Saturday, April 29, 2006

Ecru Brute?

Too many cooks spoil the soup is good no nonsense wisdom even if said to be uttered from a pair of fictitious old wife’s lips. The admonishment also happens to be handy justification and sometimes unrelenting mantra for those of us who like to keep a tight reign in the kitchen and uncouth hands out of our Dutch ovens. But what is a woman to do when those very hands become necessary accoutrements in the task of daily living?

Some time back, I was a person incapable of allowing another into the inner sanctum, the cauldron where all the magic happened. Sure, friends were allowed into the kitchen to hang out but there was the unspoken line in the sand where few dared to cross for fear of a quick menacing scowl or a fork jab to the hand. As much as I loved to wine and dine my loved ones, the cooking of a meal was a private act of one. In my mind, concocting a recipe was something sacred. After all it is the summoning forward of something from whence there was naught. It might have been my proclivity towards drama or my rigorous training in the creative process, but meal after meal was a chance to conjure and dream, mold ingredients, bake or steam. I wanted exclusive rights to add and delete at whim unhampered by rules and regulations. Lucky for me, I have had many years to indulge my wish unchallenged. I could not know then that my days flying solo were coming to an end.

It started slowly but insidiously. My limbs became heavy, foreign objects-- clumsy. Trips to the market became increasingly challenging. I began scanning the linoleum for barely there drips from produce, fearful that the spill might deliver me face down to the ground. There was the time that I bent down to reach a 28oz can and got stuck head low, unable to straighten back up. I had to abort the mission, ditch the tomatoes and climb my way up to vertical as if the shelves were a ladder and hope that no one witnessed my dance of folly. And like well-proofed dough, the mishaps bubbled over into my kitchen too. I sent a perfectly golden buttery galette sliding to its early demise onto the floor in an attempt to pull, lift and land a baking sheet from oven rack to counter. My hands grew dull unable to deftly handle an onion, a knife, my beloved Microplane- the ingredients and tools I once knew so intimately. With barely enough strength to wave the white flag of defeat, my spirit surrendered for a time and many a dinner was made of rotisserie chicken and take out salad.

We zoom to present time where I now cook with an attendant in my kitchen stadium. The velvet curtains are drawn back and any notion of cooking solo extinguished for the moment. This arrangement of two has imposed more limitation than my ideal and necessitates a still-in-the-works strategy to keep the meals rolling and humor intact. The addition of an attendant is mandatory to my life and has been a steep learning curve in culinary grace. The idea is that this person serves as my hands, fingers, legs and arms. Theory and reality are two different things. At first glance this might not sound that complicated, but in fact communicating a multi layered task in its fullness is downright complex. What immediately becomes clear is that words mean so many things to different people. The initial many months with a caregiver will include a series of dialogues back and forth with the intent of building a mutual framework of understanding. It is a slow process of inhabiting each others’ taste and style, sharing our unique perspective on life and in this case, cooking.

There was F_ the Tongan woman who liked to eat mounds of boiled meat and eggs for breakfast and Kathy the theology student who never prepared much more than bottled sauce with her spaghetti, W_ had never seen an avocado and J’s universal solution to any food disaster was to apply a mist of soy sauce to moisten and flavor the item in question. These women and others have had their own unique response to a seemingly straight forward instruction such as “sauté a diced onion in olive oil.” I have been surprised time and again to the wide range of possibilities presented before me in my skillet. I have learned that too many assumptions can make for a bad meal and the ability to elaborate without becoming too picky or pedantic, a fine art and one worth developing. I would be the first to say that my kitchen adventures have been bumpy. I have been irritated and terse, silently sulky and mournful. Giving up control has been hard, but specifically, having someone in my kitchen- at times, downright torturous. But as any artist knows, there can be an edgy adjustment period to a new tool or medium. In my case, I am still learning about cooking through the hands and senses of another- all the while keeping my own flavor in the mix. The other day this conversation could be heard from my kitchen:

Me: “So what color is the chana masala (Indian chickpeas in a spiced tomato based sauce) now?”
J: “I’d say it is red and ecru.”

I stopped dead in my tracks upon hearing what seemed to be such an odd description. And then the oddity magnified and transmogrified into something magnificent and brilliant. I laughed. I laughed in celebration of J’s individuality and at the joy and sweetness of cooking together. I dedicate this following soup to all of my caregivers past and present.

Green Soup serves 5-6: This is a wonderful emerald green soup with a kick (mine was cooked way too long). It has been adapted from Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking.

4 oz potatoes, peeled and roughly diced
3 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 pints chicken stock
¾ cube fresh ginger, peeled
½ tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
½ a bunch of chopped cilantro
2 cups chopped spinach
½ deseeded chopped jalapeno
10 oz frozen peas
¾ tsp salt
1 tblsp lemon juice
½ tsp ground roasted cumin
5 fl oz double cream

Combine potatoes, onions, ginger, jalapeno, ground coriander and cumin in a pot to boil. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Fish out ginger and throw away. Add the cilantro, spinach, peas, salt, lemon juice and roasted cumin. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes (this is where time got away from me and my soup turned a drab green). Empty the soup into a blender in 2-3 batches and blend until smooth. Be careful. Pour the soup back into the pot, stir in the cream and bring to a simmer to heat through.


Honeycake said...

Simmer for 3 minutes! I'm always wondering when to start counting...simmering for 30 minutes would allow for greater fudge factor. The soup sounds great. Was it only the color that was off?

Callipygia said...

Honeycake! oh alright you got me... first I found out that "we" put in chopped parsley instead of chopped cilantro and then yes, time got away from us. It was a bit thicker and concentrated in flavor. I'd tweak the spices y'know amp up the toasted cumin and lemon. Did you see the chocolate scone entry?