23 May 12

To Cook With Love

It’s been years since I first heard this phrase, and it resonated with me and struck me as confusing at the same time. And reading about cooking, and food, and people who cook, a people who write about cooking, it is a phrase that comes up all the time. If Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain (let alone Gordon Ramsey) can all use the phrase unironically and in the same way, then there must be something to it. But what does it really mean? And how has it’s meaning changed, for me, as I’ve become a better cook and been exposed to more thoughts around cooking.

When I was very younger, I used to love baking. I would beg my mother to let me make cookies and cobblers and cakes. I loved how important I felt standing on the small step stool at the counter, with my mother’s well-loved and well-worn Pillsbury cookbook propped up against the wall at the back of the counter where it would hopefully escape most of my childhood clumsiness. I felt so official sifting flour, measuring things in such tiny precise amounts. And then I became a teenager and my mother started working outside our home, and it became my responsibility to come home after school and prep dinner so it was on the table between 5 and 5:30 every night for a family of 5.

My mother did the menu planning, and she understood my interest wasn’t in it and therefore my skills were rather paltry, and that I was a teenager, so she thought up a lot of dishes to put in the crockpot so that I would only have to come home and make biscuits and warm up a can of green beans and we’d be set for dinner most nights. But after several years of this, and a few “When I was your age I was cooking dinner for my family every night from scratch” conversations, the dishes she would choose slowly became more vague and less planned. I think she was hoping that I would “take some initiative” and do things on my own. But I rarely did. And when I did, it would be baking cinnamon rolls or making homemade bagels or other things that seemed “fun”.

I was a horrible cook during this time. I didn’t love it, and it showed. Pasta would stick together because I would be too busy reading “Dear Abby” while the spaghetti boiled to stir it. Things would frequently get a little burnt, or just be a little bland because I didn’t think to taste things to make sure they were good, nor did I really know enough about how to determine what needed more of what to adjust seasonings on the fly.

Then I moved out of my parents house and realized I didn’t know how to cook for 1 person. I just couldn’t imagine how it was to be done. So I followed the lead of friends and bought super-cheap individual sized frozen pizzas, and Rice-A-Roni (which I had never had before), boxed mac’n‘cheese, and ramen noodles. And I felt like a college student, and therefore a grown-up. And about three months into this diet I got so incredibly bored I couldn’t fathom it. I’d come home from class one drizzly March day and looked at my supply of baking potatoes (which I’d recently learned could be cooked in the microwave) and decided that I wanted my mom’s potato soup. It was something she always cooked in the crock-pot and at the end of the day I would stir in a can of evaporated milk and mash the potatoes a bit.

So even though I had never made it, and even though there was no recipe for it in the 2 cookbooks I owned (Betty Crocker and a Pizza cookbook from Williams Sonoma a roommate gave me) I decided I could make this up on my own. So I chopped an onion and cooked it in some butter (most likely margarine, because that was what I was used to). While it cooked and softened I decided that I needed salt, pepper, and garlic powder to be my seasonings. So I pulled these things out and lined them up on the counter. I then peeled the potatoes and cubed them before I added it to a pan with barely enough water to cover. I added the onion, sprinkled what I thought were enough seasonings over the top, and I let the potatoes cook with the lid off until they were very soft. Then I mashed them with the bottom of a drinking glass, because I had no masher. I had no milk, but I did have part of a carton of sour cream and decided that was close enough. I stirred that in. And then I tasted a small bite after I’d stirred very thoroughly. I needed more salt and pepper. I added, and then tasted it again. And it was good. It was really good. And I ate a huge bowl, and then another. And I felt happy. And I felt loved.

I made something for myself and myself only, and I remember feeling loved. Part of it was because it was a dish that I remembered my mother making for me, but most of it was that I felt nourished and I enjoyed taking very simple ingredients and turning them into something basic and delicious. It was surprising to find myself enjoying that I was cooking. And because I enjoyed it, and because I liked what I made, and because it was easy, I began to do it more.

I began to enjoy cooking for myself and I began to enjoy cooking for my roommates and occasionally friends. I gradually picked random dishes to learn to cook. There were many “it’s Friday night and I have a paper to write, perhaps I’ll make refried beans from scratch” instances. And each time I cooked something, I got less scared of the idea of cooking, and I learned to enjoy it more and more. And the more I enjoyed it, the more I decided to cook things I’d never eaten before.

I developed a love of cooking. It wasn’t something I’d always had, it was something I developed slowly as I felt elevated by my successes with food. It was something I grew into, not something I was born with. But it is something that has grown stronger as I’ve aged. And it is something that I’ve felt the need to share with others, to convince others who are skeptical, that cooking food can be a way to show love to people you care about.

And that seems obvious, right? I mean grandma baking 30 varieties of Christmas cookies and smiling as her children and grandchildren and neigbors weigh their options before choosing the cookie that matches their desires. This is an obvious way that a grandma (or someone like a grandma) is able to tell someone they care about them. Someone making a roasted chicken and smiling as dinner guests eat their first bite, is another example.

But since you know the person eating the food, it is easy to cook with love. How do you cook with love when you don’t know the person eating the food you’re preparing? Since a line cook never even sees the family eating the potatoes that were lovingly roasted and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and a dash of parsley, so how can that cook possibly cook with love? Is a cook like a prostitute? Doing something that makes the customer feel loved, while staying emotionally reserved themselves? Or is it the other way around? Is the line cook more likely to be the one cooking and loving while the eater chews mindlessly on the perfectly respectable potato while laughing and talking the loved ones sitting at their table?

In this relationship, how is food cooked with love? How does a line cook cook with love? This is the part that I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with. I’ve always said that I would hate being a professional cook, because I don’t like cooking for strangers. Cooking for people I know and care about is what I truly enjoy. And I think professional chefs cook with more love when cooking for people they know than cooking for strangers. But this doesn’t mean that cooking for strangers is always loveless cooking. I think a professional cook is able to cook with love even when cooking for a stranger. It is possible to care for people you don’t know. Don’t we all? Even though I know only a few Chicago Public Schools students, I care that they have teachers and libraries and librarians and healthy food and a safe space to learn and grow. My job requires me to pay attention to details, and those details make it slightly easier for students at a variety of school districts to learn easier. I use InDesign with love. Why can’t a cook do the same thing?

A cook can show love by verifying that each pan is clean at the end of a shift and ready to be used the next day as fresh as possible. A cook can show love for an anonymous patron by making sure to remove every bit of useable celery from each stalk, and saving the leaves to become part of a stock later on. A cook can show love by trimming just the fat from a steak, instead of trimming and wasting meat. A cook can show love by learning and knowing exactly when that pork chop needs to flip so each side is cooked exactly the same. By showing love for the ingredients, and continuing that love during the process of cooking, a cook or a chef shows love with each action or inaction.

And these are the types of expressions of love where a professional cook shows love with more ease than the average home cook. Because professional cooks do the same thing over and over and over until they have the technique down perfectly and as the technique improves, so does the speed. For a professional cook, it is possible to separate chicken wing segments in seconds, instead of a home cook who slices lightly, and then tests, and then slices and then tests, and then slices, etc. So professional chefs are able to show love to more people during any given period of time because of their experience. But a home cook is able to show more love to a few people even if they don’t do everything perfectly.

But it is possible for professional chefs to cook without love and for home cooks to cook without love as well. So the best way to cook with love, for anyone, is to enjoy each step of the process, even if you don’t like it. I hate cleaning pans, for example. But I love picking up a pan that is spotlessly clean and placing newly chopped ingredients into it. The secret to cooking well, is to pay attention to each step of the process, each ingredient that goes into a dish. Simply being aware. Cooking with love, is simply cooking with care for the ingredients, for the process, for the final outcome. Caring about the quality of the final product is cooking with love.

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08 February 12

Things I learned while making Kimchi Chigae

1. It is pronounced chee-gay, not chih-guy.
2. Kimchi juice is a great liquid for deglazing a pan.
3. People either love kimchi, hate it because they’ve tried and and don’t like it, or are afraid of it because it is weird. There are too many people who need to get over “weird”. Seriously. A peanut-butter and jelly sandwich is completely bonkers to a huge part of the world. Weird is relative.
4. This soup is totally perfect for: a) folks who are catching or getting over a cold; b) folks who are drunk
5. I know a lot more people who won’t eat shellfish or pork than I realized.
6. This soup is awesome and needs to be made frequently during this time of year.

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31 January 12

How to Make Bacon

Makin' Bacon

Making Bacon is so very, very much easier than you could possibly imagine. It takes a long time, this is true. This is not immediate gratification food, however good things are often very worth the wait. However, while you will be waiting anxiously, you won’t have to actually do that much work.

This is not a recipe, that can be gotten by reading a book or a website, but this is a breakdown of the necessary steps to show how easy it is to encourage you to do this yourself.

1. But a good quality pork belly. We purchased ours from Butcher & Larder. The pig came from Slagel Farms. This is more expensive than going to Jewel and buying pre-packaged bacon wrapped in plastic. But you’re doing this because the cost is worth the better taste payoff. Trust me!

2. Purchase pink curing Salt. We purchased ours from The Spice House. One ounce will be enough for 25 pounds of meat, so you don’t need much at all.

3. Mix your pink curing salt, sugar, and regular kosher or sea salt together. Measure this by weight. Add in flavorings. We used 1/4 cup maple syrup for 3 pounds of pork belly. Rosemary, thyme, citrus, anything could taste good.

4. Rub this seasoning/curing mix all over your pork. Put it in a very large plastic bag. Place this plastic bag in a cake pan or other item that will let it lie flat and catch any drips if you spring a leak.

5. Flip the bag over every 12 hours for 6-9 days. As the cure does its magic, it will make the meat firmer and firmer. Once it is firm, you’re ready to smoke.

6. Set up a smallish amount of coals in a tray with some hard wood chips, shavings, chunks, etc. We used apple from our very own backyard apple tree that we pruned and let season for a year. The were about 1” in diameter and 12” long. It doesn’t take much to create smoke. Light your coals, get the smoke going and set this to one side of your grill.

7. Place your meat over an area where it is not in direct heat. Stick a thermometer in it that is safe for leaving in the meat. Watch your meat and pull it when its internal temperature is 150˚F. You want to keep the temperature in your grill at 180˚F and 200˚F. This means you’ll have to peek in frequently and adjust the flue, and/or occasionally raise the lid to reduce the heat. It may even be a good idea to wait until the heat lowers to the desired range before you put your meat in.

8. Check your meat every 15-30 minutes to check for temperature fluctuations and add coals as needed.

9. If after 3 hours of smoking you don’t have the correct internal temperature, take it off the grill and put it in your oven at 200˚F until it is done.

10. Let it cool to touch. Remove the skin. Slice off a piece. Fry it gently over medium heat.

11. Eat. Shed tears of joy because it is the best bacon you’ve ever had.

So this isn’t easy. Bacon is a sometimes food and a sometimes project. But it is well worth the wait, the patience, and the time involved to get what you get.

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13 May 10

It's HEEERREE!

99-The Everything Cast-Iron Cookbook

My book is here. In my house. In my hand. In my kitchen. And it looks great and it makes me happy and I read the acknowledgments page and cried (again) and I reread parts and smiled. I’m proud of this. And while I understand if you don’t buy the book. I’d be delighted if you would actually purchase it. I have a pen specifically for making autographs that the delightful Veronica got me. I guess I should practice my signature a bit.

And, in case you’re interested in seeing more pictures of things I’ve made in cast-iron skillets, finding any errata that comes my attention, or links to other recipes, books, sellers, etc. then head on over to CinnamonCooper.com which is where I’ll be posting all the info that is fit to print to support the book.

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14 February 10

I AM AWESOME!

Successful poached eggs

Every once in a while I decide to try doing something that has seemed BIG and SCARY and totally out of my realm of abilities. And sometimes I fail so miserably that I never mention it again.

Tonight, however, tonight I succeeded with such amazing and total WIN that I had to share. I poached eggs. Successfully. On my first try! Take that Julia Child!

Now, it’s not like I came up with all the skills on my own, I had the internet to thank. But oh my word I’m so happy that I managed to poach 4 delicious eggs on my first try. So happy that I still have the taste of them in my mouth and yet I’m rushing to upload a picture and share it with you.

Awesomenss of a poached egg

The rest of the stuff under the egg looks less than tasty, but it was freakishly good. We had french fries that Andrew had left over from a visit to Five Guys (and this was only half of his leftovers!!!) and I’d put them in the freezer until I had time to make hash. So I pulled them out and let them thaw a bit, then I chopped them up so they were a bit smaller. I then cooked a few pieces of bacon, removed it from the skillet, and threw in 1/2 of a tube of chorizo and the chopped fries. They cooked in the bacon fat. I chopped up the bacon, threw it back in the pan. Easy, quick, leftovers be gone!! and yes, I can feel my pants getting tired and my heart clogging up a bit, but it’s okay because I AM AWESOME and I poached eggs.

I poached 4 eggs and they came out great on my first try. This is going to be an awesome, awesome week.

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08 January 10

Nil by Mouth

Roger Ebert (yes the movie guy) wrote a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday about how he will never eat or drink again, and how he doesn’t really miss it.

I’ve seen Ebert recently and he doesn’t look like the hot-blooded and kinda cantankerous guy that he once was that I watched on Saturday mornings as he argued with Siskel about whose opinion regarding a movie that I’d never end up seeing was better. But he didn’t look bad. He’s older than he was 25 years ago and he’s more frail, and he’s slower for sure. But he didn’t seem like he was miserable and just waiting to die. He was at a movie screening, so he is still able to do at least some of the things he truly enjoys.

But I read his piece about how he doesn’t miss eating. After all he doesn’t have to worry about gaining weight and he’s got more time now to do other things that he enjoys. And he writes about how his memories, some of which are food-related, are coming back with such strong force that he’s overwhelmed by them.

I’m blessed to have my health and the ability to make anything I want to eat (almost, really) but I just can’t fathom how he can lose the ability to eat and not miss it. Eating and food is something I enjoy so much that I just can’t imagine saying, “Oh, well since I don’t have to make dinner I guess I’ll just knit for another hour.” Knitting, sewing, writing, nothing, and I do mean nothing, could replace how much I enjoy eating.

After I read his article last night, I just shook my head repeatedly, completely unsure of how he can be okay with this. And then it dawned on me. He didn’t make his life eating and cooking. He made his life watching movies and writing and talking about them, criticizing and encouraging them. If I found out I could never watch another movie, I’d be sad and feel left out occasionally, but I don’t think I’d miss that nearly as much as I’d miss eating.

So eating is to Ebert, what movie-watching is to me. Which is cool, no? But it is especially interesting, since Ebert is writing a cookbook about rice-cookers.

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22 October 09

The Everything Cast Iron Cookbook: Coming Soon

Everything Cast-Iron Cookbook by Cinnamon Cooper

(I wrote this several days ago and honestly thought I’d posted it. Silly pending button right next to the Live button.)

A little while ago I chewed on my thumbnail and opened an email from my editor at Adams Media Group. I wasn’t sure how bad the edits would, how harsh the criticism, how lacking my writing skills. I had nothing to worry about. My charming editor (who I truly hope to meet one day) wrote me a gentle set of edits that needed to be made and edits she made that she’d like me to approve or rewrite. I started out nervous and ended up grateful. So I lengthened my Introduction (those of you who know me know how odd it is that I had to lengthen something I wrote), added in a few missing elements, approved some reordering and other very obvious edits. And then I returned the manuscript to my editor who will pass it on to the next editor.

She will make new changes and either send the manuscript back to me for more edits, or she’ll send it to a copyeditor who will go through it with furious red track changes and let me know how inconsistent my writing style was. I know what many of my inconsistencies are. I see them of course now after the manuscript is completely out of my control for a while. Kinda like all those time you think of that great comeback the day after you needed it.

But I’ll have at least one more round of edits and I’ll view F&Gs (pub geek speak for “fold and gathers”, or printer proofs), and then I’ll get the final book. And it will have that cover on it. And I like the cover. I was worried I would hate it, but I like it.

In case you’re interested, the book is available for presale on Amazon.com and on IndieBound as well. The book won’t be for sale until June, but that means that I’ve got several months to get a website together (very, very basic website) and do some promo work. I want this book to be hugely popular. That way, when I’m ready to do another one . . .

Yes, I said when. And no I’m not sure what it will be. And I will waffle back and forth between “of course” and “no, never” several times I’m sure. But right now I’m feeling very “of course” about it all. We’ll see how long that feeling lasts.

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14 October 09

Meditation with a knife

I had a crappy day. I was grumpy, on the verge of tears, tired, hungry, and torn between just curling up in a ball and staring at the wall and feeling like I had to do something, accomplish something get something done. And then I remembered there was a three pound wild boar shoulder roast thawing in the refrigerator. I had grand plans to make it Monday night after I went to the Gapers Block book club, but that didnt’ happen. And yesterday I was at work even later than I was tonight, so that didn’t happen so tonight I decided “Dammit! This WILL make me happy!”

So even though Andrew prodded me to eat something, and gave me a hug, and did his best to make me feel better, I insisted I was fine, ushered him out of the kitchen, and set to cleaning up from last night’s Bacon Jam fest (more to come on that!) and got my personal prep station ready.

It took a while, and if I’d been in a hurry, I would have been annoyed, but I carefully trimmed the boar shoulder of all fat and silver skin. I cut it into even-ish pieces. I seared them over medium high heat in just a touch of oil oil. I chopped a large Spanish onion the long way. I chopped a fennel bulb, which just isn’t easy. I sauteed those in the pan drippings and waited for them to just start to caramelize. Then I added half a head of garlic and then a glass of white wine (cause I didn’t have red open). I deglazed the pan to remove the fond, I hand crushed 2 large cans of the reddest, ripest, most aromatic canned tomatoes I’ve ever smelled (Go Certo!). I strirred in some dried basil, marjoram, salt, and pepper.

And by the time I was done and was wiping down my prep tools and the counter and watching the large pot full of rich tomato sauce simmer, I realized something. I did feel better. I didn’t feel great. I didn’t even feel friendly. But I did feel better. I had accomplished something.

And that’s when I realized that cooking is a meditation for me. The repetitive chopping, shredding, stirring, tasting. It’s all meditation. I was focused on the task in my hands, not on why my day was a mess. I was focused, but in a relaxed way, and I was letting my body work at a comfortable pace with no awareness of what was going on outside myself and my actions. (Except for making sure that Rocky The Impossible Kitten didn’t make it into the pile of meat scraps on the cutting board, that is.)

So whether it was the feeling that I did something, made something, took unusuable, unedible items and turned them into what smells like an amazing sauce for tomorrow night’s dinner, or whether it was just the doing and the relaxation and the focus, I’m not sure. But the end result is that I’m happier than I was at 7pm. And that is a good thing.

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