Well, folks, the time has come for me to hit the pause button on my culinary evolution and step away from the plate so that I can properly digest all the food I’ve eaten and lessons I’ve learned.
Over the past nine months, I’ve cooked (or at least made an effort to cook) a total of 20 different dishes, all with the help of 16 of the finest chefs in town. I’d learned the proper way to handle a knife and how not to crack an egg. I was introduced to far more vegetables than I ever cared to meet. I ate things I previously wouldn’t have dared bring anywhere near my lips. I left every kitchen I walked into a mess.
Obviously, it’s the delicious free food that I’ll miss the most. But having a photographer lurk over my shoulder as I cook and then pose awkwardly with said dish (often mid-bite)? Yeah, I won’t miss that. It’ll be nice to eat food like a normal human again.
To ease the sting, I do have two parting gifts to leave you with. First, my most cheished family recipe, which prior to this column, was actually my only recipe: Mamma Finkbiner’s Black Eyed Peas and Rice. Second, the most valuable nuggets of wisdom bestowed—and sometimes forced—upon me in the hopes that they will benefit anyone out there as culinary challenged and confused as I.
1. You’re not an iron chef. Just accept it and try again. Looking back, I almost feel silly having honestly thought that I could quickly master the recipes of a professional. I stressed over every single measurement, ingredient and direction, only to wind up producing mediocre zucchini pasta and chicken enchiladas. It took me a little while to accept the concept of an exceptional dish being something you work to craft over time. The next time you feel like a complete failure in the kitchen, just know that somewhere in this city, at that very moment, there’s probably a renowned chef sitting around in his underwear shoveling massive spoonfuls of Lucky Charms into his mouth. Given that even the slightest alteration can wind up making or breaking a dish, a recipe sometimes can only take get you so far.
2. Quality ingredients should always be your utmost concern! It’s not always a guarantee that you’re getting what you pay for, but in the end, either your wallet or taste buds will pay. Given the cruel irony that writing about food doesn’t necessarily yield the means for me to afford premium, organic products, I’ve been trying to make a habit of splurging a little extra on key ingredients like tomato sauce, cheese and bread while sticking to cheapy generic brands when it comes to the more inconsequential stuff.
3. Salt is a cook’s best friend. Being generous with salt ensures that the flavors develop to their fullest potential.
4. Your brain and your taste buds aren’t always on the same page. It’s been a constant struggle for me to really make sense of why I’ve unfairly rejected certain foods over the years, or why I think certain ingredients don’t go with another. For a self-proclaimed “picky eater,” it speaks volumes that I enjoyed all but one of the 20 dishes I’ve made.
I may still be totally forking stupid, but there’s hope for me yet.
Mama Finkbiner's Black Eyed Peas and Rice
½ lb black eyed peas
2 cups long grain white rice
1 stick of margarine
½ dry onion
2 tbps salt
pinch of ground red pepper/cayenne pepper
1. Fill a 3 ½-4 quart pot with a lid ¾ way to the top with water and soak peas overnight.
2. The next day, check to make sure there’s enough water in the pot then bring to a boil and then lower flame to simmer with the lid on. Cook peas for two hours and do not open the lid.
3. After two hours, bring water back up to a boil. Add rice, margarine, onion and red pepper. Put the lid back on, turn down the flame then simmer for 20 minutes.
4. After 20 minutes, check to make sure the water has evaporated. If not, continue to simmer, checking every two minutes till it’s done.
Find all the recipes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far as forkingstupid.com.
Dinner with Luke Palladino