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Dec '08

Gut Instinct: Trusting Yourself in the Kitchen

Gut Instinct: Trusting Yourself in the Kitchen

Book Excerpts and Food Articles by Doug DuCap“…Taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
–Marcel Proust

Why are many of us afraid to trust ourselves in the kitchen?

Is it because we’re afraid to fall flat on our faces, figuratively or literally, if we combine the wrong ingredients or flavors?

Is it because we’re employing dangerous objects (knives, choppers, etc), volatile elements (intense heat, gas flames, microwaves, boiling liquids), and risky
chemical processes – all in a non-laboratory setting?

(After all, chemistry class was a properly equipped and supervised environment, and we still set off the occasional window-shattering explosion, didn’t we? Alright, well, maybe that was just me.)

Or is a big part of the problem the fact that recipes vary so wildly in specificity that some are like Alchemy (”Taketh a fyne pinche of Agrimony mixed withe a dogsboot of Aqua Tappia and setteth the whole upon a proper flayme until well borkked…”), while others are like Particle Physics?

It’s hard to lay blame, since there is no one universal formula or template for recipe writing. The result really depends on how much effort the cook is willing to invest in getting it ‘right’, i.e., comprehensible and reproducible.

Having written a lot of recipes for this site as well as for contests, I’ve come to respect how very tricksy the process can be. Scribbling down cryptic notes along the way is fine, but when it comes to writing the actual recipe that others will follow, the accurate recollection and description of each step in the process is critical. Ambiguity is the Enemy. But, like crabgrass and spam emails, ambiguity can’t be eliminated — only minimized.

It’s also surprisingly time consuming: it can take five times as long to resolve the grammar and phrasing problems in describing how to make the dish than it does to make the dish itself. So much depends, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, upon whether the red wheelbarrow is glazed before or after the white chickens go in the oven.

A Juicy TomatoStill, even if an earnest cook follows a recipe exactly, they can never produce exactly the same result. There are far too many variables. Quality, size, and freshness of ingredients can make a huge impact; a ripe, dew-kissed heirloom you pick from your garden will have a profoundly different effect on your Caprese than a mealy, crinkle-wrapped abomination from the supermarket even though they are both, technically speaking, tomatoes.

Equipment is another random factor. What exactly does “medium-high” mean when stovetops and cookers can be gas (natural, propane, butane, etc.), electric, magnetic induction, and who knows what else? Maybe Viking is developing a cold fusion or hydrogen fuel cell stove as I write this.

Ovens are also notorious for wild variations in temperature, which makes baking doubly difficult since factors like ambient humidity can negatively affect flour, baking powder, et al. Add in geographical location, altitude, weather, Standard vs Imperial vs Metric vs Archaic measurements, etc., etc., and it’s no surprise that many a valiant attempt at recipe standardization over the years has collapsed like a dropped souffle.

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But just as there are many different recipe styles, there are many different kinds of cooks with many different skill and comfort levels in the kitchen. Some of us require recipes to be as exacting as moon-shot trigonometry; others see recipes like the melody of an improvisational jazz piece – a jumping-off point.

When it comes to reading others’ recipes, I must confess I belong to the latter group. In the many places I’ve lived over the years, I can’t recall ever keeping cookbooks in the kitchen. They’re far more likely to be in a bookcase in the living room (within easy reach of a comfy chair) or piled up on my nightstand; I see them more as pleasure reading than instruction manuals. And if an inspiring recipe makes me want to jump up and cook, nine times out of ten I leave the book behind and just wing it.

Wing it? What? How can I be so casual when I’ve just spent all this time describing the minefield known as recipe writing, you ask? Is it hubris? Do I think I’m some kind of Chef-Savant with weird talents and a photographic memory?


I’ve just learned to trust myself.

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Original Recipe Creation Tips

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence is seen casually and stylishly extinguishing matches with his fingertips. One of his colleagues tries it and burns himself. “Ow!” he yelps, “That hurts! What’s the trick?”

“The trick,” said Lawrence, “is not minding that it hurts.”

So too with recipes. Ambiguity is inevitable. Variables can’t be contained. And they never will. The trick is simply not to mind.

How do cooks learn to skip fearlessly off the narrow path of the tried, true, and test kitchened, and plunge headlong into the dark, mysterious, and wildly aromatic forest of improvisation? Hands-on experience is, of course, the best way to gain confidence in technique. But trust in oneself goes deeper and gives more: in combination with technique, it imbues cooks with the courage to create, explore, and innovate. But to achieve it, we have to learn to recognize – and utilize – what we already know.

EurekaA good way to think about your kitchen knowledge is to imagine it as one of those Magnetic Poetry sets, the ones with the individual word tiles that you can rearrange on your refrigerator door: all of your past cooking experiences (both the successful and the not-quite), all of your preparation skills (from peeling to pan frying to papillote-ing) and all your ingredient knowledge (from the taste of salt to the scent of truffles) are like those individual word tiles. They each have distinctive attributes, but how you choose to combine them can have the effect of softening or emphasizing or even transforming their individual qualities. Wisely applied, they can create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Like individual words arranged into poems, we can arrange our individual pieces of kitchen knowledge to craft elegant, complex, and enriching structures. But to do so, to catalyze the static and random into the meaningful and sublime, requires one very important ingredient.

That ingredient is imagination.

Imagination breathes life into the inanimate, turns words into poetry. It’s what allows us to mix, mash, and manipulate what we already know into new and exciting forms. Imagination sets the table and invites Serendipity, Inspiration, and Genius to dinner.

* **

Feel Free to Experiment!But imagination is a muscle that requires exercise. Before we go skipping off into the beckoning wilderness, it helps to walk the established paths while we learn to really observe the terrain. An exercise I find helpful involves taking an existing recipe and visualizing it into existence.

It works like this: as you’re reading a recipe, take the time to imagine. Start by reading just the ingredients list. Don’t read the preparation instructions. Then, picture the ingredients as they’re described (cubed, minced, shredded, etc.)

Imagine the flavors and seasonings interacting. Imagine, just from the ingredients, how the end result might taste. Try to get a clear sense of it before you move on to reading the instructions.

You can do a similar exercise with a different recipe. Don’t read the ingredients. Start by reading just the instructions. Visualize the processes and equipment. Imagine the interactions of the foods and the effects that time and temperature will have on them, how they will simmer or caramelize or rise in the oven. Picture how the end result will look and smell, and how it will look on the plate.

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And if you’re ever in doubt, breathe. Your sense of smell is a valuable ally in visualization.

Ever wonder if such disparate elements as nutmeg and cilantro would work well together? Smell them, one after the other, and then together. Just relax your preconceptions, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that your brain is more than happy to help by processing the data and tossing up conclusions.

Every aroma of every ingredient and every dish we’ve ever experienced has taught us something, whether we realize it or not. Scent memory, stored in the oldest part of the brain, is intimately entwined with our sense of taste, and is legendary for its evocative powers. In other words, just by breathing, we’ve learned volumes more than we realize about food, and by extension, cooking.

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The more you do this, and the more you cook, the surer you will become. In time, all your multi-sensory experiences with food and cooking will work together and you’ll find that visualizing and analysis become second nature. You’ll spot errors in recipes before you prepare them. You’ll go to restaurants and instinctively ‘reverse-engineer’ how their dishes were prepared and be able to reproduce – or reinterpret them – at home.  And, more importantly, because of what you learn you’ll be far more confident in ‘imagining into existence’ your own enriching creations.

Taste. Smell. Learn. Imagine. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Sure, you’ll make mistakes (Lord knows I still make some doozys), but bold creative experimentation is absolutely vital to innovation. Remember, every venerable old tradition began as someone’s new idea.

Be bold, be brave, and trust yourself. You’ll be just fine.

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