Sunday, January 13, 2008

Anyone can cook

Yesterday afternoon we fired up the popcorn popper, slipped our latest shipment from Netflix in the DVD player, curled up as a family on the couch, and watched Ratatouille, the animated feature about a rat named Remy with aspirations to become a chef. The story was cute, the dialogue clever, the computer animation absolutely amazing. What stuck with me, though, was the message conveyed in the famous chef Gusteau's cookbook title: "Anyone can cook." Although the movie takes this idea in a specific direction (a rat can be a superlative chef who takes a great recipe and makes inspired improvements rendering it brilliant), I've been thinking about it on a slightly different vein while making dinner this evening.

I'm sure this sounds odd right after I posted about the drudgery of meal planning, but I think cooking has a very Zen side to it—kind of like golf—in that you don't have to be good at it to enjoy it. Anyone can cook, and anyone can enjoy cooking. It's all up to the individual to decide how much time to invest learning new skills, practicing, perfecting your game.

I cooked another new recipe tonight: chicken pot pie. Sometimes trying unfamiliar recipes is risky (no breading on the chicken cacciatore, please!); this one had the benefit of a previous test drive. The week I got out of the hospital after Audrey was born, women from our ward brought dinner to us each night, including Susan, our bishop's wife. She made us a chicken pot pie that far outstripped my own recipe. She even cut out a cute little chicken shape from crust and put it on top. While the golden-brown pie looked wonderful, it tasted even better: a savory filling overflowing with chicken and vegetables, and an unbelievably light, flaky, seasoned crust (it was the crust that made me have to have the recipe).

At first I hesitated to ask. Within our little church community, Susan is a famously accomplished cook. At ward potlucks whatever she brings is gone within the first five minutes. Sometimes people who are good cooks are highly secretive and won't share their recipes—or if they do, they purposely omit or change the amounts of ingredients to maintain their reputation as the only person who can make it "just so". We have one friend who makes this amazing dish, which elicits raves from anyone who eats it, and we were only able to get the recipe through completely nefarious means because s/he wouldn't share it with anyone who asked for it. (I cannot reveal any particulars of the dish and person or s/he would know we have the recipe, and while it was absolutely worth the shady means employed to obtain it, if I told you, I would have to kill you.)

Fortunately, Susan has no such scruples and when I asked, she freely shared her recipe with me. I found out the secrets of the delectable flaky crust: shortening (I usually use butter) and celery seed. Who knew? So while my pie wasn't anywhere as cute as hers (no chicken cut out), it had the same flavor. And I know with practice, I'll be able to perfect the presentation.

While I was rolling out the crust, I started to think about what makes people so stingy with their talents. Recently I had big wake-up call when I volunteered to make a pie for Thanksgiving. I had been gloating because I make a really tender, flaky pie crust and usually my apple pie is (and I say this in all humility) pretty terrific, but for some reason this year it went all wrong. Actually, I know exactly what went awry: I sliced the apples too thick because I was in a hurry. They were so thick they didn't cook through and it ruined the whole pie. That's what I get for being smug about my pies; it just goes to show I can't afford to get cocky (or rush myself), even when I'm good at something. So as an inner penance, I offered to teach one of my sisters-in-law (a young wife who is still learning to cook) how to make pies.

I think if you have a talent, you should share it. After all, I wouldn't have any cooking know-how if my mom and many other teachers hadn't shared their knowledge and abilities with me. Teaching someone else skills does not diminish your own skills, right? If anything, it guards against the culinary hubris of "super-secret recipes" and spreads the wealth of good food and good times making that food.


aubrey said...

so...? are you going to share the recipe. i love homemade chicken pot pie and i just make a simple one with canned croissants as the crust and cream of chicken soup and milk and cut up veggies. it's fine but i'm positive not nearly as good as what you're describing. please share the recipe..yum. i might whip it up for the dinner swap. or whip 4 up for the dinner swap.

aubrey said...

p.s. i loved ratatouille. one of my new fave movies.

chicklegirl said...

Duh! Yes--I'll post it on the "good food, good friends" blog, okay?

chicklegirl said...

Okay, I posted the recipe on the other blog, and added a link to it in this post.