It Is Only Ruined if There Is Nothing Left But Carbon

I don’t know how to cook from recipes. My mother uses recipes for anything she’s only done once or twice, but never again after that. My grandmother, who really set out to teach me to cook, not only doesn’t use recipes, she doesn’t measure anything. This means that I’ve spent most of the past 20 years or so (ouch) “cooking without a net”. While no one has ever been hurt or killed [1]  (that I know of) during these high wire antics, I am definitely glad that many of my earliest accidents are forgotten in time. I didn’t really hit my true stride until the occurrence of two things:

  • The Food Network began re-broadcasting the Japanese show “Iron Chef”. Unlike (either of) the American version(s), the original Japanese program spends a lot of time showing you not only what the chefs are doing, but why, and the on-floor commentator asks a lot of questions which get very educational answers. You can learn a lot watching this show.
  • The Food Network began airing Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”. If you watch the earliest seasons of this show, you notice that each episode focuses on some very staple food item, and that rather than giving you recipes, per se, AB focuses on techniques and cooking science. He uses recipes as a kind of condescension to the conversation, but the emphasis is always that these are templates, not narrowly understood. This appealed to a geeky guy like me (and millions of others) and again, I learned a lot.

This new found knowledge allowed me to go into the kitchen with a lot more purpose even when I wasn’t sure what I was about to cook. From this point forward, if I made a mess of things in the kitchen, it was a genuine accident, not merely blundering ignorance. The Japanese “Iron Chef” does not seem to be easily available on DVD, but the early seasons of “Good Eats” are. If you want to “up your game” in the kitchen, even if you are not a geeky guy, I would recommend making the time to watch this stuff.

So in that vein, this first entry is going to be much more about a mode of thinking than about any specific incident in my life of cooking and what happened. The number one golden rule I have learned about food preparation is the title of this entry: it is only ruined if there is nothing left but carbon. One of the most important techniques for cooking without a net is to always be willing to abandon the dish you were trying to make and to serve something else entirely in the event that, dare I say it, things go pear shaped. Examples:

  • You are trying to make a meatloaf and the whole thing seizes up and crumbles — turn it into hash instead.
  • Your vegetable casserole comes out wet and soggy — blend it into a soup. You may or may not need to boil up some small noodles to dress it up.
  • That same casserole, the next time, comes out dry and brown — chop it up, dress it with fine oil, use it as a sauce.
  • Half your dinner guests were a no show and you have a huge left over roast — chili, stew and more hash.
  • Extra lentils can either be soaked in broth for soup or dried in the oven for flat bread.

There may be some exceptions to this rule involving seafood unless you have some truly advanced techniques, but you get the idea.

A good way to build up your skills at this kind of “clutch play” is to create low stakes practice for yourself. Resolve to never, ever waste left overs. Also resolve to never eat them the same way twice. But the real practice in this is learning to let go of whatever goal you had for a dish and to adapt as needed. Be nimble, be flexible, and don’t get too attached. If I was a different kind of person, I’d say cultivate your zen. But I’m not that guy.

By way of condescension in the “Good Eats” tradition, I’ll include two “recipes” (as close to them as I can write) to try to illustrate the basic idea for which I am advocating here. Here is a moong bean curry recipe followed by a flat bread recipe which uses the left over curry.

For this dish, I opted to grind my own curry spices. I ground whole fennel, black and yellow mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek seeds), and kalonji (nigella seeds) to which I added powdered turmeric, garlic powder and cayenne powder. I use my spare coffee bean grinder for spices. I also used fresh tarragon leaves, a storage onion which had been sauted down until brown, some salt (if you want to be super cool, find Indian black salt) and a can of coconut milk. All this gets pureed into a kind of sauce. Near as I can tell, all Desi cuisine cooks any kind of dal (legumes) in a pressure cooker. I don’t have one so I either use the crock pot on days when I have all day, or simmer on the stove on days when I don’t. I start out with a two to one ratio of liquid to lentils, but with moong beans you’ll want to start three to one. Cook until fork tender but be sure not to go all the way to mushy. If you want something more like a soup, add some vegetable broth when you add the flavorful sauce, if you want a curry dish to serve over rice, just add the sauce.

Now that you have lots of extra dal curry that you don’t know how to use up, you can make what I very geekily refer to as Lambas Bread. Remember, that’s Tolkien’s idea of travel rations for the Elven people, a single bite of which is supposed to sustain a grown man for a whole day. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Take your left over dal curry and combine it in a 3 to 2 ratio with buckwheat flour either in your food processor or stand mixer. Let it run a good, long time. Do not, no matter what you do, add water or broth. No matter how over-dry or over tight you think it is, that’s fine, just leave it. Spread this out as thin and even as you can on a non-stick baking surface (silicon sheet, Teflon pan or parchment on a hotel pan) and slide it into the oven. The idea here is to drive out as much moisture as possible. But of course, you don’t want to burn it. This is the reason for the low heat. The first time I did this I started at 350 and had to radically reduce the heat to avoid burning the edges. As it stands, you may have to cut off the edges as too far gone in order to get the center truly dry. Once done, use either a pizza slicer or a big cleaver to cut into large cookie sized squares.  Be warned when eating. This stuff is dense and will fill you quickly. I would recommend having it with a few chutneys and maybe just one vegetable or meat dish and nothing else. Otherwise, you’ve got even more left overs.

I hope this gives you a flavor (sorry) for what it is I’m describing here. Flat bread, travel bread, really couldn’t be any less like a soup or a curry. I hate the phrase “think outside the box”. What you really need to do is not get over-focused. Think in potentialities and properties rather than in goals and actualities. Curry is wet and mushy. But it is high in protein and can easily give up its water with heat. High quality cuts of meat have great grain and marbling, but these are the very things which eventually render down so wonderfully into either chili or stew which have neither grain nor marbling.

This is in danger of becoming a ramble in search of a dead horse.  Just remember, if you never announce your menu ahead of time, your guests won’t know that the soup, stew, chili, pasta and sauce you’re serving is an “accident”. They’ll just know it is tasty.

Happy cooking!

~ Jim

[1] OK, OK, I had to go to the emergency room. Once. But that was a knife accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with the food.

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2 thoughts on “It Is Only Ruined if There Is Nothing Left But Carbon

  1. Completely changing the plan can be difficult for me at times. I often cook with time constraints so even going from lentils to lentil soup can be a challenge. BUT, the idea is essential to being able to keep going. This reminds me a lot of a past band instructor’s motto of “no one will know if you make a mistake if you don’t tell them” — as long as we always looked like we knew what we were doing, that “wibbly-wobbly” bit of music would be forgotten by the time we reached the applause.

    On a couple of occasions we’ve finished a good meal, with comments as such, and my thought has been “and that wasn’t even what I was trying to make”. It’s kinda fun.

    • I tend to think in terms of “salvaging what I have in front of me can’t possibly take longer than starting over from scratch”.

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