Exploring new worlds: cooking

This past Valentine’s Day I decided to offer to do what I had not done for about 30 years — cook a nice meal for my wife. The idea was well received. So I went to some of the finer markets around and purchased some sea scallops, and fresh vegetables, and lemons, garlic and flat parsley for a nice sauce. I also pulled out a nice “saved” bottle of wine, and then, with my wife’s patient guidance, prepared our dinner.

The whole evening was a success. And, enlightened by that experience, I realized that cooking fits all the criteria that we have been discussing about exploring new worlds, because it is a unique experience, and a complete world unto itself.

The first lesson in my life on the subject was taught to me by my father. He used to say that the most important ingredient in the make-up of a good cook was to have an appreciative audience. I cannot think of any people who are good cooks that only cook for themselves, and I’ll bet that you can’t either. So if you want to experience good cooking you should be genuinely appreciative of the cook.

Cooking is really divided into two categories: commercial and domestic. Commercial covers people being paid to cook for others, and includes those who work in restaurants and catering services, and are hired to cook in other people’s homes. In that regard, there is a real difference between being a cook and being a chef.

A cook is basically a technician, while a chef is more of an artist. And at its most aesthetic, cooking is an art that stimulates a sensual experience involving taste, smell, sight and mouth feel. Therefore, by combining skill, experience, imagination and a caring of choosing fresh ingredients and different cooking techniques, being a chef can be a highly creative process.

Nevertheless, there can be problems in commercial cooking, because often it is the desire of many chefs only to have a good presentation and taste in the final product. But too often that can omit a concern about nutrition, additives like MSG and other flavor enhancers, and the amount of butter, cream and fats in the meals. So for the most part, health-conscious people should either limit their exposure to this type of meal or be really selective.

The benefits of domestic good cooking are enormous. Of course, everyone likes to eat, and cooking with fresh ingredients tastes better (once you allow your taste buds to recover from an excess of salt and other flavor enhancers), and it is certainly healthier. Buying local also means that the foods will likely be fresher, greener and exposed to fewer pollutants from transportation.

My wonderful mother was a great cook. Not gourmet, but she used fresh ingredients, and always added her special touches and garnishes that eternally demonstrated her love and caring for us. In addition, we would always sit down together for breakfast and dinner, and have formal candlelight dinners in the dining room on Sundays. After dinner, we would often wash the dishes together (this was before dishwashers), and frequently would sing together while we worked. This furnished us with great togetherness, great bonding, and great memories!

Probably each of us has special recollections of favorite recipes that we associate with particular holidays and other good times. And all of these times were directly made possible by the efforts of the cooks. In addition, communal efforts, such as picnics and potluck dinners where everyone has a stake (steak?) in the success of the event, materially add to the happy socializing both during the preparation and the consumption of the food. And it is not an accident that many good things in life are centered on a good meal.

Each summer my family picked fresh peaches from our tree, and then worked together to make hand-churned peach ice cream. In my mind, this is the best ice cream I will ever have because of the wonderful memories. Other families make preserves, tamales, canned fruit and many other foods together, with the same resulting memories. And all are made possible by the caring cook.

Other additional benefits are that food cooked at home is almost always less expensive than the ready-to-eat products. And, with an appreciative audience, it is much more fulfilling for the preparers. In fact, it also gives a new spouse something extra to brag about to both parents and in-laws. (And caring family members always overlook the times the new bride roasts the neck and giblets in the oven alongside the chicken while still in the plastic bag.)

A friend of mine who is a gourmet cook has told me about his procedure in food preparation. He first finds a new recipe, either in a cookbook or, increasingly, on the Internet. Then he sits down and visualizes from start to finish how he will do the job, including which pans to use, which oil, which ingredients and from where, etc. Then he will get everything out, and do all measurements as appropriate before he even starts to cook. Finally, as he progresses he will wash all of his cooking implements immediately after he has finished with them. This means that when his gourmet meal is completed, he and his wife are only facing a wonderful meal, and not a messy kitchen.

This procedure sounds good to me, and I recommend it to you.

Some recent and positive developments in cooking are that general education about nutrition is increasing in our society, as represented by the Food Network on television and the increased availability of cooking classes, with the result that things such as sodas, potato chips and doughnuts are more often being replaced by vitamin waters, fresh fruits and granola bars; aluminum pans, which often leach out harmful metals into our foods, are increasingly being replaced by ceramic and iron ones, which do not; more farmers’ markets and other stores featuring fresh fruits and vegetables are being found everywhere; and becoming a chef is increasingly being considered to be an honorable profession.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)