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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: Creativity

Making the Tortilla Soup tonight I followed the same technique I did last night: I read the recipe in advance to get the idea of the big picture and then only referred to it when I needed specific instructions. I noticed something interesting: the procedure for making the soup was very similar to the procedure for making the chicken indienne – brown the meat, sauté the vegetables, add the spices, add the liquid & seasonings, simmer. I’ve been cooking these dishes for years without ever noticing this.

I understand this is not an earth shattering observation. But it does confirm that the process of paying close attention while I cook in order to learn how to cook, is exactly the same thing that I’m doing at school by learning to “close read.” The close read theory is that by making simple observations of a text, a reader can learn to see how writers create prose. Close reading turns any book, essay, short story or poem into a teacher. The blog has become my “close read” of what’s in the pot. My kitchen is now a character in an ongoing dialogue about creativity.

I can already see, for example, how the discovery about the soup/indeinne will be helpful on the days I challenge myself to make up a recipe from ingredients I find at the store. With the technique in mind, I can experiment with vegetables, seasonings and flavorings and create my own dish. Thai coconut curry anyone? I can see it now: chicken, red peppers, green peppers, string beans, eggplant, cocoanut milk. Seasonings? I have no idea; I’ll have to look that up. But I do know how to make it: brown the chicken, sauté the vegetables, add the cocoanut milk, simmer. Nothing Unnatural about that, baby.

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Last night I accidentally cooked Zatar Chicken Kebabs for a vegetarian, but luckily, I served it with greek salad so she did not go home hungry.

My salad eating friend was kind enough to trade food for babysitting and my husband and I went to the movies –  a documentary about Gerhardt Richter. I was curious to see the famous painter at work – something told me there would be a lesson for a writer in it. I was not disappointed.

Richter makes his paintings in stages. Working on two huge canvases at once he first uses a brush to cover them with large swaths of color. Then, the seventy-nine year old gentleman takes a squeegee as tall as he is and covers his creation from top to bottom, burying most of what lies underneath. He does this over and over, changing colors, changing directions, changing his pace, his angle, using his full body weight to obliterate and create, obliterate and create over and over again. It was like watching somebody dance a painting into existence.

Richter had the confidence to let each layer disappear, knowing it could never be recreated. Destruction is part of creation. Change an trust are essential components of art making. I will tack the postcard of his giant white canvas above my desk to remind myself not to be afraid to attack what I’ve already created until it can get no better.

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Something strange is happening to me; I enjoyed cooking dinner last night.

I marinated the steak in white wine, garlic, salt, pepper & oregano without finding a recipe for “marinating steak.” I sliced the mushrooms quickly and evenly using my bread slicing technique. Then I cooked the mushrooms in butter and oil and threw in some thyme because I know my mother-in-law pairs thyme with mushrooms in an appetizer she makes. I happily sliced onions to saute, cheese to melt, and bread to grill. I even let my husband teach me how to use the grill.

I have always liked to eat but I have never liked to cook. This is the first time I can ever recall feeling that cooking was a pleasurable activity. A miracle. Having been forced by the blog to pay attention to what I’m doing in the kitchen has inadvertently taught me some cooking skills. Those skills mean less following instructions, more trusting my senses.

The  way I used to hew to a recipe kept me from engaging my senses. If the recipe said cook for one hour, I cooked for one hour. I forgot to taste the food, watch it, smell it. Now I find myself sampling the mushrooms and the spinach as they cook, seeing how the flavor changes the longer the vegetables are in the pan. It’s no wonder I never associated cooking with pleasure before! Pleasure depends on the senses – if you leave them out of the affair, cooking is bound to be a chore.

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I am at least wise enough not to have photographed the peanut butter and jelly I ate for dinner during class.

And yet, I am not wise enough to let a day pass unremarked upon. I have set myself the task of writing every day and am not ready to abandon it. Although I cannot see how the ends will justify the means I am trying to learn to live comfortably with the unknown. It seems an essential part of the creative process. Dedicating a year to a bad idea seems at least a step toward understanding what a good idea might be.

The blog has already forced me to question my assumptions about how I like to cook; it is showing me how to be more creative and free in the kitchen. But the initial impulse for the blog was actually the very disciplined act of making a meal plan. I hope the same will happen with the writing: that habit and discipline will have unanticipated creative consequences.

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My daughter doesn’t accept the idea that I am an unnatural cook. She keeps trying to prove me wrong. When she is a teenager this desire to prove me wrong will be very annoying, but right now it is incredibly sweet. She refuses to allow me to speak ill of my talents and she thinks “unnatural” is an insult. Yesterday, she gave me a challenge: make dinner from what was in the house. At first I refused. No way. It made me incredibly nervous. Then she gave my husband a challenge – he should make a meal plan! He balked too! I realized how much I’d love it if he did make a meal plan and so I reconsidered the challenge. Why not?

Turns out that making dinner from what’s in the house is a great way to clear out the fridge. Duh. I know lots of people do this I’m just not those people. I made pasta with pink sauce. It should have been pinker than it was but one of the creams wandering around in the fridge turned out to be rock solid. I used bacon, leftover shallot, parsley and 1/2 a red onion, sun dried tomatoes (which must have been at least a year old), garlic, chicken stock, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. It tasted good and was on the table fast.

So I have a confession: I think it might be more relaxing to cook without a recipe. Now what am I supposed to do? I didn’t start this thing so I could change my habits. I started it to…well, I don’t know why the hell I started it. I certainly did not mean give up my recipe following ways. But what did I expect? The blog is a way to make the daily habit of cooking into a creative endeavor. A decent artist allows herself to be changed by the process of art making, doesn’t she? Otherwise, what’s the point?

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I haven’t made beef stew in a long time because the one I loved had parsnips and got rejected by the kids. But it’s a new year and judging from tonight’s clean plates, parsnips are in! The recipe is from a 2004 issue of Fine Cooking Magazine in an article that is supposed to teach a ‘formula for creativity’ by which the author means a technique for developing your own recipe. What it really means is that the recipe was out of order and I had to rewrite it. I can’t cook when the instructions are buried in three separate sections, each presented in a different visual style and spread across two pages. Does that make me a linear thinker? What if I am creative and linear? Is that possible?

So much of what is considered creative is based on the idea of divergent thinking – the endless possibility of a thing (say, beef stew). A good cook is supposed to be one who takes the ‘idea’ of beef stew: meat, vegetables, seasonings and comfortably spins variations on the theme. I can’t do that, but I am obsessive enough to save the magazine, index it so I remember where the recipe is, rewrite the recipe so I can follow it, photograph the results, and write about it. Can obsession be a form of creativity? Revisiting a thing over and over until is essence is understood? I’m sort of banking on it. Maybe I’ll call my version, Linear Beef Stew.

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