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Cooking Diary, Part 1

If you don’t eat, you die. That’s primarily why I eat. Of course, if the experience can be pleasurable that’s all the better, but in general I sacrifice pleasure for speed. Left to my own devices, I would purchase a fridge only to keep beer cold, and probably never construct anything more elaborate than toast, or perhaps cereal. And I’d be happy that way, alternating one day between a sandwich so basic as to be barely worthy of the name and the most expensive restaurants in town the next.

Then I moved in with my then girlfriend, now wife. She is Belgian. Those that know Belgium and the Belgians will have more than an inkling of what is to come. To Belgians, food transcends everything else. They adore it, worship it, and are fine exponents of the art of making it. My attitude to food is a travesty, not to be taken seriously, an embarrassment. But it didn’t cause too much grief, because I do like to eat well; just given the choice between spending a hour of my life preparing food and an hour of my life doing just about anything else, I will invariably plump for the non-culinary option. So married life continued with me happily eating food prepared by my Belgian wife, and not helping very much in the purchase or preparation, other than duly driving, lifting bags and washing up. It probably comes as no great surprise that I didn’t bother to learn very much at all about food preparation. I could not even identify most raw ingredients, and never used an oven. Only one person has ever tried to teach me to cook, and that didn’t work because I wasn’t there to be taught to cook, but had ulterior and hopefully not too transparent motives.

There were the occasional forays into the world of food. Notable events that furthered my gastronomic knowledge and devalued my landlord’s assets included the Don’t Cut Toast Too Thick episode, the You Don’t Need Half Kilo Of Rice To Feed One Person disaster, and of course the Omelettes Don’t Need Two Cups of Milk epic. Whenever I read recipes they start off with instructions like “Fry….”. I’m at an immediate loss. How does one fry? What sort of pan, what heat? When it says “add” an ingredient, how does one do that exactly? I occasionally invested in books such as Cooking for Single People with No Skills At All but never read them.

Then our lives changed. A baby was due. And I felt duty-bound to make another of my periodic efforts to learn to cook. I was considering doing something about it when a friend, referred to as Obi Wan G, offered to assist. Clearly this could be a turning point. You see, a problem I have with cooking is its imprecision. I am by nature and by necessity of profession a logical, precise person of sorts, in general, and cooking is not. It’s all a bit of this, a bit of that, approximate the other and so on. And everyone assumes knowledge of what ingredients look like, and how to operate an oven. Mock not. Well, mock if it makes you happy.

Anyway, this opportunity was not to be missed. You see, Obi Wan G is of the same mindset and profession as myself, and is also an expert cook. Therefore, he is able to explain things in a manner which I can readily follow — that is, he relates everything to cars or computers —  and he also understands my need to understand the concepts behind the actions. This is very important to me. I remember concepts, not details. The details are stored electronically.

What follows is my Cooking Diary, a transition from food novice to food preparer.

To: Robert
From: Obi Wan G
Subject: It's time

Your first lesson on Tuesday - you don't need to bring anything. Have a think 
about the types of food you'd like to be able to cook - i.e. what would be most 
useful to you.

Cheers, g.

See, Obi Wan G has been clear about what he needs from me.  Being clear is not a trait I have come to associate with most people who possess cookery skills.

To: Obi Wan G
From: Robert
Subject: Re: It's time

Food. OK. I would like to learn to cook food that is:

- quick to prepare, 10 minutes or less would be great but I know that's out
- requires no exotic ingredients, I need to be able to pronounce everything so 
I can ask for it at the supermarket.
- is nourishing, or apparently so (so I don't get complaints)
- not going to decay quickly, so I can do some cooking and eat it later on. A shelf 
life of a year would be good.

Things to compromise on to achieve this:

- taste
- expense
- looks
Thanks

-- Robert

I can’t help being a consultant.  Notice how I have listed requirements and constraints.  If I had more time it would have been a full-on requirements traceabilty matrix.

To: Robert
From: Obi Wan G
Subject: Re: It's time

Fine for Tuesday - do you want to do this at your place or mine?

Obi Wan has little idea of my cooking abilities otherwise he’d never have offered use of his kitchen.  He’s a smart guy so I know he’s insured and my fame is not such that I get mentioned on insurance renewal notices.

To Obi Wan G From Robert

Whatever you think best. Bear in mind the only thing I can locate and identify in 
our kitchen is the sink. There are other devices and many strange jars of 
substances unknown too, and drawers full of exotic implements. Muriel also moves 
everything I do learn about, to keep me guessing. Cooks tend to be possessive 
about kitchens, I just thank god she doesn't mark her territory. 

I spoke to an old friend last night. She was amazed. First fatherhood, now cooking.
What, she wondered, could be next?

Cheers

-- 
Robert

The concept my learning to cook caused a variety of emotions amongst my friends; amusement, horror, and concern being the top three.

To: Robert 
From: Obi Wan G
Subject: It's time
OK, lets do it at my place

:) Cheers, g.

 

After the lesson. Try 1, Spaghettini.

Under pressure from my darling wife, and a growing realisation my nascent skills would die stillborn if unused, I selected Sunday night as the night to put my culinary skills to the test. I made sure I wasn’t hungry, the first-aid kits were within easy reach and the fire extinguisher handily but discreetly placed. First things first. Located all the ingredients, or to be precise, located all those I could find. Also found a frying pan, after opening and searching every cupboard in the kitchen. The cat wandered in and sat on a chair, looking impassive.

Located the herb cupboard. It smelt strange. Lots of little bottles. Finally found one marked Italian and Mixed, which seemed about right. All this exploration had given me an appetite. It had also taken about fifteen minutes. So I snacked on some fruit to give me the energy to cook. With all the raw components assembled, it was time to start.

The saucepan was placed on maximum heat. I like that, you can’t get it wrong. Maximum is good. Next came the Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The instructions said to fill the pan to a depth of 5mm. The angle of the light made it difficult to judge how much I’d put in, so I used a Microsoft Exchange beta CD to measure the depth. It was 5mm exactly. I swirled the oil around the pan. Felt important and cheffy. All was well. I even patted the cat.

Next was the garlic. The instructions said to crush a clove. I remembered how to crush, but not what a clove was. Two options; entire the spherical thing or the little pieces that actually made up the spherical thing. Logic came to the rescue. As I had been unable to locate any of the optional components such as the olives, compensation in the way of additional garlic would be required. Therefore, I would err on the side of increased size, and for the purposes of this cookery a clove would be the entire spherical wotsit. However, I only had one, so it would have to be a somewhat less garliky sauce than normal, as the instructions clearly stated two cloves. I recalled that cooking was not meant to be precise and felt safe. Crushed all the garlic. Placed the resulting mound on a little saucer. Emptied contents into super-hot saucepan and waited for the “release”.

The release came. Rushed blindly out of the kitchen to get fresh air, stumbling over the cat which was also heading for the exit or perhaps the next state.  Inhaled several tonnes of fresh air and emitted several lungfuls of garlic gas.  Returned to the scene. Inspected saucepan. The garlic seemed to be somewhat brown, and that didn’t seem right. Nor did the burning smell. A dim memory floated into my mind. “…and the only timely part…”. Aha. Perhaps I should have been quicker with the tomatoes, which were still waiting in the tins. Turned saucepan off heat. Emptied contents into sink. Theorized that the saucepan should be designed to handle instant transition from heat to cold, and so placed it under the tap. Made an interesting sizzle. Became rather too interesting and had to vacate kitchen again. Returned and washed saucepan.

Remembered we had an extractor or something similar, flicked random switches until something stated buzzing in an extractor-like manner. Restarted the whole process, with the Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Threw Exchange CD away as it was now oily, used Windows 2000 beta instead. This time, removed tops from cans of tomates and placed in a tactically quick-reaction position. Hunted garlic, located more hiding behind a jar. Crushed. Held breath as garlic released, looked away and thus stayed conscious. Hurled tomatoes into pan. Success!  Garlic burnout controlled. Disaster! Tomatoes were whole! Hasty perusal of instructions. They were clear. “if tomatoes are whole pummel and mash till saucelike” or words to that effect. Pummelling duly took place and reduced tomatoes to a sauce-like goo. Spaghetti time. Located the largest pot I could find. Partially filled it with water. Boiled kettle. Removed some spag from the packet, remembering the magic expanding properties of pasta (refer previous note on efforts to cook rice). The water boiled, and the spaghetti went in. Stirred frantically, not wishing it to stick. Kept pestering the sauce, which was simmering. The spag needed six minutes to cook, according to the packet, so I had another 5 minutes and 27 seconds left. The sauce also appeared to be ready and I remembered that it could stay that way for several minutes. Removed a strand of spag. Tasted undone. Threw it to the cat, who ignored it.

Became bored. Started reading 4WD magazine. Cat jumped on lap. Used it to clean my fingers. Cat jumped off and began licking itself, like the good self-cleaning mobile rag it is. Finished reading section on custom recovery hooks. Turned page and saw it was all about bush cooking. Flipped page over to find something more interesting, but felt strangely guilty about doing so. Found an article on How to Build a Rock Climber. I don’t want to, but I did want to know how.

A bubbling sound began to intrude upon my absorption with crawler gears and bashplates. I then recalled why the bush cooking article has caused that strange feeling, and rocketed back to the cooking station. The spaghetti was, I think, done. The sauce was still in stasis. All was well. Having cleverly pre-located in the sink a plastic receptacle with holes in it, the spag was duly thrown into said device and then back into its pot. Sauce added, and the resulting mess stirred. When thoroughly mixed a search was begun for a suitable spag lifting tool. A multi-pronged plastic fork seemed to be ideal, and dinner was served. Topped it with parmesan cheese (maybe that should be ‘drizzled’, seeing as I’m chef-mode), and served.

Long-suffering wife pronounced the meal “nice”, which would have been marginally more believable had she tasted it first. Still, no deaths, spasms, not even a delicate vomit. Food was edible, which was the intent. Wife complained about lack of vegetables. Pointed out that two entire cans of tomatoes had been used, so she had the equivalent of a complete can, and that while a tomato was biologically a fruit, for nutritional purposes it was close enough to a vegetable so she should stop whining and eat. Do not criticise my food unless you want an argument.

Next time I will:

1. Work out in advance what a clove is.

2. Ensure the tomatoes are ready.

3. Set timers so if I get bored and thus distracted I remember to continue cooking.

4. Switch on all the lights and extractor fans, or wear an industrial mask.

Try II

A head of garlic is the spherical object. Cloves are the components of the head. This was in the instructions, but I have also confirmed it verbally with Obi Wan G, who used his special tone of voice which is just on the edge of tolerant amusement.

I located the saucepan, and placed it on maximum heat. Also located the pot, filled it partially with water, and placed it on maximum heat. The only tool I had problems locating was the garlic crusher, which wasn’t where it was last time. See previous notes on wife’s territorial tendencies. Remembering the last time, also ensured that two cans of Roma tomatoes were opened, at the ready, to be emptied into the saucepan. Got garlic. Head of. Separated into components, also known as cloves. Prepared cloves by peeling them, cutting ends off and crushing them. Made a nice little mound of garlicness. Glugged some Extra Virgin Olive Oil into the pan. Wasn’t sure about the depth, so went in search of a spare CD. The Microsoft Windows 2000 Partner Readiness CD was this effort’s depth-gauge.

Returned to the pan, with CD in hand. Odd. I was sure I had covered the pan with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Yet it seemed to be somewhat less-covered than when I left it. No matter. I added extra Extra Virgin Olive Oil, reflecting for a moment on the amusing grammatical wordplay therein. The oil fizzled (I remember this on analysis later, not at the time). Threw garlic mound into saucepan. The release came. I was ready for it and countered smartly with the two cans of tomatoes.

What happened next is a little unclear, but in retrospect perhaps the tomatoes were thrown in a little enthusiastically, and some of the EVOO/tomato gloop went over the side of the pan. Anyway, something ignited because half-metre high flames don’t come from nowhere. Sauce went somewhere, which wasn’t in the plan, or the pan for that matter. The instructions didn’t say, but I was pretty sure the sauce was meant to stay in the pan till the end of proceedings. I was prepared for this. Spotaneous food combustion is, after all, nothing new for me. I’ve done it with everything I’ve cooked that involves heat. Quick as a flash I moved the pan off the heat, threw the nearest towelly thing in the sink (lucky for the cat it was elsewhere) and then onto the pan.

Muriel dashed in and reset the fire alarms, opened windows, and generally behaved calmly. Love her. Why can’t she be calm like this when we’re going sideways downhill in the 4WD? Disaster averted. Lesson learned; maximum heat is not always good. The heat had probably evaporated the EVOO I knew I’d put on there. Muriel departed. Being a good wife, she didn’t say a word.

To continue. The sauce was replaced on the heat, at a lower level, which is to say a level lower than molten lava.  Being a speed freak I really struggle with that fact I can’t make cooking quicker by using more heat.  Anyway, all was under control. I cleaned the towel, and the surrounds of the pan from the sauce spatters. The boiling water wasn’t quite, so I left that going.

Kept disturbing sauce, added some Italian Herbs to it. Removed sauce from sink taps. Took olives from fridge. Decided to halve them, because I could. Lined up ten or so, and selected a Chef’s Knife as the Instrument of Halving. Placed the tip of the knife in front of Olive 1, and rolled the Knife backwards so its full, evil, blade could bisect each olive. Most of the olives made a break for freedom, and weren’t even scratched. Clearly the angle of the cut was too acute. Tried a non-standard cutting technique; bringing the knife down hard from on high, to take them by surprise. Worked rather too well, as the two halves of the olive flew apart. I presume they flew apart because if they were still in the earth’s gravitational pull, I couldn’t find them. Perhaps they went into a black hole (I’ve just re-read A History of Time, and astrophysics is on the mind at the moment. Not that it helps with cooking.)

Took a break from olive cutting to pester the sauce some more. Then I made a start on cleaning removing sauce from the kitchen walls. Inspected the sauce again. The top of the sauce looked like the Exxon Valdez had been for a cruise on it. I am familiar with oils from experience with cars, and know a slick when I see one. This pointed to, perhaps, an excess of oil. A quick taste confirmed that should I continue cooking in this manner, Italy’s olive oil farmers would be ploughing their olive oil fields with Ferrari tractors. What to do? Things had gone too far to throw out. Fortunately, I had backup materiel. A extra can of tomatoes was pressed into action, and redressed the balance somewhat.

Finished returning the walls to their pre-sauce condition, began to de-sauce the ceiling. Checked the underside of the extractor for flame damage. None evident, and I do know what it looks and smells like. Muriel came back into the kitchen and expressed concern as to the level of water in the pot. I assured her the instructions was 20mm, and it was in fact 19mm, an inaccuracy I hadn’t bothered to correct because cooking isn’t meant to be precise anyway, and I didn’t want to melt my ruler. And who was she to know, she was not a student of Obi Wan G.

Everything was uneventful for a while. I threw a sauce-decorated newspaper in the bin, and scrubbed sauce off the kitchen chairs. The sauce in the pan appeared suitably thick, and even tasted reasonable. Spaghettini was inserted into the boiling water, and began to cook. I became bored again, but there was a BBC World Service discussion on scramjets. I amused myself by trying to find errors or simplifications in it. The presenter should have mentioned that the word ‘scramjet’ is a concatenation of supersonic combustion ramjet. Then it would have been obvious that scramjets wok at speeds as low as supersonic, not hypersonic as he stated. They can take you to hypersonic speeds, but not much further because of fuel ignition and shockwave problems. Hypersonic is in aerodynamic terms, around Mach 5 and supersonic is Mach 1.00000001 (approximately). To go quicker than scramjets one needs rockets, or alternatively a herd of cats that haven’t been fed for a day, hooked to a sleigh with the sound of a far-off can opener. Anyway, the presenter needed to get up to speed with his technical details. I had better leave this point because it has nothing to do with cooking, but I did find it interesting and as such could easily cover pages and pages on aerodynamics, or to be precise, aircraft propulsion systems. I also realise nobody else thinks this is interesting, which is your sad loss.

But, I digress, if you can call a discussion of scramjets in the middle of a cooking diary a digression.  To return to the subject. Whilst giving the spag another anti-sticking stir an errant strand stuck to my stirring implement. The usual quick-flick-of-the-wrist action didn’t dislodge the strand, but a more vigorous shaking action did persuade it to distenagle itself from my stir-stick. Where it went after that is something of mystery, but my theory of a small, but voracious black hole in the kitchen is gaining credence. It wasn’t the cat, as that animal was no doubt indulging in the far safer pursuit of sniffing my vehicle oil collection than being anywhere near my culinary efforts.

The remainder of the cooking effort passed without incident. I believe I have erased the last remnants of non-pan resident sauce from the kitchen. It’s a pity the resident black hole wasn’t partial to it.

When presented with the final product Muriel made lots of encouraging noises, and again I’d have been more convinced if she would have tasted it first.

But, to the main event. Two important points about this week’s cooking practice. Firstly, I have never had flames that tall. This is not something I wish to repeat.

Secondly, I have never before created anything that actually tastes good. That I do wish to repeat. I just hope the two points are not related.

From: Robert  
To: Obi Wan G
Subject: Cooking Diary

Another effort, another update. Fatherhood is already hard work and the thing is 
only a few centimetres long. I need that feedback, quick-smart!!!!

Cheers, 
-- Robert

Obi Wan came back with the wisdom.

From: Obi Wan G 
To: Robert
Subject: RE: Cooking Diary

OK, a few key points:

1. If you are in the kitchen cooking, you are in the kitchen cooking, not 
critiquing a presentation on aerodynamic theory, reading magazines, tormenting 
the cat or any other activities.

2. Do not, I repeat DO NOT leave a pan on the stove with oil in it. This is a very 
effective mechanism for starting a house fire. Note this is not listed anywhere 
as an objective (primary or otherwise) of cooking.

3. The instructions specifically state the frypan for the sauce is placed over 
MEDIUM heat, not maximum heat - hence your difficulty with the garlic carbonising 
(attempt 1) and the flames (attempt 2). The flaming technique is usually reserved 
for flambe - a somewhat more advanced technique we won't cover for some time 
yet... Note the high heat setting is required to get the pot of water for the 
pasta boiling.

4. The easy technique for pitting olives: use a cook's knife (one with a broad 
blade). Place the olive on the board, and place the flat of the knife blade on the 
olive. Press the blade firmly with the flat of the blade, applying pressure in a 
direction such that the vector is at a slight angle from vertical, and slightly 
off centre of the live (not through the pit in the middle). This will gently 
split the olive, and enable you to pull it apart with your fingers and remove the 
it. Repeat for remaining olives.

I note the cooking diary thus far makes no mention of salad preparation? Other 
than that, you seem to be getting the hang of it :)

Cheers, g.

OK, that’s something to work with. Obi Wan G is also a consultant, which is why he reflexively used the word ‘key’.  When you’re a consultant, everything is ‘key’ and everything can be leveraged.

Obi Wan had also taught me how to make a salad.  However, on the basis I am not a rabbit nor do I need to prepare food for one — in fact, rabbits make rather nice stews — I have not  exercised the nascent skill.

From: Robert
To: Obi Wan G
Subject: RE: Cooking Diary

> 1. If you are in the kitchen cooking, you are in the kitchen cooking, not   
> critiquing a presentation on aerodynamic theory, reading magazines, tormenting   
> the cat or any other activities. 

Fair point, but I get bored. I suppose the threat of disaster will have to keep 
me focused.

> 2. Do not, I repeat DO NOT leave a pan on the stove with oil in it. This is a  
> very  effective mechanism for starting a house fire. Note this is not listed  
> anywhere  as an objective (primary or otherwise) of cooking. 

So it seems. I thought I'd speed things up by going to max heat, then coming down 
after a few minutes, but I forgot to turn it down.

> 4. The easy technique for pitting olives: [..snip..] 

The olives were pitted, I wanted them halved to make them smaller.  I didn't want 
them dispatched to a parallel universe.  I shall try your technique.

> I note the cooking diary thus far makes no mention of salad preparation? Other   
> than that, you seem to be getting the hang of it :) 

No salad so far. I will try that though. When I try the spag for a third time I 
am sure it will all go smoothly. I'm amazed I have got this far, quite frankly. 
I hope to make tomorrow, but it looks very likely I'll be working late. 
Would next week be ok?

Thanks 

--
Robert

Try 3

Flames, 0 Unplanned kitchen exits, 0 Wasted ingredients, tonnes, 0 The least dramatic and most successful attempt yet. Bravely dived into unknown terrotiroty by trying pasta shells in place of spaghetini. And it worked! Simply boiled for the requisite 13 minutes, and all was al-dente.

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Robert Pepper

Automotive journalist, 4WD owner, driver trainer, author and photographer.