On the same ill-fated bookstore trip in which I discovered not only do otherwise westernized people eat reptiles and amphibians, they actually wrote a whole book of recipes about it, I also came across something from The Great Courses. If you haven’t seen these before, and you are addicted to learning new things like I am, I highly recommend them. I have several courses on history and science topics that are pretty amazing. (I know– Nerd alert!) It’s like getting to go back to college lectures without worrying about all that pesky homework (ie- my version of heaven). This particular course was entitled “The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking,” and it was a STEAL! Basically a quarter of the normal price AND I had a coupon… not that I’m completely obsessed with getting bargains (lies. totally obsessed).
I settled in a night later to watch the first couple of lessons. Sure, the graphics were a little, shall we say– ’90s, and maybe I was a little snarky about the chef’s exuberance (because my own Bearded Chef agreed to watch them with me, and I just love to make him laugh), but I soon settled in and began to learn. The first lesson was mostly a review of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (which is basically a savory flavor). Then the chef began to discuss the importance of knowing how these basic tastes, interact with each other and which will bring out the best in others. It was probably quite simple, but I found it an important reminder. The next lesson was on basic skills.
For as long as my husband has been cooking in our kitchen, I have teased him mercilessly about how many little ramekins and other containers he uses while he cooks. I’ve told people that he uses more accoutrements than a Food Network show. The second lesson had me eating my words! The chef discussed the importance of mise en place. I love some well-placed French, don’t you? (Pun intended). Mise en place basically means putting everything in its place. Further it means organizing and arranging your ingredients, so that they are easily accessible as you prepare a dish. I had always thought those televised cooking shows were just creating food for the eyes, and that may be part of it, but as the chef explained more, I found myself truly appreciating the meticulous set up that my husband constantly creates in our kitchen. I also realized that this lack of preparation on my part is probably why things get chaotic and steps get missed when I attempt to fix even the simplest of dishes. The lesson also involved knife skills. Once again my husband was vindicated as the chef explained the exact chopping technique that Eric had attempted to show me so many times.
I was excited to try out my new skills and a couple of nights later. I pulled out my recipe for a vegetarian curry and read the directions carefully (see, every teacher since kindergarten, I can do it if I want to!)
And slowly (oh so frustratingly slowly) practiced my knife skills as I created my mise en place. I chopped the spaghetti squash, the turnip, and finally the carrot. I learned in the knife skills lesson, that an important part of chopping vegetables is to be very uniform. If the pieces are not the same size, then they will not all cook at the same rate and then you’ll have some over and some under cooked. Doing this with carrots is tricky, because they are naturally thick to thin. Enter the roll cut. I learned that if you cut at an angle and then turn the carrot 180 degrees as you cut, you end up with more evenly sized pieces, and that the unique shape gives them more surface area for a better cook. It took me ages, but I was pretty proud of the outcome. Look at those beginning to border on almost being the same sized root veggie pieces. Ha! I’m trying here, y’all!
I was so excited by the Instagrammy goodness of my veggies, that I set up a whole other plate for the seasonings. At this point, my gracious husband exclaimed: “See? SEE?!” Before God and this whole blogosphere of three, I proclaim: My husband was right. I was wrong.
This ONE time.
I should also confess at this point that beautiful mise en place is much easier to embrace when you know someone else is doing the dishes. Thanks, honey!
I was feeling pretty fantastic. The veggies were roasting in the oven. The curry was simmering and filling the house with delicious smells. Nothing had caught fire or burnt up. Clearly this whole mise en place thing was the magic that was missing from my kitchen life.
The oven timer went off and I checked on the veggies. I consulted with Eric, who said they probably needed a little more time. I hit the cancel button on the stove interface to reset the timer. Nothing happened. I punched it harder. Nothing. The timer went off again (as it does every minute until you turn it off). I punched the clock, the timer, and then the off button to the oven. Nothing. I couldn’t turn the oven off!
Eric came over and began pushing buttons at random with no more success. We decided to just turn the thing off from the breaker. All the kitchen lights when out. When flipped back on, the oven remained in the same state- permanently stuck at over 400 degrees. We tried punching more buttons. Then back to the breakers two more times. Suddenly, I smelled it. Burning. Ach!! In the chaos of trying to fix the oven, I had been blocking out the timer that kept shrilling one minutes at a time.
The top pan of veggies seemed unscathed, but the bottom baking sheet contained decidedly (ahem) “blackened” fare. Eric gave a fierce punch to the off button and suddenly, off it went. Thanks for that, oven. Strong work.
In the end, I plated the less carbon-charred veggies over the curry, and Eric quite enjoyed it. I felt that it lacked complementary seasoning to help give the curry flavors more depth, but decided that the fact I could taste that difference was proof that I was learning more about this whole cooking thing. I’ll take the wins where I can get them.