I am pleased to introduce a new contributor to “The Healthy Cog,” Stephanie McCracken. Stephanie is an aficionado of life and, as you are about to read, she cultivates the art of the culinary experience to new heights of enjoyment. We welcome Stephanie with enthusiasm and forks at the ready!
In good health,
Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
The Zen of Cooking by Stephanie McCracken
If you are like me, then your first kitchen impressions are of a grumbling mother shooing you out of the pantry so that she could hurriedly finish preparing a box of Hamburger Helper. My mother dutifully accepted a lifelong responsibility to feed her brood in the best way that she knew how, invariably this resulted in her mixing together some starchy, overly processed, boxed concoction that would stave off hunger pangs. Somewhere along the way, my need to prevent hunger was replaced with a genuine care and sheer joy for the inherent pleasures found in artfully pairing carefully chosen ingredients into tasty and nutritious meals. Among my friends and family, I have become known as the signature chef and take great pride in feeding those who enter my home.
Perhaps you are more like my mom and with sponge curlers in your hair you throw together a can of Chef Boyardee because “you HAVE to make dinner.” Maybe you are a guru in the kitchen, the next Emeril Agassi, you thrust on an apron, grab a bottle of aged balsamic, pair it with some seasonal vegetables, a touch of Fleur-De-Sel , some extra virgin olive oil, and presto! A five star appetizer appears. Do you harbor a subtle curiosity for the kitchen but rarely attempt anything more complex than frying an egg or boiling water because of limited exposure? No matter what your style is in the kitchen, I would like to share with you some techniques that are sure to enhance your cooking flair while tuning your awareness for the abundant pleasures that are possible while elegantly flurrying between the cutting board and stove top.
Once you shake off any anxieties that you may have about trying something new, you begin viewing time in the kitchen as an opportunity for each of your five senses to be joyously submerged. The ancient and vital mystery which sustains the Zen experience is presence. That is, you are not thinking about the stack of bills due next week and dwindling finances, the argument that you just had with your sister, no, not now, in this moment you are atop the cutting board with knife in hand inhaling the grassy pungency of fresh basil leaves. The kitchen is brimming with tantalizing scents, the trick is to be present in the moment so that you can begin to hone in on them. Imagine for a moment the beguiling sweet bouquet of chocolate chip cookies as they are being removed from the oven. The arresting perfume of oozing chocolate chunks beckoning little feet toward the kitchen or promising to bring smiles to friends or family should you decide to share! Or on the savory end of the taste spectrum imagine with me a plump and round rump roast, free-range grass-fed is my favorite kind, centered among carrots and potatoes, fearlessly melding together into a sumptuous au- jus. Imagine the mouthwatering earthen essence of the beef as its hue changes from raw and ruby to the deep tones of brown, as the once marbled layers of fat turn to liquid and billow into the air creating swirls of divinely garlicky aroma.
It is not only the nose that will be seduced into new found adoration for the kitchen, when presence and awareness are instilled into the cooking process; each of your five senses will be tantalized. In some cultures eating is done with the fingers and there is little to no usage of utensils outside of some unleavened bread to sop up the remnants of sauces. I encourage everyone to try that at least once; there is something quite primal about touching your cuisine with your bare fingers.
Much like our earlier Neolithic predecessors would evolve before the advent of fancy cutlery. If you are not ready to embrace your animal self at the kitchen table, your most versatile tool is essential for the preparation of certain dishes. For instance, when working with fresh herbs, the essence of the herb remains locked inside until it is heated by the warmth of your fingers gently rubbing upon the leaves. Pluck a sprig of rosemary and inhale and then massage it, delicately adding it into a marinade or recipe, after lightly rubbing its slightly prickly and pointy leaves notice the change in the fragrance, the pine and floral essence becomes even more aromatic. Vegetables in general will benefit greatly from your touch, besides the fact that metal cutlery will wilt those vibrant and lush greens to a less appetizing muddy brown; there is something about taking each piece of Bibb lettuce into your hands, ripping the delicate and moist leaves one by one before tossing it with scarlet red and luminous gold beets, roasted walnuts and a variety of soft creamy cheeses.
Most bakers already know that most any variety of oozing and gooey dough will be best concocted with the vital force of your own hands. I personally love to come home after a particularly stressful day and whip together a batch of pasta or cookie dough, forget the very expensive mixer that is gleaming on my counter top. With a sparkle in my eyes, I look forward seizing the malleable adobe colored globs of dough and with all of the irritated or frenetic energy coursing inside of me, I fold, pound, and roll.
Usually by the time that I am breathlessly covered in a dense layer of white flour and the dough is helplessly formed into a submissive heap of nourishing promise. By then I am so exhausted and distracted with my victory that I always forget what prompted the creation of the dough ball in the first place. Alas who has time to think of such things? There will be delicate and tender pillows of pasta in less than 20 minutes!
A state of artful bliss can be experienced in the preparation of almost any meal. Cooking is no longer a spectator’s sport where it is simply observed, devoured and digested. As you will see in next week’s entry, cooking is as sensual as we allow it to be.
Love, food, and happiness,