Of bones and hearts and inward parts
4 October 2004
In the spirit of my newfound cooking determination, I decide, this weekend, to cook a whole chicken. Being both ambitious and cautious, I decide to start out with the venerated Zuni Cafe roast chicken recipe.
So I buy a chicken, that staple of the kitchen the world over. And that is where the fun begins.
First off, I am delighted at the price. A whole chicken, at four pounds, is less than three dollars. Three dollars! Do you know that two chicken breasts will run you five? Crazy Americans, I think. Won't cook things with bones in.
I bring the chicken home in its sleek plastic wrapping, bouncing juicy. I take it out Sunday, to salt well in advance as Judy Rodgers advocates so convincingly. I slit the plastic wrapping in the sink, and the yellow goosebumped bird slithers out. I eye it, evaluating. Loose, slippery skin. Pointy little wing tips. I must stick my hand inside this bony carcass, I think for the first time. I do so, squeamish, and draw out a handful of tiny organs, and a lump of fat. Disgusting, and oddly fascinating. I roll them around in my hand. I set them down on the countertop. And I study them. Carefully.
Then I wash my hands in very hot water (chicken germs - bird flu!) and reach for my phone.
I call my mother.
Mom - I say. I am looking at a chicken. A whole chicken. It's floppy and spiny and loose-wrinkly-skin-like. Now. What in the world do I do with the giblets? I have this vague idea, see, that you are supposed to Do Something with these lovely miniature organs. My mom snickers and tells me to make stock out of them. Right. I can do that. But, she says, don't put in the liver. It will make the broth taste bitter.
But! Which is the liver, I cry.
This is where my mother, Betty Crocker, Google, and the rest of the oh so superior cooking world fail me utterly. Nowhere, it seems, is there a chicken giblet diagram, detailing these mysteriously dangerous parts for those of us who did not grow up pre-1960 at our mother and grandmother's side, watching giblets and other arcane animal bits bathing in the stock pot. I discover that chicken livers are good to eat on toast. I learn that they are bad for cholesterol, yet delicious. I learn that you can put them in stock, but later in the boiling process. I find kitty chow recipes involving liver. But no one tells me - not one! - what they look like.
Don't you know what a liver looks like? asks my mother. No mother, I was an English major. I wouldn't recognize a liver if it met me on the street.
My mom makes a few helplessly vague references to pinkish color. I hang up and look again at the fleshy jewels on the countertop. They are all pink.
So I take a wild guess and pitch something, and sweep the rest in with the carrots and garlic. The stock turns out OK. I do discover a little chicken heart, which becomes much firmer as it boils in the stock; I can see the artery poking out like a white tube. I take it out and play with it. The chicken cockaigne I make later for my friend (the roast bird is for later) turns out great, the stock in a sauce on top. A little too much salt, but good old Joy of Cooking proves again its classic status.
I'll let you know how the whole roast chicken turns out. Meanwhile, I still want my giblet diagram.
Freezer burn and hurricanes: I decide to learn to cook properly.
3 October 2004
In the not so distant past, I came to a shocking realization. I do not know how to cook. More precisely, I do not know how to cook for myself. Sure, I can make a respectable showing with a single dish, or with a much-practiced dessert. I can follow a recipe.
But cooking is so much more than knowing what to do with the fish and garlic and flour when it's laid out on your countertop. It seem that you also have to know how to shop, store, preserve, reduce, chop, salt, and spice a whole variety and combination of ingredients. And living alone, as I now do for the first time ever, I find it difficult to do even the first in a sensible manner. And this has led, as you can see, to one more of what the world surely does not need: a food blog!
So I will start off with proving that I have a kitchen, and go from there.
So, learning how to cook. Not such a strange goal for women of my generation, who often suddenly realize that some key bits have been left out of their otherwise excellent education. Disclaimer: Here is where I insert the caveat, intended for the eyes of mothers, grandmothers, and all other food-concerned relatives, that yes, my mother did teach me how to cook. That is, she tried. I was not particularly interested, except for the interesting bits, such as chocolate cake and Christmas cookies and Jello salad (hey, I was an adolescent). So, disclaimer applied all round just to be safe.
But when you grow up in a family of eight children, you learn to buy in bulk, cook as much as possible in spacious hotel pans, and assume that, unless it is green or involving more than one nut-related ingredient, it will be gone in considerably less time than it took to cook. Living alone, there is no such guarantee, and indeed, if I cook like I would for my family, my exercise problem would become even more pressing.
So I am faced with learning, truly, how to cook day and day out in a way that engages my senses, gratifies my creative sensibilities, and uses what I have available in a way that is not wasteful or overly expensive. Healthy would be a bonus, but not always necessary.
I came to all of these conclusions through the disaster area created in my kitchen by the mass evacuation activity of the recent hurricanes in this part of the world. My fridge and freezer contents have been carted all over town three times now, in an effort to preserve them from general and longstanding power outages. In the process, staring at packages of ground meat as I dump them into sacks yet again, I realize there are things in my freezer that I have not paid attention to for quite some time, and I decide I should cook them now and get them out of the way.
So I look at my ground turkey, frozen. "Use or freeze by 4/13/03" the label reads. Huh, I say. I wonder if it's still good. It looks a little brown and there are ice crystals on the ripply strands. So off to Google I go and look up meat freezing recommendations. Sure enough, you are supposed to use ground meat two to three months after freezing. Who knew?
Ground turkey goes in the trash. So does the ground beef, and the sausages. And the bacon. What about my expensive, organic, no-hormone frozen round steak? I can't get rid of that; it's only a few months old. It does look a little brown; I didn't rewrap it properly before I froze it. So I marinate it, knowing this at least, that round steak is tough and needs a lot of help.
The next night I come home and fry it up with a bunch of spinach that has been in the crisper drawer for, well, I admit I'm not sure how long. It has ice crystals too. But sauteed spinach, I mean, how can you mess that up?
The meat tasted like a tough rug, maybe one lying about in the muddy hallway entry over a few snowy winters. I pitched it. And the spinach was like stale rubber, if you can imagine such a thing. I was depressed. I cast about for something else to eat; I was hungry! Nothing. Even the cereal was stale. I couldn't bring myself to eat yet another round of eggs and toast. That was a low point.
But in the meantime, even before the freezer-burnt steak incident, I had been discovering the joy of cookbooks. Not just any cookbooks, but cookbooks that read like novels - Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers and the rest of that ubiquitous California cuisine crowd. So I'm a little late to the party, but at least I got here!
Then the food blog world popped up on my radar. I caught the end of the Julie/Julia Project, where a woman (Julie) decided to cook her way through every single recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I admired her guts and wondered how much butter she had laid in. I tried Sara Kate's chocolate and rum Boozy Mousse. It didn't set, due to an unfortunate chocolate substitution on my part, but I threw it all into the ice cream maker and it turned out wonderful. I, along with the rest of the blogosphere and possibly the few remaining residents on Mars, adore Heidi's beautifully photographed blog. I just discovered Manisha's Indian Food Rocks, and Mahanandi is making me think that all vegetarian can't be all that bad.
The upshot is, I don't just want to cook now and then for large gatherings, for the one-off panicked dinner party. I want to know what to do with the good food God has provided - what an amazing variety there is - and cook in the slow, deliberate manner that produces both a process and food that I enjoy far more than the oversalted, transfatted junk our consumer culture tells us is delicious. But to do that takes work. As Alice Waters lectures upon buying what is in season, I realize, I have no idea what is in season in Florida. Ever. Oranges? All the time? I don't know.
So I may be blogging quite a bit about my adventures in good (and not so good) cooking. Me and my old oven that burns everything not covered in foil... This weblog is primarily for me, to chronicle my recipes and processes and pictures. Hopefully I will see progress. So stay tuned, if you're so inclined.