Sunday, January 10, 2010

when the side dish takes on a life of its own

I firmly believe that cooking is art. (except for baking, which is science) Since i mostly cook for myself these days i often find myself being far more adventurous than i would be if someone else were expected to eat my concoctions. I like to use whatever is on hand, even if it doesn't seem obvious. Sometimes i am inspired by a place or a theme or a color and just toss stuff together based on that notion. It is rare for a dish to be inedible; most of the time it is good, but not crazy amazing. Every once in a while I will hit on a combination that is spectacular. The problem lies in not being able to reproduce the fabulous dishes. When you cook by feel or color or smell there really isn't a lot of measuring going on. Earlier this week I made a side dish that knocked my socks off. It started with leftover chicken bones that i boiled to make stock. I tossed in some dehydrated onions just like i would if i were making a normal stock, but then inexplicably added bay leaves. Why? I have no idea. It just seemed like a good idea. As i started to smell the bay leaves i thought it might be fun to add a sweet note - something completely different from the norm. In went some whole cloves. After the bones, onions, bay leaves and cloves boiled together for 40 minutes I strained out the stock. It held both a savory and a sweet aroma which felt a bit exotic to me so in went yellow curry and garam masala. I chopped up carrots and put them in to cook. I was planning on using the last bit of orzo from the bottom of a container, but i knew that wouldn't be enough pasta for the volume of broth - i wanted a stew or side dish, not a soup. Hmmmmmmm... i poked around the pantry and found some barley from a mushroom soup i made for New Year's about 5 years ago. Huh. I didn't realize i still had that. So in went some barley. How much? ohhhh, enough to cover the bottom of my smallest strainer. After the barley and carrots cooked for 20 minutes, in went the orzo, some frozen corn (cause everything is better with corn), cracked black pepper and at the last second i sprinkled in some nutmeg. I cooked it for about 15 more minutes, or there abouts - basically i cooked it until it was the consistency i wanted. It was freakin' awesome. I would describe it as savory, but there was a sweet undernote and after 6 or 7 bites i felt residual spiciness on my tongue. Delish! A few years ago i created a dish that fTM Annie dubbed spicy ricey - it was really good and she begged me to make it for her about twice a month. At first i was able to reproduce it, but after 3 times i could never capture to essence of spicy ricey again; much to both my and Annie's disappointment. After that i tried to keep track of what i was doing when i cooked, writing down each addition and keeping track of cooking time. What i found was that i had recipes for several unextraordinary dishes. The act of recording what i was doing changed what i was doing and the art of the dishes was lost. Any suggestions for how i can cook with innovation, but capture the results? I really want to have some of these dishes again.

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