Wednesday, March 31, 2010

que sera sera

The food of my upbringing was defined by two opposing schools of thought.  Dad would waltz into the kitchen without a plan and with total disdain for recipes or structured meals.  An accountant by day, he left the numbers at work and preferred to put his right brain to use when he cooked.  Mom, on the other hand, followed recipes to the letter.  She upheld traditions and ran her kitchen like a well-oiled machine.  You could see your face in every pot and pan and it was always safe to eat off of her immaculate kitchen floor.  She was a ‘Martha’ before her time.    IMG_0448 
Dad invented ‘salad bar night’ with little bowls full of things like crumbled bleu cheese, bits of bacon, chunks of chicken or turkey, tomato wedges and slices of hard boiled egg.  He taught me how to select the perfect avocado.  His barbequed steaks were and still are perfection.  As accompaniment, he would caramelize onions with mushrooms until they made love to one another, their scent wafting down the hallway into my bedroom, beckoning me to the kitchen.  Our island’s limited produce selection never seemed to faze him.  He took it as a challenge and he was a fruit and vegetable fiend.  Dad would cut granny smith apples in wide slices resembling flat-bottomed boats.  For some reason, they always tasted better when he sliced them like that.  He once brought home a pomegranate and we marveled as  he cracked open its red exterior to reveal the ruby gems of fruit inside.  He didn’t care about things like stained fingers.  His spontaneity brought food to life.  Instead of merely eating our food, we were experiencing it and those memories have resonated long after the flavors have faded away. 
Mom taught me how to bake though, at the time, I had no idea that I was learning.  She says that I must have picked up her skills by osmosis as I rarely paid attention from start to finish.  I pieced together snippets from the many occasions in which I flitted in and out of the kitchen while she was baking.  I loved sitting on the kitchen counter, visiting and usually distracting mom as she measured, sifted and mixed.  I can still hear her lilting voice, reading the recipe aloud to herself so as not to lose focus.    I occasionally measured ingredients or cracked open an egg but I learned more about baking from watching.  I tucked away a mental archive of the way the ingredients looked, mid-recipe:  the white luster of creamed sugar and butter, the thin, juicy slices of peeled apple mixed with cinnamon and sugar, those perfectly symmetrical spheres of cookie dough on a tray destined for the oven… At every stage, there was something to see, smell or anticipate.  I once read that, at a famous French culinary institute, they encourage their students to “goutez, goutez, goutez!” which is French for “taste, taste, taste!”  I can attest to this because I never missed an opportunity to sample along the way and I know that my baker’s equilibrium is better for it.  Mom always says, “The secret of a good baker is that everything tastes better when you bake it with love.”  I would add that the other secret is having a very gifted teacher.
These days, I enjoy baking with my daughter, Annabelle.  She can be as inattentive as I once was but I suspect that, like her mother, she absorbs more than she lets on.  And already, she is an expert taster.

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