decent: cheap but good). Dessert is somebody’s else’s idea of a reward, not mine. 

I am not a chemist. I do not follow recipes well. I have no intuition about ratios. I reinvent a lot of wheels and discover many combinations previously unknown, at least to this man. 

I do not bake. Ever.

I lived for a few months with a woman who had graduated from The Culinary Institute. She had worked at The Union Square Cafe in New York and Chez Panisse in Berkeley. From her I learned that I didn’t know how to use a knife, seed tomatoes, or properly sterilize a cutting board. I also learned that I didn’t want to learn those things. I also learned that I have a naturally decent palate and an eye for unusually yummy combinations.

She worked at fast forward speed, a skill she’d had drilled into her throughout her professional career. Me? I chop slowly, lugubriously by her standards, and I’m fine with that. My dinner guests aren’t going anywhere.

I do not like cookbooks. Cookbooks are usually works of fiction. A professional ghostwriter tries to represent what a master chef might create in commercial quantities, and, in my experience, fails. Not through lack of diligence, I’m sure, but because something important about the context gets lost in this translation. If you’ve ever worked in a professional kitchen, you’d recognize that it has about as much in common with your kitchen as a cruise ship has with a toy boat. 

Most of what makes cooking work cannot be written about —- or, indeed, spoken. Cooking, above all other human activities, relies upon the cook’s tacit knowledge much more than his explicit knowledge. The nose knows what no know-it-all could ever explain. This nose started developing sensibilities before you were born, and was set in his ways before you were old enough to handle a rubber spatula. Should you submit to the brutal bootcamp of professional training, you might of course counter-balance your early imprinting with mindless repetition. But almost none of us will do that. We don’t aspire to be chefs, but cooks. We don’t want tuna with good taste, but are satisfied with tuna that tastes good enough.

That said, I have a bookshelf filled with cookbooks, though I rarely even try to follow their instructions. They are reference books, meant to inspire. The proportions for cooking white rice need not amuse my creativity. Fanny Farmer figured that out a long time ago. She didn’t think to throw a hunk of fresh ginger in the pot. I did. That time. But her basic instructions contribute their part.

I usually check the formal recipe, then discard it, and for good reason. It often includes something I do not have on hand. I’m looking for a cue about how I “should”, which for a cook provides ample motivation to do it differently than that.   

Our tastes are situational. Many of my culinary successes were utter failures when compared with my intentions. Jeez, I didn’t know spaetzel would do THAT. Hey, it tastes even better like THAT!

We cooks are accident-prone, thank goodness, assisted by short attention spans. Tradition belongs in someone else’s kitchen. We’re discovering in ours. I no more aspire to recreate that perfect grilled salmon than I want to re-live my junior high school years. Next time will probably be an adventure, too.

Or so I say. I do have my rituals, which differ from recipes in two important ways. Recipes delineate quantities and actions while rituals focus upon relationships. Recipes attempt to recreate while rituals seek to create a context within which novel results might manifest. No guarantees, of course. But with practice, no guarantees are really needed. After all, we’re not judging results against any theoretical ideal, but against situated taste. So what if I forgot to put beets into the Borscht? Taste it. It’s really lovely. Now, what shall we name this?

Cooks are the ultimate re-framers. We routinely create out of seeming sow’s ears. But silk purse is so ‘done!’ I frequently find myself trolling for a name for what ends up on the plate. Hence, my first great culinary success was called Electric Fred, named after a friend who provided an important ingredient. Electric Fred had no recipe. It involved barley (if I remember correctly), combined with whatever I found in the refrigerator. It was never pretty, always nourishing, and above all, really, really filling. EF was different every time, yet also very much the same.

I like to think that every family must have its own personal Electric Fred. Some casserole, some combination unique only to their table, unknown everywhere else. I like to think this, but I’m doubting that this is true. When I met my current (she says “last”) wife, she’d  for years subsisted on a diet of what she called “bag meals.” I had never heard of a bag meal, so she explained. A bag meal is rather like a frozen, portion-packaged Electric Fred consisting of various frostbitten bits of veg and meat, sometimes even pasta or rice. These are zapped in a microwave, then served in lieu of food.  

I missed the microwave revolution. I never until recently had one in any of the kitchens I’d ever used, and still have little idea how one might be productively employed. The few times I’ve dabbled with them, we both left the encounter limping. I have proven myself capable of melting the container around the food, yielding a melted plastic smell that hung around for a week or more. My experiment in reheating coffee left a steaming sludge that needed soaking to remove. Like I said, I’m not fast in the kitchen, and don’t aspire to be.

I believe that I should savor the cooking at least as much as the result. Part of my sacred responsibility in the kitchen involves making the whole house smell great. I simmer more than I sautee. I slow roast more than I broil. I distrust every shortcut scheme. I prefer the long way around.

Most of what makes great cooking does not involve heat. For me, heat serves more as punctuation than prose. The content starts in the larder, which in my current home hides in the basement. When the landlord remodeled the kitchen, he was thoughtful enough to reinstall the old cabinets and countertop in the basement, and this is where I keep most of my raw materials. These include a delightful variety of dry beans, rices and pasta shapes. These completely fill one cabinet, stored in quart mason jars and old Donald Duck orange juice containers. The other cabinet holds a few canned goods: tuna, tomatoes, and, yes, beans again. And a few odd bits: chiles, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies. I think there’s an ancient can of hominey in there, too. 

Most of my larder is fresh. I shop pretty much daily. I’m always out of some little thing. Yesterday, I was out of mushrooms, fresh tarragon, pears, and something beef-ish, and wine. The day before demanded fresh green chiles, beer, greens, and coffee. I try not to over plan these excursions, and rarely buy more than I can carry. 

The shopping list is perpetual, and pretty much always the same. I always use potatoes, so I keep these around. Onions, ditto. Same with garlic and fresh ginger. When I’m feeling flush, shallots. Celery, carrot, parsnip, turnip, beets, and salad greens, the darker the better. Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, course-ground pepper, and Kosher salt. A few seasonal fruits. Limes (for Amy’s Gimlets), and a lemon or three. Non-fat milk. Butter. Real cheese. Greek-style yoghurt. A quart of cider. Breakfast juices. Bagels in the freezer. And bread, real bread when I can get it, multi-grain when I cannot. A few grains, too: steel-cut oats and old fashioned oatmeal. Farina. Polenta. 

The meat drawer is the least-used storage in the place. Meat gets cooked within a day or two of purchase or it gets frozen. What’s in the freezer? Some roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, ground turkey, and a couple of dozen little plastic bags of vegetable peelings and poultry carcasses—the raw material for stock—and a little sorbet and even less ice cream. I think there’s a container of wheat germ in there, too.

One shelf in the refrigerator has mason jars of homemade stock, lemon juice (I am not picky about lemon juice), and various pickles. Amy loves pickles, but more for show than actual consumption. For her, it’s unthinkable not to have pickles in the fridge. There are some oil-cured olives, some bulk tahini, pickled herring (Amy’s again) there, too. The door holds the grand daughter’s (Grand Otter) ketchup, Worcestershire Sauce, mayo, and my beer. Ale’s good. Pilz, better. 

The balance of the refer holds leftovers. I think that at least half of every refrigerator should be filled with leftovers. They are the secret larder, waiting retransformation. 

Amy’s in charge of flour and lard and the other stuff she uses when baking. I have a remarkably disordered spice shelf, many of the residents way past mandatory retirement age. I rarely use them, anyway. I have no taste for salt. I let the eater spice their own damned food.

I conceive of my larder as my thesaurus. There are only about ten basic recipes in my world, each with a near infinite variety of adaptations, depending. Depending upon what? Yes, that IS the question. If I’m lousy with mushrooms, the sauce will have a different declarative than if I am out of them. Sauce, however, IS sauce. It’s runny. It’s usually hot. Beyond that, it’s no more than a base within which to combine stuff.

What shape of pasta seems to go with this concoction? A useful question, so I keep a wide (and narrow, and twisty, and curious) collection of pasta shapes on hand. Salad is always good. Universally useful. Salad with fruit is always interesting. I keep this stuff around.

When my parents still kept a kitchen, I found their larder disappointingly slim. But there’s was more of a baker’s larder, and one primed explicitly for convenience. Fine for them. Every time I visited, though, I found myself going out for the same stuff, stuff they never used but I literally could not get along without. Olive oil. Fresh onion. Garlic. Stock. 

I present my larder not to encourage you to replicate it. I know what’s in there. You might consider knowing what’s in yours, too. For a few years, I had a job that forced me into ‘executive housing’ four days each week. Monday morning, I’d get on a plane, fly for ninety minutes, then after work that evening find myself wandering around a Safeway experiencing what I labeled anti-disestablishmentarianism of the refrigerator variety. Did I need milk here or there? I never became accustomed to having two or three gallons of milk there, and none (again) when I returned home on Thursday evening. I synch with my larder when I’m shopping. When I cannot do that, I’m buying blind.

My tastes are mine and you can’t have them, no matter how much you drool and beg. I don’t know how to give them to you, anyway. So if this volume isn’t a cookbook, why am I writing it? It is a cook’s book, a book about my take on the fine and sloppy art of cooking, but it’s not an instruction book. Consider it inspiration. Or curiosity. This book doesn’t even aspire to tell you how you should cook. That’s way too personal and I am not a board registered therapist. Hey, I just cook. I also write. You read. Maybe we could cook up something together. Okay? 

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