Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Thumbprint In The Dough

Earlier this month, on a weekend trip to the Beaver Valley where we ate grilled meats and drank a lemon/honey/ginger drink called a Bee Sting and had a bonfire and lay on the grass reading future-imperfect science fiction novels, I picked up a half-pound of thick cut bacon, which was a metaphor for the future.

I was not expecting to buy bacon. I bought this on a whim. We were in the general store, which sounds like it should sell saddles but instead offers GTA escapees expensive local honeys and artisan sauerkraut. In my hand, the bacon had a pleasing heft to it. I earmarked it for quiche, paid for it, and left.

The bacon never made it into quiche. Instead, we used it in a sweet potato/poached egg hash, added a couple slices to egg salad to make it amazing, and ate it as god intended, on the side of a plate loaded with fruit and cheesy scrambled eggs. We burned some, accidentally; not to worry, there was still more. By the time we reached the end of the half-pound and mournfully threw the pinkish waxed paper it had been wrapped in into the garbage, I was a little sad. The bacon, much like the future, had not followed its intended path, but it had been delicious all the same.

I love food. I've always had a bit of a complicated relationship with eating food, because eating disorders and body dismorphia and blah blah blah yawn, but for the most part, food itself it a straight-forward pleasure. Those people who bark "food is fuel!" while the suck down a sachet of Soylent have no idea what they're missing.

Let me illustrate this point more fully: let's talk about pickles.

Slice a cucumber thinly—you're not aiming for something through which you could read a newspaper; go for something the thickness of your average New Yorker magazine. Boil a cup of vinegar with a half-cup of sugar, stir until the sugar disappears, then add a few hot pepper flakes and a vigorous amount of salt and pepper. Pour the vinegar over the cukes, and then dump the whole thing in a glass jar and stick it in the fridge. It'll be something you eat while you're deciding what to cook, but the spicy/sweet/tang flavour profile, along with the crunch of the cucumber, is pretty much the perfect thing. Have it as a side dish with thick-cut smoked salmon and a few slices of hard white cheese and dark rye, or use it to cut the richness of a meat stew. Or you can just take the jar out of the fridge and smell it when you're feeling sleepy; the vinegar will wake you right up.

And yes, I know that you can buy pickles from a store, but until I started making my own, I didn't know how freaking fun it would be. Canning and pickling always seems like sweaty work, considering what you have at the end of it—a few measly jars of goopy raspberries, or a container of pesto you have to freeze so you don't accidentally give yourself botulism. Until I started doing it, I didn't realize that it was fun.

Food should be fun. I have no patience for those dudes who banish their girlfriends from the kitchen because they're too busy using their goddamn sous-vides to understand that sometimes, really, the best thing you might put in your mouth would be a ballpark frank on a soft white bun with French's yellow mustard. That's not to say that cooking shouldn't be an experiment, and an experience; I just think that things like molecular gastronomy and avant-garde presentation ("This evening's lemon meringue pie will be served as a Meyer lemon mist trapped under a glass cloche, which I will lift and you may waft towards your face; a trio of Thai-inspired shortbread cookies; and this picture of the Swiss Alps, which represents the national heritage of the meringue") are sort of bullshit.

I love off-the-beaten-path ingredients: bring me tripe and chicken hearts and purple garlic and pickled fishes. I want authenticity, like Iceland's dense, chewy breads that have been cooked (and slowly caramelized) by being buried in the hot ground near their thermal springs. I like food that seems as if humans made it, where you can see the thumbprint in the dough. Bring me your funkiest tubes of cured meats, your gooiest custard tarts, your most random kimchees. Right now, as I type this, there is a jar of kombucha slowly fermenting on my kitchen counter. I have plans to track down the blueberry-maple sausages my food-dork friend Emmett brought over a few weeks back, because they've haunted my dreams. The only thing I really won't eat are bugs (HELL NO) and broccoli soup.

Now, for the most part, I am a decent home cook. I assemble terrific salads, and I can stuff a pepper and a grape leaf with equal aplomb, and while I am intimidated by making a turkey (it's the giblets...what are they?), I'm actually pretty sure I could assemble an army's worth of side dishes for a turkey dinner without much fuss. I grew up in a family that cooked at home, and then I lived in a co-op with people who prioritized good food. Under my foodie bud friend Liz's direction, I helped make wild rice pilafs and salmon at the dining hall. Moving to the city exposed me to so many new cuisines—Korean, Ethiopian, Japanese other than maki rolls, dim sum and more—and I've taken culinary cues from most of them. Then I use all this background to make it about more than just food.

The power of good food could be summed up like this: last week, I had an exceptionally stupid day at work. Emails! Phone calls! Insensitive comments from bosses! I was stressed and I was tired, and as I was biking home, the only thing I could think about was coleslaw.

I could picture it in my head: the crunchy red cabbage and the thin slices of green onion (cut on the diagonal the way my mom always does it), mixed with some shredded carrot and sliced radishes. I thought about the dressing—not a mayo base for this one, but rather something with sesame oil, lemon juice, and a shot of sriracha—and if I should include sesame seeds or just let the sesame oil speak for itself. When I got home, I shrugged off my backpack and made a beeline for the kitchen. Just chopping the cabbage started to release my shoulders. By the time I sprinkled on a little sugar to cut the tang of the vinegar—well, I was still annoyed by my workday, but now it was distant. The fun of the food had taken over, and I felt soothed.

The coleslaw was just as good the next day, back at the office.

Cooking is a hobby. I don't want to be a caterer or a prep cook or, worst of all, a chef in a high-stakes kitchen. That would ruin the fun of it, the grubby pleasure of a sightly overripe fig or an amazing bit of cheese. But learning the rhythm and the release of cooking for pleasure? That is, for lack of a better word, delicious.

Image via Martha Stewart