I Love Cooking

 

I love to cook. To be fair, I am a hedonist, with food being a major area of enjoyment. If I had to go out to eat every time I wanted a nice steak, or stir fry or BBQ or anything else, I’d go broke. Not to mention that, there is something special about being able to prepare food “just the way you like it”. Even more hedonistic, I just enjoy the very act of cooking. It is the perfect intersection between science and art, between order and chaos, controlled conditions and crazy randomness.

I credit this love for cooking to my family. I was brought up to believe that a man’s place is in the kitchen. My grandfather was, in addition to being a drill sergeant, a cook in the army. My uncle held a number of food service jobs in his time and their guidance gave me my start in the culinary pursuits. Not to leave out people like my grandmother and my aunt Pat, both have (or had in my grandmother’s case) some mad skills, but, ultimately, I consider cooking to be an essential manly art. Normally, when one talks about food and family, it tends to be a discussion of cultural or ethnic roots, but we just liked food. We were equally happy spending hours layering phillo dough to make baklava as we were wrapping little sausages in Pillsbury croissant rolls out of a tube to make pigs in a blanket. Growing up with the Irish side of my family, we had our share of potatoes and pot roasts and stew, but we made everything from spanakopita to fried chicken to refried beans. When I was a teenager, my aunt Pat married a man from a Lebanese family, and I have made dishes like tabouli, hummus and baba ganoush ever since.

I feel at peace when I am in the kitchen, chopping vegetables or stirring a sauce, just waiting for the moment it takes on the right consistency. My bedtime reading regimen will occasionally include cookbooks and I will often scour the internet for new recipes to try. My favorites are complex, long, drawn out affairs, involving ingredients that must be searched for at specialty shops. Bonus points for ingredients that bring a look of confusion to a shopkeeper’s face when I ask for it. I love toasting and grinding my own chilis for chili powder. There’s something so visceral about touching and smelling and seeing all the different parts that will combine to make something glorious. There have been several times when I don’t even care about eating; the process of creating is the goal unto itself. That being said, I’m usually starving by the time whatever I’m making is finally done.

I’m always surprised that more people don’t cook. I consider it to be an essential life skill. Particularly for anyone with a special diet. I have a friend (I’m looking at you, King Biscuit) who is a strict vegetarian, but does not cook. He is constantly complaining about how hard it is for him to find good food. Of course, it’s going to be hard. There are countless places to get food in most urban areas, but how many of these are actually good? From this group, one must take away any of those that don’t match one’s diet profile, be it vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten free, etc. Then, one’s personal tastes must be taken into consideration. For instance, I can (and have) eaten Ethiopian food, but I just don’t like it. I have a thing about texture and I find most Ethiopian food to be too mushy for my tastes. This leaves a very finite number of restaurants to choose from and even these are going to get boring after a while. When one cooks, they are limited by only budget, time and effort.

So, favorite foods. Ceviche, BBQ, almost any meat, sushi. I don’t like sweets, other than a weakness for pie.I love chili, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie. Not a huge pasta fan. Not really into carbs at all mostly, though I do appreciate a good nan. I like heat, spicy food. Not ghost pepper, painful hot, but the complex, numbing type of hot. Kim chee, Sichuan fermented chili-garlic sauce. I love sour. I’ll sip on vinegar, pickle juice and eat limes whole. I hate eggplant, but love baba ganoush. I hate avocado, but love guacamole. Goat is probably my favorite meat, and I’ve had a wide selection. I’ve eaten beef, pork, chicken, rabbit, squirrel, alligator, rattlesnake, bear, elk, venison, boar, buffalo, and those are the ones I can remember. Oh, yes, I’ve even eaten donkey sausage.

Why am I saying all this? Well, I’m hoping to talk about some of the more complex and entertaining recipes I do. I know this is only peripherally related to my work as an artist, but it is such a quintessential part of who I am, that I’m going to be talking about cooking. Figured I might as well lay some groundwork. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and I will come back with some recipes soon.

Nachos!

Nachos aren’t just a delicious snack, they are a part of my heritage, which is why I’ll be celebrating National Nacho Day on Nov. 6th. Per Wikipedia, the first plate of nachos was created in the city of Peidras Negras, Coahulia, Mexico, which is right along the Texas border, by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, a distant relative of mine. As the story goes, he was the maitre d’hotel at a restaurant that had just closed, when a group of hungry patrons came in. Not wanting to turn them away, he took what little they had in the kitchen and turned those humble ingredients into a dish that has not only endured the test of time, but spawned a butt load of variations. Nachos have become so popular that there is not only a National Nacho Day, but also an International Nacho Festival that is held between Oct. 13th and 15th, in Peidras Negras. Now that’s a snack!

According to the lore, “Nacho” Anaya scavenged the meager stores of his kitchen and, finding only tortillas and cheese, manifested the glorious food that are nachos. This part of the story resonates so strongly with me. One of my particular joys is to enter a kitchen, the more foreign to me the better, and, using only what I find, create a delicious meal. The creativity that such a challenge poses is a total rush and, if I’m actually successful at making something tasty and nutritious, I feel like a true artist. I have considered creating an Iron Chef style event just among my circle of friends, several of who like to cook and all of who love to eat. But I digress.

Nachos are basically tortilla chips and cheese, but what’s the fun in that? Talk about a palette that is begging for color. Traditional additions are things like black beans, chopped onions, sliced jalapenos, meat (too many to list here), tomatoes, olives and the like. I like meat, like I’m pretty much a carnivore, but nachos are one of the few dishes that I don’t think do well with meat. Ground beef with taco seasoning is common, but I think it makes the dish too greasy. Chicken is usually shredded and the pieces are so large that they break the already overburdened tortilla chips. Pulled pork? WTF? This isn’t BBQ! And, for the love of God, please don’t ever tell me about the abomination that are tachos, nachos made with tater tots instead of tortilla chips. The secret to the best nachos is crunchy chips baked to sublime crispiness, cemented together with gooey cheese, slightly burnt at the edges to give it its own unique crispiness as well.

A word needs to be said about cheese. This may be an unpopular, but I feel that cheddar is a completely unsuitable cheese for melting. Don’t get me wrong, I love cheddar, but the oil separates too easily upon melting creating an unsavory consistency. For my palette, a combination of colby and jack cheeses will provide the perfect flavor and viscosity combination. Am I thinking about cheese too much? Damn, I really want some nachos now. Well, until next time, stay gooey.