You know by now how much I love cooking and recipe-creating. It’s part of my lifeblood. But the other day I realized that so many other elements go into a well-run kitchen, which I might as well call lab as there are so many experiments going on at any one time. It’s not hard to feel like a scientist concocting things, only in skillets and stew pots instead of in beakers and vials. I’m always scheming to create some new combinations, or juggling ingredients to try to make a good thing better.
Like long-ago California miners, my pans are used in search of gold.
For example, a favorite around my French rural home is Butter Chicken in a Bag, a curry of chicken pieces tossed in onion, garlic, turmeric, fenugreek, pinch of cinnamon, garam masala, ginger, chilies, coriander, lemon juice, and yogurt, put in a plastic bag and left overnight.
This is followed by sautéed onion, garlic, fresh crushed tomatoes, and chicken broth simmered for about 30 minutes. We usually eat this with rice.
But the next day, in a rush to make dinner, I indulged in a little wildness and put all the leftovers (rice and condiments included) into my food processor and whizzed the whole shebang into a soup.
May I say that it was uniquely delicious? When it comes to spontaneous combinations and unorthodox choices, the possibilities are endless.
With the experimenting comes a realization that cooking can be made easier by using the simplest tools and tricks.
In storage are my huge paella pan (I last used it to serve that magic rice and seafood wonder to a gaggle of guests) and a wok I bought for developing Chinese and Japanese dishes (triggered by reading the James Clavell novels “Tai-Pan” and “Shogun”).
Languishing at the back of my kitchen cupboards are cheese cutters, melon ballers, cabbage choppers, an expensive mandoline, a gift from my brother, ice cream scoopers, ice cream makers, coffee grinders, oyster knives, shrimp shell strippers, egg beaters, thingies for icing designs on cakes, crêpe pans and more.
All these items have been shelved because, when it comes to the day-to-day, they’re extraneous and superfluous, great fun of course but passing fancies.
To my mind, paring down kitchen tools brings fresh ideas to the cook (who knows why). I just stir, chop, and apply instincts and whim to get me to something tasty.
To borrow from Einstein, just try to keep it simple as possible, but not simpler. Had he turned his brilliance to pots and pans I sometimes wonder what might have emerged. I discover the useful utensils in my kitchen the same way I discover which recipes I like: This one works, that one doesn’t, leading me to me to wonder why I even have some of this stuff.
It is the same in cooking. My dishes almost always evolve from what was cooked before or from bits and pieces I’ve kept in the freezer for an eventual creation. Broths from shrimp heads for fish soups, essential chicken broth from bones that will enhance a risotto alla milanese or anything else for that matter. And leftover risotto so often calls out to be mixed with sautéed vegetables, eggs, and Parmesan for a feed-the-masses quick frittata.
My short cuts have evolved over the years through trial and error (laziness, perhaps, or pressed for time), one of the best being an onion, cut in half stem to stern, placed cut side down on a chopping board and then cut several times across the rings. Then one more cut across the cuts and you will have a pile of already diced onion ready to start off the next concoction from your refrigerator’s surprising riches.
Sometimes it is quicker to grate my garlic with a cheese grater. Biscotti and cookie crumbs go into the salad bowl, giving any green salad a little zap, as do crushed roasted almonds or crumbled feta cheese.
Vegetable cooking water is saved for soups, and Greek yogurt in place of cream cuts a few calories and often tastes better than the real thing. And if you dice your avocado right in the shell, you won’t have to peel it before chopping. Cut diagonally across the avocado (in the shell) and then repeat in the other directions, and scoop out the perfectly diced chunks. Use a very gentle hand to avoid cutting yourself.
Today I have steamed some frozen shrimp and yes, they’ll be okay cold for lunch with red and rémoulade sauces, but I can’t help imagining that with a little of that residual shrimp broth and some of my Greek yogurt, chopped chives and a little mint those little critters just might evolve into an elegant puréed silky bisque never before savored by humans.
My kitchen is a lot like some parts of evolution. Call it survival of the weirdest.