Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fear of Cooking

I don't think it's cooking that I'm afraid of really--it's the idea of a routine that makes me flinch and babble. Three square meals, breakfastlunchdinner, eating by rote, using what's in a pantry or refrigerator because it's there, not because it appeals to me at the moment--these are the things that came to mind when I thought of cooking.

And yet since I came back from Thailand, I did plummet into a routine. My meals almost always were plain yogurt, or a lean pork roast, or something to do with chicken. Eating was only joyful if I chopped and pounded for hours to make a Thai dish or if I went out to eat. Or if I succumbed to a pint of really good ice cream. Even I began to realize that this was as boring as any menu from the Better Homes and Garden cookbook.

One day a few weeks ago, I went to Big John's PFI to browse. This is a very unglamorous but exciting food emporium that actually has "staff recommends" cards under the jars and cans and boxes. They have bulk spices and planks of chocolate and salt from all over the world. Their olive oil section is as well-stocked as a single-malt Scotch area in a good liquor store, and as expensive as one too. Their cheese and cured meats case is dazzling, although I don't like either, and the back of the store is devoted exclusively to pasta in all of its glory.

Everything else is in cans or jars, but this is not the canned food I grew up with. I wandered through the shelves, picking up whatever seemed interesting to me, and when I finally reached the counter, I could barely hoist my basket up to the cash register.

Paul on the road to Damascus, me in PFI--it was that kind of turning point. I came home with harissa from Morocco, imam biyaldi from Bulgaria, two different kinds of hot tomato and pepper sauce from that same country, capers, olives, Italian tomatoes in a box, and many different kinds of beans, including fermented ones.

Because I'm playing with canned food, it doesn't feel as though I'm cooking. Almost every day I combine a few things, squeeze in the juice from a fresh lime, after first tossing some badly chopped garlic and Thai chile into heated olive oil. While that simmers, I steam some jasmine rice, thinking of my mother's rice and beans that she learned to cook in Mayaguez. Different flavor principles, same protein values.

It's fun. There's nothing routine about it--at least not yet. And because I live in a city with many different kinds of grocery stores, there's no reason for it to ever go in that direction. Today I bought some chorizo and combined it with that harissa and some Italian tomato sauce and two kinds of beans. At first it seemed like a mistake but it simmered into something that's rich and strange.

It's not cooking. It's amateur alchemy, and I like it.

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