I worked in restaurants when I was in junior high and high school, but I also used to watch my grandmothers cook. I have watched cooking shows since I was a kid, and it would always amaze me that the chefs on those shows just put in items with the type of fluid balletic motion that spoke of years of practice. I am never quite that organized, when I cook I usually forget to prepare my mise en place ahead of time, but people do compliment the results of my efforts when they eat it.
As to my cooking habits, they resemble my grandmothers methods, rather than Jacques Pepin’s in that if they were cooking something, unless they were working from a specific recipe, they would just be tossing things in or pouring salt or other seasonings in their hand and then dropping it in the pot. Though Jacques sort of does the same thing, he also already has the ingredients out an the proper size pan, and flips the caramelizing onions almost absently with one hand, while talking about the proper way to blanch carrots in the boiling pot in front of him. (“Look at zat byooteeful colorrr. You cannot leave zem for too longue or zey will become moeshy, and weel not have zee textyoor you wont for ze deesh.”)
The thing that they did have in common with Chef Jacques, though, was that they understood intuitively how to balance the dishes they had mastered when one of the flavors was not quite where it needed to be. I would see them add something one time, different than what they did they last time, and it would make me wonder why. Then the dish would taste different and I would remember that is was because of what had happened earlier. As I began to cook for myself, I learned that cooking is basically chemistry with five flavors. Salt, Sweet, Acid, Bitterness, and Umami. When I realized that improvising with what I had on hand, which was usually totally random in my college apartments, would sometimes work out more as I would have liked it than any recipe I was following, I finally began to develop my own personal answer to the post-tasting question “mmm, this needs something…”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you like one-time epiphanies,) what sometimes happens from that is that I will do the same as Nana and Gramma did, and it may end up tasting different than the last time I cooked the same dish. My family expects this, and I frequently hear them say that ok, no THIS one is the best one you have made of this dish. And then I try to remember what could have been different.
And then they want me to cook it again next week, or year, so that can be an exercise in muscle memory and frequent seasoning.
Take for example, a family favorite dish of mine, Cream of Broccoli Soup. I was in an odd mood one year and did not want to travel to anyone else’s house for Christmas, and so I foolishly invited over twenty relatives and five or six friends, three of whom were vegetarians.
So the issue became how to make the side dishes hearty enough for the vegetarians, because that is basically what vegetarians eat. So I had three different vegetable dishes, bread, and I decided to make soup. Seriously, soup is almost always good. I mean what’s not to like?
So here is how it worked. I looked up cream soups in the Good Housekeeping cookbook and discovered that with a blender, some onions, vegetables, cream, and spices, you could make real soup. Add a boatload of butter to that from my experience watching restaurant cooking, and lemon juice because I put that in most things I cook, and you got something. Quadruple the recipe and start cooking. Remember three things: stir and taste a lot, don’t walk away, and don’t be a wuss with the spices.
Here is how to do it:
First, put on some ska music. Like English Beat, or The Specials, or Toots and The Maytals, or Fishbone if you want something slightly harder.
Put a whole stick of butter into a huge pot and melt it on medium heat. Then get your really good knife and rough chop up two large onions. Cook them down until they are just beginning to brown, usually about 3-5 minutes. About halfway through, remember you were supposed to salt and pepper them.
A really good knife makes you feel like a better cook.
Then chop up a big bag of broccoli florets add them to the pot. Cook for about a three or four minutes while you look around for spices. Sometimes I will add different things as well, but I make sure that there is at least ¼ teaspoon each of garlic powder, salt, ground mustard, white pepper, and curry powder.
Spices are good. Don’t be a wuss.
Also, at this point you add ½ cup of flour slowly while stirring, to coat the broccoli and onion. Stir the mixture together to stop it from scorching, and cook for at least a minute or so.
Why such a big pot?, she says. Mind your business, I say.
Next, pour in two cans of chicken broth while stirring from the bottom to make sure you get the bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the juice of two large lemons and some Tabasco to taste. Stir, cover, and simmer to thicken the results for five to eight more minutes. Add a pint of half and half and ¼ cup of grated parmesan cheese and cook five more minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and find the blender. Especially the top part. DO NOT USE THE BLENDER WITHOUT THE TOP PART, ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Pour half of the mixture into the blender and liquefy it for at least thirty seconds or so.
Then pour that into a large bowl. Repeat with the other half, and then pour the whole kit and caboodle back into the pot to warm through. Add two tablespoons of butter and stir until it melts.
Taste and add seasonings as you would like, but I always end up putting more lemon.
On the off chance that you may want to make it fahwncy, you can put a few drops of chili oil on the top, and a sprinkle or two of parmesan and a few grinds of black pepper. And maybe a piece of French bread.