Friday, February 03, 2006

Tools for the distracted chef

Peeling ginger for dinner yesterday, I thought of the catchy names TV cooks use to describe themselves - the iron chef, the vegan chef, the naked chef. If I had a cooking show, what would my modifier moniker be? Moderate, messy, mayhem-causing....hmm. I stopped peeling and held the ginger to my nose like a spicy garni, knife set aside and forgotten, while I tried to untie my homemade mental knot.

Then it came to me. Distracted! I’d be the distracted chef!

I like to believe I come by this condition naturally. My paternal grandmother, after all, is famous in the family for reading novels while she cooked for her four children and husband, remarkably only burning the rice a few times. I used to read too, until that grim day when my favorite copy of Ali and Nino almost caught fire when I leaned too close to a burner while stirring and reading (and sniffing, I’d hit a sad part).

Just because I’ve banned books in the kitchen doesn’t mean I actually focus there now. In the middle of slicing veggies for dinner I’ll pop into the living room to build a tower with Caroline, when I double check a recipe on the computer I can never resist peeking into my email, or as happened yesterday, I‘ll stop and ponder a thought and get, yes, distracted. Recipe time estimates - "30 minutes tops!" "45 not including baking time" - never seem to apply to the recipes in our collection, at least when I’m at the counter.

To keep from having to call myself the "truly awful cook," or "the burnt and tasteless meals chef," I’ve come up with some strategies for manouevering somewhat successfully through dinner each night. For all you distracted chefs out there, here they are...

Gather before go: Before I start cooking I’ll arrange all the ingredients on the counter, mixing sauces and catching chopped garlic and ginger in small bowls, balancing larger ingredients on Caroline’s rainbow of plastic plates. It takes a while to get it all ready, but once everything is set out, running through a recipe is infinitely easier and I’m not so likely to forget an ingredient.

Automate: Because I’ve continued our family‘s tradition of eating rice nearly once a day, I love the rice cooker we bought last year at one of the local Vietnamese markets. Pour in the rice, click the button and it’s onto the next chore. Even Will, our counter space hoarder, is a cooker convert, and I always know that even if I let the pork saute too long, or forget a crucial ingredient in a casserole, at least the rice will be fluffy, hot and ready to eat come supper time.

Post in plain view and time everything: My current favorite tool is the stainless steel splashback I recently propped up behind the stove. Besides giving us something rewardingly shiny to polish once a week, the splashback keeps a timer in reach and recipes at eye level while cooking. So many of our recipes come from epicurious these days, I just print out what we’re cooking, make notes, and post each page on the splashback with the magnets we bought with the timer. The timer I set at each recipe step, so that it can count down to "earth to Julia, come back and cook!" And I do, really I do.

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Dana said...

Hi Julia,

Thanks for the great cooking tips! You mentioned Do you normally find ingredients easily here in Prague?


Julia said...

Unless I go really exotic I can find most ingredients or their variants here, but epicurious is also super because you can go to the store, buy what looks good, bring it home and then do a search through epicurious's database and find a recipe that will (at least mostly) match my random ingredients.