Despite the number of cookbooks on my shelf, I believe I was born with a predisposition to winging it in the kitchen. And, as long-time readers are probably aware, I’m content that way. I happily toss together all manner of stews, soups, frittatas, stir fries and salads, even venturing now and then into the world of improv baking. The results may not win me blue ribbons, but they’re always perfectly edible, even fit to be shared.
Simmering away in my kitchen right now is a curious soup that began with a rich red vegetable stock—red, because the pot contained a few beet greens. What else was in the stock pot? Swiss chard (still sending out new leaves in my garden), kale (that won’t quit ’til at least December), sorrel (adds a tart, lemony twist), celery leaves, parsley, lemon thyme, sage and a few other things not presenting themselves now in my memory. Every week or two, I simmer up a pot of vegetable stock, freezing some for winter soups and setting a couple of quarts aside for immediate use.
I’m convinced that making stock is the single best kitchen routine I adhere to—oh my, it may be my only kitchen routine.
What happens after the stock is cool, strained and bottled is a function of my mood, the weather and, quite simply, what’s on hand.
Tonight’s soup features black beans and a whole hodge podge of on-hand veggies, livened up by a colorful assortment of spices. And the stock, of course. I couldn’t write down the recipe if you paid me a hundred dollars, but it smells incredible. A one-off creation, limited edition kind of soup.
Reading about food is my passion (second only to eating food), but that’s far from a reliable indicator of my culinary skills. I read cookbooks and cooking blogs for pleasure and inspiration; sometimes, I read them simply to be reminded of all that’s possible if I just step out of my comfort zone and old routines. If I think outside the soup pot (or outside the 12-inch cast iron skillet that almost never gets put away) I might create something new and amazing—with the same old not-so-boring stuff.
At times, I beat myself up for my cooking limitations, lumping my inability to follow a recipe to all the other aspects of my life that demonstrate a contemptible lack of discipline. (Contemptible in my darkest moments, anyway.) I recognize that this is not a productive road to go down. It is what it is, as they say. I am more comfortable without structure than with it. It’s just who I am.
Fussy recipes make me nervous. They threaten to send me to the store for that one critical ingredient that’s not in my cupboards. They make me worry that the temperature of my oven is hopelessly off. They send me rummaging through drawers, looking for measuring spoons that never see the light of day. They taunt me with visions of cookware and equipment that I don’t own and, until that very moment, didn’t want. Recipes intimidate me when I’m standing in my kitchen. When I’m sitting in my armchair, on the other hand, they fill me with wonder.
At times, I stumble across a recipe, like Auburn Meadow Farm’s pumpkin onion empanadas, that I might love to try (more accurately, would love to eat), but shy away from trying because it seems just a little scary. In other words, it’s out of my comfort zone. First of all, there’s crust involved—a flaky crust! Since I don’t even keep wheat flour in my kitchen, right off the bat I’d be into a “little of this, little of that” experiment. Volumes have been written on achieving the perfect flaky crust. I’m fairly certain none mention “a little of this and a little of that.” Before long, I’d have diced, chopped and mixed up a crazy—completely different—filling. Maybe even pumpkin-less. They’d probably look nothing like the empanadas in the photos on Jackie’s blog but, you guessed it, I’d eat them anyway!
Which brings me ’round to the point, to my big “I get it!” moment, understanding how Jackie described her own cooking style as “pulling in out of the hole.” At first, I assumed that to be some edgy, authentic farmer, Pennsylvania expression. Then, I got it. It’s about cooking with what’s on hand, right now.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming often of my ancestors and the lives they lived, and reading anything I can find that provides clues to the mystery of their existence. I’m curious about their houses, work, play and, of course, their food. The vast majority of my ancestors did not lead lives of glamour and riches. They lived simply and close to the earth. Just last night, I was reading about a mid-19th century household (which, I imagine, resembles that of my Deer Isle ancestors) on the coast of Maine and learned that every meal began with a trip into the “hole”—that is, the root cellar, accessed by ladder through a hole in the kitchen floor. “Pullin’ it out of the hole,” once again. I’m quite sure that the cooks in that kitchen only rarely, if ever, turned to a recipe for guidance. Cooking with what’s on hand is an age old art, after all.
In Jackie’s case, she looked into the “hole” (the fridge?) and saw the makings of pumpkin onion empanadas. She had a vision, and she went for it. I’m sure I’d look into that same hole and envision something simmering in a soup pot. Jackie walks the line beautifully between improv and following instructions. She has that magic ability—okay, it’s discipline—to turn to a recipe at a critical moment, like when a flaky crust is needed for empanadas. I admire that.
Don’t get me wrong. I won’t (can’t?) give up my free-flowing cooking style. With only myself to please (usually), I happily accept the risks of kitchen experimentation. Perhaps more importantly, I embrace the creative, in-the-moment kind of expression that cooking allows me. It’s not performance art. It’s about putting good, nutritious food on the table; and I’m a believer that food prepared by a cook who’s having fun and cooking with joy is better tasting food that’s also better for us.
I just may, however, try to get a handle on what makes a good (flaky, even?) wheat-free crust, and doing that just may require reading a few recipes from the comfort of my armchair, with a good cup of tea. I’ll let you know if I break down and follow one line by line.
Thanks to Jackie, of Auburn Meadow Farm in Pennsylvania, home of crazy bulls, contented cows (American milking devons) and inspired cooking, for prompting me to pull this one out of the hole.