And why? They happen to all of us, but they make us better chefs. Although this post is similar to the one I posted a few weeks ago about salvaging a meal gone wrong, it’s got a slightly different message. This is about pushing your limits, seeing where your cooking can take you, and not being afraid. If you’re sitting there puzzled, just picture Sheryl Sandberg, Julia Child, and Anthony Bourdain huddling in your kitchen, giving you a pep talk, and then stepping back to cheer you on from the bleachers as you take the field.
Years ago I heard a famous chef say that the difference between a mediocre home cook, and a really good chef, is that chefs are always pushing themselves in the kitchen. They sear the meat just a bit longer…they salt the food a little more aggressively. We, mere home cooks, are often criticized for taking the pan off the heat a smidge too early. We get nervous about unusual flavor combinations. We often under season because we’re afraid of the small mountain of salt that’s often required to make food taste really good. I know that sounds horrible, but trust me, in some cases it’s required.
I’ve watched Italian cooking guru Lidia Bastianich make pasta countless times, and have always been impressed by the sheer volume of salt that she dumps into the boiling water. Handfuls. Most of it ends up going down the drain anyway, but the pasta needs to be seasoned properly. I love her thick Italian accent, encouraging us to make the water “taste salty like the sea”. When I see my husband adding his tiny pinch of salt to the big pot of boiling water, I now harp on him like an old Italian matriarch “Not enough! Salty like the sea!” When he doesn’t follow through (all that harping now falls on deaf ears), it’s clear that Lidia was right. Pasta does need to be seasoned heavily as it’s cooking. (and PS, a little but life-changing factoid here, sodium has never been shown conclusively to harm your cardiovascular system, so dig in!)
So, first the salt conversation, now flames. Twice in the past year I’ve set my pot on fire, once reducing Ouzo, the other time sautéing chickpeas a little too….robustly? I may or may not have been trying to emulate the chefs on TV, forgoing the wooden spoon, and yanking my pan back and forth across the burner with one hand, tossing and crisping my chickpeas in the hot oil. If there’s one trick (other than cracking an egg with one hand) that makes you look like a real chef, it’s the one-handed stovetop sautee. And I guess if there’s one thing that makes you look like a real amateur, it’s setting fire to your pan mid-toss. At least nobody was here to witness it. If a tree falls in the woods kind of thing…never happened, other than on this page.
Don’t you feel relieved now? Yes, even someone who has a food blog has set fire in her kitchen twice in the past year. You’re in good company if you’ve done this too.
And let me make this perfectly clear: you’re not in good company if you’ve set your whole house on fire trying to deep fry your Thanksgiving turkey. You know better. William Shatner rapped his way through a PSA to warn you about the dangers.
He didn’t just sing about “dingle dangles” for nothing. He put his career on the line. And still, you ignored him.
But if you’re one of the people who has not set fire to your house, relax, crack open a bottle of wine to limber up, and venture over to that spice rack that’s been collecting dust since 1980. Technically, you’re supposed to throw those things out every 6 months, but the goal here is not to be preachy, but to get you over your mental hump. While you’re at it, crank the stove past medium, you can do it. Kick up the level of difficulty by multitasking and chopping some vegetables while your steak cooks. If you turn back around and the beef is charred, no problem. You’re learning. Just imagine that your personal cooking coach Anthony Bourdain is right behind you, whooping it up and saying “nice work fu&*er”. He’s proud. You went somewhere you’ve never gone before. And that is something you should be proud of too.
So as long as you know the rules (e.g. don’t EVER throw water on a kitchen fire)…actually, here are a few more from FEMA to refresh your memory because now I don’t trust you entirely….you should be in good shape for some kitchen experimentation. Keep me posted, send photos, monetary rewards for my advice is fine too. But really, just let me know that you’re on a good path, and I’ll know I’ve done my job. Good luck.
Photo credit for Anthony Bourdain: www.charlestoncitypaper.com