On Cooking, the First in a Series

One of the things I find to be continually remarkable about my own past is how I ever managed to eat at all. My freshman year of college diet consisted of salad, generic cocoa puffs, and Coke. The summer after my second year I had to call home in order to be told how to recognize that chicken has been cooked. I did not own a knife sharp enough to cut properly-sized slices of meat for a stir fry until my postdoc year at Princeton (thanks Mom!). Some of the explanation is the wide availability of mostly-ready reasonably healthy food products: deli meat, jarred pasta sauce, premade Mexican spice packs, and variations on chicken and rice will get you pretty far. Some of it was dating conservative-ish traditional-ish women who assumed the cooking duties for themselves; it wasn't so much being told not to cook as the possibility never being considered in the first place.

Now I do almost all the cooking, almost all of it from scratch. As I've assumed a larger role in the cooking, I've shifted from preparation-heavy Chinese and Thai dishes to one-pots and braises that are simpler to execute. Sure, I can make a Tom Kha Gai from scratch, but why mess with something that requires an hour or more of active time to make a base most definitively flavored by its last three additions (coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce)? Instead there is a regular rotation of rustic tomato sauce, tacos made with a variety of meats and sides, Panang curry, homemade pizza, and salads. In the glorious period from September to April, there's also the virtuous cycle of roasting chicken, making stock out of the carcass, and making soup (tortilla, chicken noodle, ramen, garlic, potato) out of the stock. Burgers in the summer. Less frequently, coq au vin (white wine), salmon and tuna, Thai basil chicken (the chicken is forgettable, but that serrano-shallot-lime juice topping. and the fried egg!), pulled pork with mac and cheese, and many others that I'm forgetting.

There's an art to figuring out what can be done, and that art fortunately requires the one thing I was very good at as a political theorist: looking at a text and figuring out how it all fits together. A recipe is usually a poor translation of someone's cooking technique. Encoded in it are the actual things you will need to do, so it requires working against the text to figure out why the recipe is organized in the manner it is and what it will mean when actually sitting down to cook.* Reading a recipe is an attempt to understand how difficult cooking it will actually be, and the time guides themselves are not especially helpful. The first time I roasted a chicken, it took a couple hours to do all the prep work, cleaning of the chicken, etc, because I wasn't used to any of those tasks; now it's maybe 20 minutes of active time that requires no real focus from me.** Being able to look at a recipe, gauge whether it'll be worth the effort, and imagine what it will taste like: if you'd told me ten years ago--five, for that matter--that I'd be doing this offhandedly in my free time, I would not have believed it.

*I dislike Cook's Illustrated recipes the most for this reason, because they will quantify various steps in a way that obscures what's supposed to be happening. I use their big cookbook all the time, but I have badly botched two recipes in the past year, and in both cases it was by following Cook's recipe exactly.

**I did have to remove the neck from my last chicken, so it's not like there aren't variations. "Butcher by following the lines of fat and the joints" is one of those things that makes total sense once you think about it and have to deal with it, but would be unlikely to be a novice's natural conclusion when faced with a raw chicken.

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