The pan is hot. A thin film of oil pours out of the bottle and rolls in the heat. A thin whiff of burning rolls up just in time to meet the cold chicken, dropped in with an angry splash of hot oil and a deafening roar of violence. A quick stir and it all settles in, gradually turning white as the chopped garlic starts to shove its pointed edges between the slices of meat.
This is my nightly ritual, at least when I’m making what my family loves more than anything – Chicken with Broccoli. Whatever I’m cooking I try to do it with a flair of purpose, a sense of elegance that touches all of the senses in a way that ends a long day with grace. It might be Hamburger Surprise of Kielbasa with Peppers or even something involving Tofu and a fish sauce that I snuck in when the kids aren’t looking. To me, it’s more about goals than ingredients.
I’m not one for cookbooks. I have read several over the years, the first one being a pan-Asian one that covered the bases from Turkey to Japan. While I learned a lot from that, including how to make a good Masala to the need for intense heat when stir-frying. I’ve made my own ghee and learned how to use Soba based on this book. But to me, it’s always been nothing more than a guide.
I believe that when cooking, you have to have goals. My main goal has always been to have balance, a sense of proportion that hits all of the various tastes equally. Sweet and salty, bitter and sour, and even a good touch of umami make what would otherwise just be dinner something memorable. Combine it with a good sauce, the techniques learned from the French masters of the art, and you have an experience for the tongue. A few candles and some good conversation, and soon you’re crossing over to true elegance for all the sense. Do it every night and it’s a way of life.
I can’t do this with a list of carefully proportioned ingredients. I care about the whole, how it tastes and how it feels. I have to sample it as it comes together, and that means I have to know what the parts are bringing. When I cook for myself I may fry up some chicken with a few scallions and nothing more than thyme, just to reacquaint myself with thyme. A splash of white wine and a service over rice completes the display for the palate; this is what thyme is all about. It’s good to remember that.
To cook well is to understand these basics and pull them all together in a way that allows adjustment and that small amount of give and take that makes all the difference. You have to sample the sauce when it’s just a little too hot and know what it will boil down to. You have to be ready to put that splash of lemon in to brighten it up a bit.
Not everyone likes to cook this way. Some people like a reliable recipe that they can duplicate every time. When I cook, every night is a bit of a surprise. When I cook, the whim of the moment and the feel of the night is almost a guest at the table. That may not sit well with everyone, but it’s what I like to do.
The moment is about more than just a meal. The moment is what is happening around me. The pan is a canvas. The meal is art, or at least I try to make it art. What else would suffice at the end of a long day?