Friday, September 26, 2008

waiting til the shine wears off

If you're sick of me talking about food, move right along, because this is all about food, or to be absolutely specific, chemistry.

I suppose it's a mixture of chemistry and history really. HIstory because the kitchen was someplace I loved and hated growing up. There was an undeniable attraction to it- it was the center of all activity in my house growing up. Sure, I was normally limited to washing dishes, but still, I somehow absorbed an appreciation for the complexity of what all went on in there.

Partly, it's because Indian food, the way my mother cooked it in my childhood, won the prize for culinary cuisine complexity. She would wake up at unreasonable hours to soak this, or blend that. A batter needed to rise. Dried beans needed to be revived. Somewhere in the house would be a cheesecloth hanging to drain the water out of ricotta for some dessert. In the oven, she was making yogurt. She was always planning out a meal.

Frankly, I found it tiring. When I looked at what made up my mother's day, I really did not relish the notion of that fate falling to me. Whenever there was a party at the house, my father was allotted the simple task of vacuuming, while my mother would be frantically multi-tasking for the entire weekend. It hardly seemed fair.

But on the other hand, there were things about the kitchen I loved. I loved that each auntie had her own way of doing things, loved how they would each fuss over each other about how something ought to be done. I loved that they would sit together in the kitchen, and when they did, it didn't seem like they had been passively relegated there. Rather, it seemed like that was where they were most comfortable. It tickled me that they would all find it horrifying to run out of food. I loved how, at the end of the night, disposable containers would be produced and leftovers would be packaged out to everyone.

Mainly though, I just loved the transformation. It seemed like magic to me then, because I didn't understand it. I loved the idea of from-scratch cooking. Initially, this was a problem though. I had never been properly taught to cook. And I had been surrounded by women who made it look like the easiest, most obvious thing in the world.

I'll be the first to admit that, even still, I'm not much of a cook. I much prefer baking, because it's weirdly more intuitive to me. I suspect it's because there were no preconceived notions about baking. My mother baked cakes from box mixes, if she baked them at all. Learning to bake was a lot less intimidating, because I had more tolerance for failure, I guess. And then it slowly just started to become second nature.

When I was really keen on cooking, I would choose things that were long projects, dishes like stews in which you had a lot of different opportunities to adjust this, change that, taste, and modify as needed. But there were simple things that eluded me. When I was growing up, T, about four years older than me and generally thought to be the most beloved of all daughters of my parents' friends, would make spaghetti sauce. Granted, she would grab a store-bought bottle of sauce, dump it into a pot, and throw in a bunch of well chopped vegetables and a few spices here and there. But somehow she could transform it into something that tasted so good, I would eagerly watch her preparing it in the hopes that I could crack her secret code.

But I didn't. And then later, when I lived on the east coast, a friend of mine, D, used to make spaghetti sauce. It was renowned amongst my friends. It was fantastic. I think he made it from canned tomatoes, but I cannot be sure because he never allowed me to watch his process. This is most likely because he was quite proud of his famous sauce and knew that, chemist that I was at the time, I would have grabbed the recipe from him and hyperactively set to work trying to make changes to it.

Every time I tried to make spaghetti sauce, it was disappointing. Once, W was staying with me and I made spaghetti sauce from canned, diced tomatoes. He politely declined it when I invited him to eat with me. I don't blame him. It looked mostly like salsa- a watery, tomato-y mess. After that, at a family reunion, my cousins and I all set to work on making penne with vodka sauce. I made the vodka sauce and it was consumed by all without complaint, even requested to be made again. But I wasn't satisfied with it. Again, it was from canned tomatoes, and I had to sit over a simmering pot for hours, and still felt the end result was a bit watery and dissatisfying.

Trying to make spaghetti sauce from fresh tomatoes seemed even more ambitious and therefore completely misguided. I never really thought about trying it. But then today I was walking home with a classmate who keeps a garden. She was leaving for the weekend, and handed over to me a handful of tomatoes that were about ready to burst. They were beautiful, so beautiful that I could not bear to tell her that I cannot bring myself to eat raw tomatoes.

But it's funny. I figured- what is there to lose? She sent me off with containers filled with vegetables, and the tomatoes were the most ripe of the lot. I went home and held my breath for a moment, weighing whether I could handle a major fiasco tonight (because isn't the debate enough of a fiasco for one night?), then just went for it. I've never blanched vegetables before, but I blanched those tomatoes. I haven't reduced a liquid in years, but I reduced away tonight. And with some assistance from the interwebz and a healthy spoonful of roasted garlic I had stockpiled for just such an occasion, what do you know, I had spaghetti sauce. Not very much- just enough for one meal. But it was so vibrantly red, its consistency so thick and hearty (but not lumpy and chunky, because I do not care for that!), and it tasted of spaghetti sauce.

I don't know why I had been scared to try this previously. The whole experiment took me a total of 30 minutes, and that included the rather painstaking process of peeling each tomato, and squeezing out of it any excess water. And I don't know why I find this all so oddly satisfying, more satisfying than any Grey Goose & Tonic would have been tonight. I don't know why exactly. Maybe it's because I'm learning that there are very few things in life that are this finite, this simple to pin down with certainty. Do this and this is the outcome. It's so the opposite of life when you think about it, because life is a little more like- do this and the outcome triggers 10 new things to do, 10 new questions unanswered, 10 new ways you never understood it in the first place. And while that is all well and good, and is life after all, it's nice, once in a while, to be able to make spaghetti sauce.

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