Learning to cook

I had a near-disaster experience while cooking last weekend and, because it wasn’t a disaster, made me feel like I had reached a new competence level when it comes to my cooking skills. In the past I’ve never been able to get a recipe right the first (second, third…) time. I would forget a stage of the process, or mis-time several parts so that by the time the last item was finished everything else would be cold. Constant practice has helped with those issues, but they never really go away.

Last Friday I was planning something fairly daring for me:

  1. A recipe I had never made before
  2. combined with a second item I had never made before
  3. in a way that was my own idea

Normally this would be a movie with the sub-title, “A recipe… for disaster!“, but I felt up to the challenge. Specifically, I planned to make an Israeli cous cous gratin (basically a casserole) and top it with seared giant portobello mushroom tops.

Everything was going smoothly with the gratin, so once that was safe and in the oven I could switch over and concentrate on the mushrooms. I had read something on Salon about sauteing mushrooms, so I poured a bunch of oil in a pan and started to cook the mushrooms.

A minute or two in to the process, I did something that was very new for me while cooking: I realized that sauteing was not working. The mushrooms were gigantic, almost an inch thick, and they were just soaking up all the oil. They weren’t going to get cooked at all. Even a few years ago I would have just kept cooking them, hoping for the best. Instead I calmly determined my worst case scenario: I would have a gratin but no mushrooms on top. So it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

I think this realization (we’ll always have gratin) helped take the pressure off and freed me to do the second new thing, which was try to figure out, OK, how should I cook these things then? And quickly? The next logical choice seemed to be to try broiling them. That would be fast, and would cook them all the way through. Of course this solution led to yet another problem, because of course my gratin was already in the oven. Turning on the broiler would burn it. Still not panicking (well ok a little), thought, heh heh, it’s a casserole so I can just take it out for a few minutes, then put it back in when I’m done broiling. The dish will keep it warm.

Deciding this was the best option, I removed the mushrooms from the pan and put them on foil, then removed the casserole from the oven and put it on the still-warm spot on the stove (which would warm it better than nothing). I put in the portobellos, turned on the broiler, and prayed. As they cooked, it looked like the mushrooms were burning, but the calmer part of my brain realized they were just giving off steam.

A short few minutes later the shrooms seemed cooked, I served everything, and it was delicious.

I don’t think I’ll get to the point where I can create blends of spices and flavors of my own invention — half the time I suggest an idea Char looks at me like I’m crazy and explains that this doesn’t go at all with that. But I can make small permutations and adaptations, and I can mostly get something right the first time, and that’s better than I ever thought I’d do.