Science and Magic in the Modern Kitchen

Written by Monkeybrad on February 26th, 2009
plasma

It's poetry in motion...

My wife was giving me a hard time last week, apparently I have been slacking in the cooking department lately, so I decided to treat her to my take on a recipe she made last week, with mixed results.  Since it was Mardi Gras, I decided to revisit a recipe for Cabbage Jambalaya that Mary R. gave us while we were in Thibodaux at the first of the year.  My take on the Jambalaya was great, although I did get it a little too spicy, I have learned, though, that making the exact same dish, only better, is probably not the best way to keep peace in Monkey Manor.  Which got me to thinking about cooking, following recipes and deciding when to blaze your own trail.

We live in an age where simple cooking is becoming a bit of a lost art.  I have friends and family for whom making dinner means grabbing a box out of the freezer or a can out of the cabinet and applying heat to it’s contents.  There is nothing wrong with this, I am all for our brave, modern world filled with such conveniences, but it’s kinda like watching the movie instead of reading the book, it is sort of the same only not as good.  Grandma is on the other end of that spectrum, she almost always starts with a bunch of raw ingredients and uses her experience rather than a recipe to craft her meals.  I settle somewhere in the middle, and here is why…

She blinded me with...She blinded me with…

I am always wanting to experiment and make things better, plus I have a tiny little attention span.  So, I will often look at a recipe as a sort of map  with a clear trail that will guide me to the final goal, and just like a real map, I look at it and see if there might not be a better way to get to the goal or a more interesting place to visit along the way, although I still get horribly lost occasionally.  The good news is, I am one of those souls lucky enough to be surrounded by great cooks who took the time to make sure that I learned the arcane arts of cookery.  Sounds funny, but that is how they treated it.  I was taught to make cornbread from scratch without a recipe, the same goes for gravies, greens, beans, you name it.  Now to any mildly accomplished cook this sounds like nothing, but to folks who have not been schooled in the dark culinary arts, the idea of approaching ingredients without a recipe and adding cornmeal until it “feels” right is an impossibility.

But that is beginning to change. The chef, Alton Brown has done a really wonderful thing with his unique approach to cooking and baking in his books and his show Good Eats.  Teaching people the science behind cooking he strips away some of the mystery, opening the kitchen to a new generation who have the opportunity to learn to cook unfettered by the impenetrable arcana of the old kitchen.  By exposing the scientific principles behind each ingredient and dish he is essentially explaining the hows and whys of your Grandma’s cooking in terms that we are now comfortable with.

Near the source

Golden Age of Wireless

I once read an article by Bert Hansen called “The Complementarity of Magic and Science Before the Scientific Revolution,” which appeared in the magazine American Scientist in March of 1986.  I have searched the interwebz far and wide but have not been able to find an online copy of this remarkable work to link here, if you can track it down I recommend it highly.  I have an old battered Xerox copy of it at home that I re-read from time to time.  The basic premise is that many of the scientific principles which we take for granted today, were the highest forms of magic during the Middle Ages and that early witches and wizards were in fact the forerunners of our modern scientists, fascinating stuff.  Anyway, that is exactly what Mr. Brown’s work is doing for us today.  In the same way that Julia Child peeled back the curtain and exposed the secrets of French cuisine to the American and British mainstream in the 60’s, Alton Brown is explaining the mysteries of cooking and baking in a way that our more scientific minds can manage and interpret.  This is also having the interesting side-effect of making science, particularly chemistry, more accessible to the layman.  After all if cooking is only science in action, then isn’t science just cooking with a lab coat on.  I am surprised that more educators do not begin teaching chemistry by having their students bake cookies or make Kool-Aid.  Why not break them in with some easily accessible household chemistry?

OK, so what was my point?  My point is that two people who are both good cooks can start with the same recipe and by applying their experiences and preferences, have wildly different results.  Laura took the base recipe, but used only ground beef, more rice and she went light on the seasonings.  I followed the recipe and used both beef and pork, but then I added more cabbage, used whole grain brown rice, sauteed onions and garlic, some celery and a healthy dose of Cayenne pepper.  They were both great, but we agreed that mine was the more flavorful, and that it will serve as our departure point for the next batch.  That is when it hit me that this recipe is a great opportunity for new cooks to try their hand at “blazing their own trail” culinarily.  So I am including it here, not only because it is a great dish, but also as a bit of an assignment.  Make this one according to the recipe once, if you don’t like it, feed the rest to the dog and quit taking advice from monkeys, but if you do like it, then make it again next week, only this time do something to make it your own.  Throw in some bell peppers or stewed tomatoes or try it with chicken, boiled shrimp or sausage.  Maybe you want to use barley or quinoa instead of rice, or add too much Captain Rodney’s Mango Fire hot sauce, as I am apt to do, just let your imagination run wild and have fun with it.

The key is to not take things too seriously and to be willing to experiment, just like anything thing else you make.  Sometimes you are going to make a bad dish, and you will learn from that.  Sometimes you are going to make something new and wonderful, you will learn from that too.  No matter what, you will be playing in the kitchen, honing the skills that will take you beyond the slavery of recipes into the freedom of the true cook.  So get out there and blaze your own trail, you will be amazed at the places it will take you.

Mother Mary’s Cabbage Jambalaya in it’s original form

1 Head of Shredded Cabbage

1 pound of ground meat (1/2 pork, 1/2 beef)

I large chopped onion

1 cup of raw rice

1 and a half cups of water

Season to taste

Brown meat in large pot and drain fat.  Add rest of ingredients, cover and cook on low heat for an hour until rice is cooked.

Other more different science

An element in harmony...

For the record, Laura is an excellent cook and handles most of the day to day meals around the house, but we love to cook together and the opportunity to take each other’s work and improve upon it.  Working together in the kitchen is good practice for the rest of our lives, it’s poetry in motion.  That’s a pretty good recipe, too.

 

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. She who wishes to not be named says:

    Marital competition is rampant in many households, mine in particular. A constant table tennis tourney. Do you guys keep score too?

  2. Excellent article, 5 of 5 for this article, very interesting!

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