Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"How Do You Learn To Cook?"


To be honest, I don't like being asked questions.  I don't like being cornered.  I don't like thinking I may not have the "right" answer.  All that said, there is still one question I could answer over and over again:  "How do you learn to cook?"

The question was posed by Darling Daughter -- twice -- this week.

Fair enough.  I'm always sad to realize how many people -- kids and adults alike -- never realize the satisfaction of preparing a meal for a loved one, of peering in the fridge and coming up with a dish on the fly, or ultimately, having someone ask, "Can I have the recipe?"

C'mon.  Cooking's not hard.  I'll grant though, that it can be intimidating.  And for some folks, that's a game-ender.  There's an absolute learning curve, and I'm the first to admit that there will always be, um, "mistakes."  So why risk the inevitably salty soups and slightly charred chocolate chip cookies, much less the bizarrely-seasoned steaks?  (Word to the wise:  Filet mignon + nutmeg = Domino's extra large double pepperoni.)  After all, Harris Teeter is chockful of frozen meals requiring little more than a microwave and a fork.

I'll tell you why.  Because cooking lets you nourish the body, the soul and the ego.

I've written about the first meal I ever cooked -- which resulted, but didn't end, in tears and sobs.  Even then, though, I did what nearly every cook has to do.  I based the meal on what we had on hand.

I still believe that's the key.  You look at what you have, and you see the opportunity.

A few weeks back, Cougar Bait, my 200-mile-away-lifeline, who, although wise and strong and fun beyond reason*, is not yet a Top Chef, called me up.  "I bought a package of pork chops," he said,  "Now what?"

"Now what," indeed.  Before I even blinked, I was thinking sage and proscuitto and apples.  Potatoes and gruyere and thyme.  Rosemary and parsley and garlic.  But that's not Cougar Bait's pantry.  In fact, neither is he likely stocked with the precise measuring spoons and razor-sharp Wusthoff knives and Emile Henry baking dishes that line my shelves.  But are those necessary?

Absolutely not.

So together, on the phone, we came up with a quick dish, based on what he had on hand.  Later that evening, he reported the rave reviews to me as if I had been the chef.

But it wasn't me.  And it wasn't hard.  And next week, 14-year-old Darling Daughter will give the same recipe a shot.  Because that is exactly "how you learn to cook."

No question.

*Cougar Bait would also like me to mention that he's "drop dead sexy."  But that seems to be revealing too much.

Brined & Barbecued Chops
Although it sounds "fancy," brining is a simple technique that adds loads of flavor and juiciness.  Other recipes make it sound ridiculously difficult and time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be.  Just get started 2 to 6 hours in advance.

2 cups hot tap water
2 tablespoons (one palmful) salt
2 tablespoons (one palmful) sugar
4 tablespoons (one healthy pour) plain white or cider vinegar
1 big pinch red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf (or not)
4-6 boneless pork chops
bottled barbecue sauce

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, except pork chops and barbecue sauce.  Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved.  Now, stir in another two cups of cold water. Drop in pork chops and allow to brine, refrigerated, for two to six hours.   Remove from brine and pat dry.  Grill over indirect heat, 5-6 minutes per side.  Baste liberally with barbecue sauce and continue grilling just until done -- an additional 3-4 minutes per side.  Do not overcook.
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