September 15, 2009

Duelling philosophies

Read part one here.

To be honest, I have quite a bit of time on my hands here in Dubai.  After working my butt off as an ERP project manager for the past 11 years, I’ve now become a housewife.  (This is due to a combination of my Canadian project ending – successfully – at the same time the global recession hit.  I’m now in the Dubai job market, but employers are not exactly lining up at my door.)  Truth be told, I make a pretty bad housewife – both of our kids are four-legged, so the schoolrun doesn’t exist, and I’d rather stick my nose in a book or putter in the kitchen than become the perfect housewife in an immaculately clean home.  I’m also not much for the fabled Dubai expat-wife lifestyle of coffee mornings, sessions at the gym or with my tennis instructor/personal trainer/yoga guru, lunch with the girls, followed by beauty treatments and fabulous shopping, sundowners, and a night out.  But I digress…

Anyhoo, I have time on my hands and a great love of food and cooking.  And I heart Heston Blumenthal.  So, why shouldn’t I be the one to test out the recipes and achieve perfection at home?  Why not, indeed?

I have a huge number of cookbooks, food magasines, and love to read about food on the intarweb.  (I’m one of those people who reads cookbooks in bed.  Sexy, no?)  I’ve also been addicted to cooking shows since I can remember – there’s something about how the ingredients are pre-measured and prepared that fascinates me (as well as the “here’s one I made earlier” – it’s magic!!) Despite this, I cannot follow a recipe to save my life.  I always want to doctor it up in some way, usually because I think it will be improved by the addition (garlic is usually added when the recipe doesn’t call for it, or more garlic than called for), sometimes because I don’t have the ingredients on-hand (even when I go out with a shopping list, I invariably forget something, or assume that I have the item at home, when I actually don’t).  My husband is used to being sent off for last minute purchases, but sometimes he can’t find the ingredient, or just buys the wrong things.  So, the recipe gets “fixed”.

I learned my basic cooking skills beside my parents and my grandmother, all of whom cooked “by feel”, and who encouraged experimentation.  Therefore, I’m very comfortable in the kitchen, and have a repetoire of “standards” that I can make without consulting a recipe.  When I do use recipes, I use them as guidelines, suggestions, and for inspiration.  I unabashedly substitute ingredients, incorporate others, skip steps, add steps, and take shortcuts.  Measurements are imprecise; normally eyeballed, or otherwise estimated.  I whack up the heat when things aren’t cooking fast enough, and knock down the heat when they are cooking too fast.  (Incidentally, my natural desire to spice things up a bit, and to fiddle has done atrocious things to anything I decide to bake.  Clearly, baking is chemistry, cooking much less so.  Result:  I rarely bake.)  My food is usually good, sometimes excellent, and rarely inedible (either that, or I’m just really hungry after I’ve finished).  Results are generally unrepeatable.  Failures are spectacularily bad (ramen noodles cooked in beer – I shall say no more).  But I learn.

Heston’s recipes are the antithesis of my cooking style.  Measurements, timings. and temperatures are exact.  Ingredients are specific.  (Not just “a potato” is required, rather “a potato of variety X which has been stored at temperature Y and which weighs Z grams, sourced from a field which contains the following specific trace minerals in the soil, and which has been fertilized with an organic product made from the waste of happy, free range animals by a farmer in Somerset name Doug.)  Techniques are minutely detailed; slapdashery inconceivable. 

It was obvious that if I was going to test out Heston’s recipes, there would have to be a sea-change in my philosophy of cooking, from following recipes to sourcing ingredients.  In short, there would have to be rules.

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