Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sibling Assignment #185: Heat and Light

I sent out this Sibling Assignment:

Write about what's been occupying your mind in the world of food preparation. Have you been trying anything new and different? Are there recipes or cook books that have excited your imagination? Utensils?Appliances? I think you get the point -- go about this assignment however you'd like -- but write about your life in the kitchen, going back as far as you'd like. 

You can read Christy's piece, "Reading the Cookbooks", here and Carol hopes you will say, "Tastes good!" when you eat what she's cooked, here.

When I was in graduate school, I always thought of myself as a lesster student because I was always drawn to the obvious in plays, poems, and stories. I never had subtle insights nor did I see those things in literature that no one else saw. I always thought the most profound ideas and insights about life that rose out of what I read were the obvious ones.

This is why, by the way, I cringe inside whenever I hear someone respond to what someone else says by responding -- condescendingly -- "Obviously" or "That's obvious".

So, as I've often written when discussing my enjoyment of taking pictures, I do my best to photograph light. I know this is obvious. But, by trying to learn more about light and by observing the effects light has on things of the world I take pictures of and by putting my camera into relationship with the light, I slowly, surely take better pictures.

I don't have any subtle or nuanced understandings of photography. I stick with the obvious: follow the light, learn from the light, shoot the light. 

In my modest little world of food preparation, I am also keyed in on the obvious: cooking is about heat. 

I don't mean pepper/spice heat.

I mean the heat of the flame, the heat of the electric burner, the heat of the charcoal. 

I also mean the heat as conducted by the cooking utensil: heat and the electric fry pan, heat and the cast iron skillet, heat and the cooking pot.

The funny thing is that I've been cooking for enjoyment since about 1982 and, until recently, I've rarely thought deeply about the effects of heat, aside from not enough will leave food uncooked and too much will overcook or burn it. In fact, I'd have to say that I've paid more attention to the cooking timer than I have the cooking heat, trusting recipes to tell me how long things should cook rather than coming to an understanding of my own about how long something will take at whatever heat I subject the food to.

Now I've started to think more about high heat. I am leery of high heat -- it always feels like I'll be quicker to ruin food at high heat and, because I am a fundamentally cautious person, I have done a lot of cautious cooking at medium and low heats. 

A couple of weeks ago, however, I read a recipe for roasting chicken in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (the recipe is online here) and Deb Perelman said to roast the chicken at 450 degrees. I'd never tried this -- nor had I spatchcocked a chicken before -- but I decided to go for it. 

The chicken's surface was crispy, on the edge of blackened, and it was the most moist chicken I've ever prepared.

Then I thought about those days back in Eugene when I used to prepare roast beef and before putting the roast in the oven I seared it -- I was under the impression that this locked in the meat's juiciness -- and so now I'm thinking about other foods -- vegetables and tofu, in particular, and trying to imagine the effects of high heat on them, eager to get into the kitchen and read the food as it cooks, eager to learn the heat better.

My preoccupation with heat is very much in play in relation to preparing one of my favorite breakfasts: soft-boiled eggs. I don't have an egg cooker and I've been trying for years to get the preparation of soft-boiled eggs just right. 

My preoccupation with heat is very much in play in relation to preparing one of my favorite breakfasts:  soft-boiled eggs.  I don't have an egg cooker and I've been trying for years to get the preparation of soft-boiled eggs just right. 

Here again, I'm experimenting. 

Two questions about heat pop to mind: should I set the eggs out for a while and let them warm up to close to room temperature before I boil them or put them in the water cold? How much is the cooking time affected if I warm up the egg?

And here's my other question: should I boil the eggs or simmer them? Last week, I read yet another fool-proof recipe for preparing soft-boiled eggs and it suggested bringing water to a boil, turning down the heat, and when the big bubbles settled down, dropping the eggs for about six minutes into the simmering water. I had always brought the eggs to a boil and then given them three minutes.

I tried the simmer method. It worked. It's all about how to manage the heat of the water in relation to the egg and I have a ways to go before I'm certain I can reliably boil an egg soft just the way I want it -- cooked, but runny.

There's another question I have about heat and don't have any answers.

I want to learn more about the relationship between the heat I use to prepare food and its flavor.  

I've always thought flavor came from seasoning food and not burning it, but I am thinking more and more about how the heat I apply to food excites the flavors.

I like to cook Thai curry on occasion, and the effect of the flame on the curry has been coming to mind because many recipes tell me to stir fry the curry paste right off the bat.  I've never done a test to see how the finished curry might taste different if I didn't stir fry the paste, but my guess is that the frying of the past excites the flavors. 

So, I'm wondering, if this is the case for Thai curry paste, where else is it the case? Could I, with the right application of heat, coax more flavor out of the food I prepare and are there ways I can be thinking about heat, not only in relation to food's doneness, but also in relation to its flavor, that I haven't given enough consideration to?

As with photography and light, cooking and heat seems to me to be largely a matter of imagination.  When I say I am trying to be more imaginative in the kitchen, I don't mean that I'm being more outlandish; rather, I'm trying to imagine in advance of an addition of seasoning or an adjustment of heat, what the taste will be -- and, I'm always trying to imagine how combinations of flavors that aren't found in a recipe might work. 

I try to imagine ahead of opening the shutter, what a picture might look like given what I've tried to do with the available light and I am doing the same kind of imagining with cooking (and mixing drinks), a development, in both photography and cooking, that is in its very early stages. 

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