Thinking in the Kitchen

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Thinking in the Kitchen

By Kathy Neal, Farmer, Hand Hewn Farm and part-time Yellowbird Employee

Why cook? Because it requires you to slow down, to work for your food at a time and place in history when a tiny percentage of the population raises 99 percent of the food for everyone else. Because it’s fun. Because it’s cheaper than eating out. Because it’s easier to be healthy. If you are buying a Yellowbird box with all of its delicious contents . . . that means you are cooking. Whether they are elaborate meals or simple ones, you are chopping, slicing, dicing, braising, frying, and EATING. And that is spectacular!

I think cooking and all it entails is a sacred act. It helps you to know your food in a way you simply can’t if you eat out all the time or even if (forgive me Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh and all your compatriots) you are purchasing meal kits from some sort of food service. You get to know the texture of your food, you learn what it can do and what it can’t, you figure out which flavors go well together and which ones don’t, you discover the pleasure and satisfaction of making someone you have cooked for sigh with joy at the taste of something you yourself have created!

Most of us have trouble keeping our New Year’s resolutions if we make them, but because you have already made the decision to support small Ohio farmers, to buy fresh, conscientiously grown food, and because it’s a new year, I want to encourage you to let go of the “recipe”. I have several good friends who routinely claim they cannot cook without a recipe. They want precise measurements, exact ratios, clear directions. Maybe you don’t like failing. Maybe you don’t have time to try a second batch of something. Maybe you hate to waste food. I still say – be brave, you have a good mind, good taste buds, a good nose and those are the only things you need. (And maybe Benji will send you a replacement box for free if you ruin all your ingredients in an experiment . . . )

I have spent my whole life cooking and love to spend my time thinking up new variations on whatever recipe I’m using as a starting point or making up something entirely new with the ingredients I have laying around. I bought myself a Christmas present this year. A book. Ruhlman’s Twenty. And I absolutely love the title of the first chapter, “Think”. What follows is an excerpt:

Cooking is an infinitely nuanced series of actions, the outcome of which is dependent on countless variables. What’s the simplest dish you can think of? Let’s say buttered toast. Can you write a perfect recipe for it? There is no exact way to convey how to make buttered toast and account for all variables. The temperature of the butter has a huge impact on the final result, as does the type of bread, how thick it’s cut, and how hot your toaster gets. Because all the variables in cooking can never be accounted for, whether you’re cooking from a book or cooking by instinct, it stands to reason that the most important first step in the kitchen is simply to think, even if all you’re making is buttered toast. (Ruhlman, 2011, Chapter 1, p. 12)

So, here are some tips to kick the habit if you always reach for a recipe when you enter the kitchen:

  1. Survey your available ingredients
  2. Pick out a few herbs/spices you like (I like to smell each one and pause to imagine how they might taste together.)
  3. What texture are you in the mood for? Crisp and invigorating, soft and comforting or a mixture of the two?
  4. Will your creation have a sauce or not?
  5. If you need a starting place type an idea into the internet, but use the recipes you find as tools not rulebooks.

Remember, you are the one in charge. The old adage “practice makes perfect” isn’t exactly always true but the more you practice the more confidence you will have and that is a beautiful thing in the kitchen.

Ruhlman, Michael (2011). Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books LLC.