Submitted for your perusal is the delicious and mouthwatering conclusion to Stephanie McCracken’s blog entry, “The Zen of Cooking.” Your response to Stephanie’s first offering was overwhelming. I want to thank all of you for your generous feedback and thoughtful comments. Most of all, I want to thank Stephanie for her intelligence, taste and labor. We obviously hope to see her future efforts grace our humble Blog.
In good health,
Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
The Zen of Cooking, Part II by Stephanie McCracken
Do you like a good massage? I assure you that your meats certainly do! Just like every human muscle there is something magical unleashed when fingers gently glide salts, oils, and herbs across the superficial top layers of your rib-eye or chops. After several minutes, you incorporate greater vigor which will then thrust the marinade far into the depths of your favorite cut.
Ever hear the term “’feast your eyes?” The connection between what we see and our various appetites is undeniable; most of our male readers will attest to this. At each juncture of the cooking process there are cornucopias of sights to admire. Of course, for a healthfully balanced diet it is advisable to enjoy a variety of colors in a given day. Imagine the dull hunter green outer flesh of an acorn squash and the mellow peach of its center. After roasting on a high heat, the peach deepens to orange signifying it is done. Blueberries, strawberries, Vidalia onions, white onions, tomatoes in a variety of colors from brilliant gold’s to blackish purple to be pureed and draped upon pasta noodles, sliced or stacked in salads, salted and eaten raw!
I often stroll through the produce isle in search of fruits and vegetables that I have never tried. Like Christopher Columbus, cart in hand, I almost always discover a new variation of color that my eyes have never seen before. These new and exciting morsels soon make their way back to my home and through the frying pan, stock pot or baking sheet. I believe that there are few things as temptingly mouthwatering as a well plated dish. Garnishing and stacking a finished entrée into a creative palate-pleasing arrangement is an opportunity to exert your aesthetic mastery. Experimenting with colors and shapes, you may try placing petite dollops of sauces onto the rims of the plate, scoop potatoes or rice with a dry measuring cup and then top with a sprig of rosemary or leaf of basil, simplistic additions that will make even a paltry meal of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to deserve 5 Michelin Stars!
While your senses are reveling in a glorious crescendo of gourmand gluttony, be sure to attenuate your ears to the melody of sounds flowing from you loving labors. When completely present you will notice far more than the raging whistle of the tea kettle. There are some sounds that I cannot tolerate in my kitchen, such as the “crying” of a lobster when placed into a pot of steadily boiling water. No matter how tasty the promise of butter laden shell fish, the pitiful screaming and squirming puts a damper on even the most well-intentioned and skillfully executed cuisines. On to more pleasant sounds such as the melodic rhythm of a well headed knife as it repeatedly makes its hurried descent through onions before thudding on the cutting board. Allow us to take a long moment to meditate upon the hissing and popping of thick cut smoked bacon, minute morsels of fat exploding into the air sure to have man, woman, or dog salivating. The steady rushing as a boiling bouillabaisse rushes to the rim, as you turn the temperature down a few notches, adding handfuls of clams and mussels that clank on the metal bottomed pot.
Each of your senses is rapturously submerged while preparing a meal or snack. Attenuation to the senses while preparing your meal will lend itself to an even more magical and relaxing time of the day when the focus is allowed to be on mouthwatering cuisine. Each of the senses is connected to the memory of taste in one way or another. Hunger being one of our most primal and basic drives is instinctively wired within us to be associated with happiness and comfort. Something does indeed happen in my brain when I slide a large spoonful of homemade mashed potatoes into my mouth, just as my grandmother’s recipe ensures, they are light with a creaminess that melts on my tongue, giving way to that buttery flavor that they remain the height of satisfaction no matter how many times I have tasted them.
Imagine this, butternut squash bisque, smooth and subtle as it daintily melds onto your palate before unleashing its touch of sweetness and mild nutty essence. My own flavor preferences are broad and diverse from bold flavors like my spicy Sicilian tomato sauce that seemingly satiates any desire for which your palate may be calling; delicately sweet roasted tomatoes that open the taste buds for a well-balanced saltiness, reminiscent of north eastern ocean air. Yet, it is the daring spiciness boldly stretching throughout the mouth, unfurling warm tingles through the throat, those visitors to my dining room table most often remember.
I could continue on, gloriously singing the praises of the savory, pungent, and bitter flavors; the multitude of combinations which artfully spring to life when paired with attention and care. We could even create a texture composition, from the smooth, crisp, creamy, gummy, on and on forevermore. Instead, I shall implore you to leave behind any previous conceptions that you have formed about the art of cooking. Stop reading this contagiously joyful piece on the Zen of cooking, yes, that’s right, put it down! Walk into the kitchen and see, really take the time to look, inhale the bounty of aromas, and then touch, kneed, mix, and blend with natures best.
Hear the melodies teasingly rising out of the pots and pans as your stove comes to life, and finally taste, mmm….Yes, savor the flavors that are the fruits, vegetables, meats and breads, the labors of love. Yet when the mind is keenly aware throughout the entire process, focused on the very pleasures inherent in the present moment, is it just to coin that process a “labor” even the kindly labor of love, or perhaps it is more of an epicureans enlightenment.