Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cooking from the Heart, and Other Ways to Roast a Chicken

In my corner of the Northwest of the United States, the weekend was rainy and wet. No sooner had I hung my sheets in the sun-streamed morning to dry in the fresh air, than the sky clouded over to black and poured forth its tears. So much for trying to hang on to that lovely luxury of line dried and lavender-ironed sheets I love so much in summer.  Actually, I do hang my sheets out even in winter, if the sun is shining and there is a little wind, but living where I do, it is far less often than I would like.  That pleasure foregone, I determined to enjoy fully one of the autumn pleasures of home.  I decided to cook from one of my favorite cookbooks, which I had brought back from my summer house in Big Sur, and see what fun might be had from "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," written by Suzanne Goin, a young and richly experienced chef whose restaurant, food aesthetic and cookbook I particularly admire. So this weekend, I planned a series of menus from the autumn  chapters, pulled some great wines from the cellar, and tucked in for a weekend of pleasure.

I own hundreds of cookbooks, and when I started thirty years ago to cook seriously, I worked my way through dozens of them: Julia Child, Simone Beck, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Mireille Johnston, Fredy Giardet, Joel Robuchon, Roger Verge, Madeleine Kamman, Paula Wolfert, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, Pierre Franey, Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, Jacques Pepin, Lynn Rossetto Kasper, Lorenza di Medici,  Pino Luongo, Andre Soltner, Charlie Palmer, Georges Perrier, Alain Ducasse, Michel Roux, Les Freres Troisgros, Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello, to name only a few.  I tried to be the student of each, and to cook with a heart open to what they might have to teach me. One of the things I learned, both from books as well as from working with many chefs, is that while there is time honored technique, once mastered, it is a point of departure, and there are many views of how to best execute the "same" dish.  A good example of this might be roast chicken. I have tried dozens of methods, including the proclaimed "best" from Joel Robuchon, as well as many others. I have brined, salted, stuffed with lemon and onion and herb, stuffed under the skin, covered the breast skin with cheesecloth soaked in butter, roasted upside down and flipped, roasted on a rotisserie, spatchcocked in a cast iron pan, roasted on a little roasting pin, finished roasting with the oven turned off, etc. The list is endless.  Each chef whose approach I tried proclaimed the last word on the roast chicken.

I still think the best roast chicken I ever ate was at the house of my cousin Suzie, in a beautiful farmhouse in the country near La Chaux de Fonds, in French Switzerland. She was not a trained chef, but she made the most delectable tarts, a talent she learned from Tante Marguerite, the stern lady whom Suzy and my mother fondly called "La Terrible", and who taught them to paint china with exacting standards, so ladylike they were compelled to hold their brushes in perfect alignment and dared not breathe.  But Suzie was (is) a cook in the best bonne femme tradition, and she was a sensualist. She cooked from her heart. She roasted that beautiful bird on a little rotisserie, and it was succulent, flavorful and fantastic.  She served it with a mass of frites, and an apricot tart for dessert, and dinner was splendid.  It didn't hurt that she had a good relationship with her neighbor, who raised chickens, and sang them lullabies as they slept at night. Happy Birds. Of course, every good cook has his or her own way to roast a chicken, and are some superior to others? Absolutely.  Have I eaten a lot of poorly roasted birds in great restaurants? Yes. Is there only one approach that will yield a succulent bird with crisp, flavorful skin and tender meat? No. The most important thing is the quality of the bird, a necessary but not sufficient element.  Even a good cook can ruin a beautiful bird.  Some home cooks (but none I admire for their cooking aesthetic) try to substitute those birds injected with an awful saline solution, and who knows what other chemicals, cooking them in plastic bags. I always feel I am eating a chemical factory, not to mention what is released from the so-called "Safe" bags. And yes, perhaps the bird is moist, but invariably a spongy moistness and nearly always overseasoned. Chemicals are a modern marvel, and can make even the real food ultimately inedible.

At some point in cooking, technique has the potential to become art, and if you remain locked into the technique, your food will never truly sing.   It will be craftsmanlike. But not art.  At the same time, I think the discipline of mastering the technique is a far better way to learn to cook than the way most people learn, simply following one recipe after another in a long line of "gourmet" (a word I dislike) adventures. I also think it is critical to learn to cook with your senses engaged, and to read the food with all these senses fully employed. I have eaten with many who consider themselves great cooks, but they really have no idea what they are doing. They follow recipes, but they do not understand the underlying principles they apply, and they move from one Bon Appetit directed dinner to another. Is it possible to learn to cook this way? If you are very astute, and disciplined, perhaps. You will learn to follow recipes well. If you pay attention, you will learn what works well and what doesn't, and why. But you will not learn to make food sing.  I do not believe this is an effective way to teach someone to cook well.

I am aware of the point in which this happened to me, the point at which I felt the mastery of technique freed me rather than bound me.  Gradually, through discipline and practice, I began to learn my own ways of cooking, how best to draw out flavors, how to cook a given meat or fish so that it is perfectly done or achieved the marriage of flavors that suited my own taste.  I learned how much salt I liked with beef or chicken, how to salt potatoes, and what approach yielded the creamiest gratin.  I could tell a piece of meat was ready to be turned by how it sounded. I knew when a roast or a cake was done by how it smelled.   I began to understand what I liked, and to learn to listen to my own aesthetic and not be intimidated by the chefs around me, while still learning from them.  Perhaps what I am trying to say here is that when the technique becomes the master, commanding slavish devotion, a cook will never really learn to cook from the heart any more than following one "gourmet" recipe after another will likely lead to food that sings, unless the writer is very, very skilled. But having come through the discipline of technique, a cook reaches the point where it can be applied to all manner of things having little to do with the original recipe in which it was practiced.  In fact, mastering techniques that can be applied to many different cuisines is the mark of an accomplished cook. The cook is free.

I am attempting to teach my children to cook first with their senses, and have largely eschewed recipes with them, except when they are baking (which is art of a different sort). The other night, my son, who is 12, walked into the kitchen and said to me, "Mom, that meat is just now done, I can smell it."  He was right. The pork loin was pitch perfect, moist, succulent and 120 degrees. He could tell by how it smelled and before the oven door was even opened.  Last night, he was making fresh pasta, and he took the pasta dough after it had rested and said, "Mom, this is going to be perfect pasta: I can tell by the way the dough handles.  It was.

So in approaching the recipes from a cook we admire, it is important for us to remain teachable, to have open hearts to what might be learned, and not be so locked into our own approach that we are closed off to that of another talented artist. That is how I approached the delicious food of Suzanne Goin.  But neither should we be bound and gagged by what is written on the page or directed.  In many cases, I disagreed with something here or there, and since all great cooking is at the margins,  I made little adjustments, as all chefs do, in order to make the food my own, in order to make it sing. But I tried to do this without sacrificing what it is she might teach me, for I am quite certain her food sings on its own without my assistance! The food was spectacular.  In the blogs that follow this week, I will describe what I cooked and what I learned in the process. But I can say that my family ate exceedingly well, and each dinner was a celebration of life.

It occured to me, as I was cooking Sunday dinner, that gorgeous loin of pork of which I spoke, that much the same could be said of our spiritual journey.  My spiritual director, in counseling me about this or that spiritual discipline I am undertaking, reminds me that none of these are ends in themselves and when we make them so, they become idols in place of the Life which flows through us from the Living God with whom we live and breathe and have our being.  He reminds me that contemplative prayer, for example, is not a formula meant to open our hearts if we follow each step exactly, but a means of being present to Grace and open to Life.  Jesus came, and died, that we should be free, not enslaved.  He came to bring us Life Abundant! The curious thing is that the spiritual disciplines which aid us in our walk, help to free us, or at least they should.  They free us in a manner not unlike that of the cook, who has learned the rigours of the technique and is set free to create a celebration at table. Life then becomes a banqueting table, at which we sit under his banner of Love.

Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!

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