Friday, March 21, 2008

somebody should study this

I'm usually pretty hard on myself. Not ripping-my-hair-out, weeping-at-my-inadequacies hard on myself, but I do have high standards. "Good enough" is only good enough if it's four in the morning and I haven't slept in 24 hours -- that's throw-in-the-towel time. Any other time of day, good enough is a problem that needs to be solved.

So it comes as no surprise to me that I am never satisfied with anything I cook. First of all, I have been cooking for all of 6 months. I'm not so presumptious as to believe that I could put on an apron, read a few books, and BOOM, be a kitchen master. In fact, I plan on spending the rest of my life learning how to make food, getting better and better and better. I'm a beginner. I'm clueless. I was expecting a lot of mediocre meals at first, and since I'll never be satisfied with mediocre, I was expecting to not be satisfied. I was prepared.

I enjoy my food. I get excited about my food. I want to make a disclaimer right now: everything that I gush about, everything that I declare absolutely delicious and amazing, everything I'm really proud of? It's not great yet. It needs work. It isn't perfect. I'm not satisfied with it -- but I that doesn't mean I'm not happy.

I remember a few hours in my existentialism course where we discussed whether happiness was to be found through accepting what you have, or through striving to make it better. I think the answer is somewhere in between. My happiest times are when I'm working to improve something, when I experience "flow," when I'm totally immersed in fixing a problem or making good things better. The key is to not make the goal your source of happiness, but the process. There's always room for improvement, so if you need to reach perfection to be happy, you are screwed -- but if you just want to work towards perfection, then you'll always have something to do.

The point is, I judge my food harshly. When I make food that's pretty good, I am delighted with myself, but not with it -- I'm making mental notes (the green peppers are a little overcooked, flavor just a bit off, maybe a little chewier, needs more spice, burnt on that corner, too much sauce, different vegetables) so that next time I can make it better. When I cook food that doesn't turn out, I declare it to be the atrocious trash it is -- no ego-fluffing -- and move on with my life. I know that I have an awfully long way to go, and I'm okay with that. I'm harsh -- but not TOO harsh.

But now... now I am questioning this. Am I too harsh? There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I have a pretty accurate assessment of the foods that I liked, which is almost always, "Pretty good. Could be much better." It's my 'atrocious' foods that have me wondering.

Here's why. Last night, I cooked garbanzo beans and sweet potatoes curried in coconut milk. I knew that I could just use any of my curry pastes, and it would be pretty good -- I can make a decent curry. But I decided to see what it would be like with a different combination of spices, so I heated lots of cumin seeds, ginger and garlic, and used that, curry powder and red pepper as my flavoring. I also read some recipes that suggested cooking the sweet potatoes in the microwave, so I did that with the potatoes and carrots. (I don't think I'll do it again -- stovetop is just easier for me.)

I sat down for dinner and took my first bite, and felt like standing up and throwing the pot into the trash. It was DREADFUL. First of all, the sweet potatoes and carrots were undercooked, hardcore. Worse than that, though, the whole flavor was off. It wasn't spicy enough, it wasn't complex enough, it wasn't interesting, but it also wasn't subdued enough to let the natural flavor of the sweet potato and coconut milk to shine. I sighed, and mentally moved on. It was a dud. What can you do? I simmered what was left for a while, so at least the leftovers wouldn't be undercooked, but was not looking forward to having to eat them again.

And yet... I stabbed my fork into my lunch today, a heaping bowl of sweet potato curry, took my first bite and -- and I was totally surprised! It was overcooked this time (I overdid the simmering, whoops!), but it tasted... fine! It certainly wasn't anything spectacular, but I wouldn't have been ashamed to serve it to somebody else -- and that's pretty much my standard for acceptability right now. (William doesn't count. Eating mediocre food, if that's what I wind up with, is part of the deal.)

It was spicy! The sweetness of the coconut milk pretty perfectly matched the spiciness, and the other spices really did round it out to an overall nice flavor. The sweet potatoes were flavorful, and they totally matched everything else in the dish... there weren't any fireworks, it could have used more spices, it still would have been better if I'd used curry paste, it needed some more flavorful rice (probably brown) and, of course, the vegetables were too soft, but... but I enjoyed it.


And then -- this is crazy! -- remember the grapefruit stir-fry I mentioned? The one that wasn't very good? Well, I'm eating it right now. And I have changed my mind. You probably should try adding grapefruit to your stir-fry. Not by itself -- the recipe I used had pineapple juice, soy sauce and corn starch as the base for the sauce, and pretty much equal parts pineapple chunks and grapefruit. And it's pretty good.

The pineapple is sweet, the grapefruit is bitter-tart, and they match really well. It was a decent stir-fry to begin with -- the vegetables were the right amount of done, which is the most important thing, in my mind -- and you know what? I don't think that it would have been better without the grapefruit. I think it does add a little something. I think -- I think it's okay.

Are my leftovers really improving in the fridge? Maybe a little -- but I don't think that would be enough to change my mind so drastically.

Here, then, is my explanation: When I eat my dinner, I have just finished spending, one to two hours deciding what to cook, thinking about what to cook, and chopping sauteing simmering stirring tasting spicing so on and so forth. I have put a lot of thought and effort into my food. With each new ingredient, I think about what it will add to the dish, I add spices very carefully and with thought, I surround myself with the smells and sounds and general delights of the kitchen. I build anticipation. I spend two whole hours looking forward to eating that food.

And I sit down, and of course it doesn't meet my expectations! With naturally high standards and two freaking hours of build-up, it would be crazy if it could. So the letdown, the disappointment, makes me lay an even more vindictive judgment down on my food. "I like it," William says, and I glare at him. "Well, you shouldn't. It's not any good," I huff.

But maybe it is. Not really good, but at least a little bit good. And when it's leftovers, once I've gained some distance from it, once I can judge it like somebody else cooked it, I can appreciate that.

This is Camila's theory explaining the phenomenon of greater enjoyment of leftovers. Does this happen to anybody else? I'll devise a theory and write up a paper.

The obvious conclusion -- that I should always have a day between when I cook food and when I eat it. Straight from the stovetop to the tupperware, that's the solution.

(Or maybe I should just chill out? Dunno.)

1 comment:

tom said...

The problem you are identifying does not seem to be related to whether you are too harsh or not. The issue is what is required for an accurate assessment. As you have described it, you spend two hours thinking and stewing over your cooking to get to the final product. With that much effort, you are then still all heated up with the slurry of thoughts and actions of the past two hours. To accurately assess just the food itself rather than the whole experience of mixing your way to the food, the person doing the assessing must be removed from the process so that the focus of the assessment can be on the final product. So, it is not that you are too harsh, but you do expect too much sometimes-- you expect to play two roles simultaneously when the roles are mutually exclusive. Immediately after you are done cooking, you need someone else to evaluate the product or you need sufficient time to pass so that you become the someone else (the Camila of one day later rather the Camila who just finished cooking) to perform the assessment.