Friday, July 12, 2013

Culinary Aspirations

Well, it looks like last week was the week of crafting, and this week has been the week of writing.
I had lots of writing projects at the beginning of the week, which left me mentally drained by the end of each day. As a result, I've been a lazy blogger.
The last couple days however I've taken a break from all of my writing projects (not because they're done or anything - just because I can only think that hard for a few days before I need a break!). For two days now I've been focusing more on cooking.

Cooking truly is a joy to me. When I was in high school, I fully anticipated entering the culinary field as my life-long career. For an honor roll student this was apparently odd, and when some teachers heard I wanted to go to cooking school they tried to dissuade me from it, arguing that chemistry or English would be a much more 'deserving' job; if I didn't have to have a job cooking, then why would I settle for one?

Clearly those teachers didn't cook, themselves.

I moved away in anticipation of enrolling in a culinary program... just in time for them to cancel all correspondence and evening courses for that term. The reality was, I couldn't afford to live away from home and attend school full-time (any scholarships I had been eligible for wouldn't cover culinary training), so I had planned on working a 9-5 and taking classes in the evening. I had the job lined up, but no school. Time passed and I opted to move back home after a year and do business school instead. That was 7 years ago that I made that decision, and now with 3 kids, I can't foresee a point in the next 10 years at least that I'll be able to attend a culinary institution.

But that doesn't mean I can't learn more about cooking.

The internet is filled with tutorials, videos and articles aimed at technical instruction. What's the proper way to hold a chef's knife? How do you bone a duck? What's the ideal process for preparing sushi rice? I've never been to cooking school, but I've learned a thing or two about those subjects thanks to living in the 'information age'. A desire to learn need not go unquenched thanks to all of the resources available to us in this day and age.

I first started making a conscious effort to expand my skills and knowledge in middle school; I made bagels and caramels in my downtime, just to see how it worked. In high school I found employment in a café where I was the morning baker, the weekend kitchen manager and eventually the recipe tester and perfecter. I made batches of bread, muffins, scones and cookies every day, created paninis and salads for the lunch menu and learned to make a bounty of soups from scratch. I didn't play too much with cooking in my spare time at this point in my life - goodness knows I spent enough time in the kitchen working split-shifts and going to high school.
Through college I had more of a break from cooking, except when I could work it into some form of a school project, but when I got married the year I graduated from the business program, it was full speed ahead when it came to my kitchen experimentation.

For that first year of marriage I relied almost entirely on the internet for my recipes and inspiration, but when our first son was born I discovered the joy that is The Food Network. Watching Chef Michael Smith explain the simple framework of a recipe, and leave the doors open for any changes you could imagine... I was truly inspired. I perfected a few of my staple recipes like roast pork or chicken, and duck served in every way I could think of. To this day, I still find Chef Michael's Kitchen to be one of my favorite, most helpful resources. I like to buy exotic ingredients and figure out how to prepare them best. I dare myself to try new things - basically anything I can get my hands on in Hick-town, Alberta. This summer I'm looking forward to trying mussels, lobster, and squid, and today I bought a coconut and made fresh coconut milk and toasted coconut chips!

I've also worked hard over the last few years on expanding my knowledge of other regional cuisines; I've dabbled in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French and Vietnamese food to the point where I'm comfortable with the flavors and techniques involved. Pho is a regular menu item in our house, and it's not crazy for us to break out the escargot from time to time. Butter Chicken is a breeze now and sushi is easy enough for a weeknight meal.

But the next major step for me will be in the direction of molecular gastronomy. I recently came across the technique called 'spherification' by which you form tiny caviar-like beads by dripping liquid mixed with sodium alginate into a solution of water and calcium lactate (typically - you can use other agents, but the presence of calcium and acid are the essential components). So, you mean I can make Coconut Caviar? Oh my...
Another modern technique is foaming - which is all it sounds like: you turn things into foam. But it's the range of foods that people are turning into foam that's truly exciting: bacon foam, beetroot foam, fennel foam and lemongrass foam... I have lots of ideas for this. Picture a triple-layered 'cappuccino' dessert with a bottom layer of mocha pot de crème, a middle layer of almond milk custard and topped with a coffee and cream foam... preferably served in a sliced white chocolate "mug" so the layers are all visible. Oh my... I could have lots of fun with this.

In any event, my birthday wish list includes Sodium Alginate and Calcium Lactate, along with books on molecular gastronomy, and perhaps some textbooks from a culinary institution.

And who knows - maybe some day I'll finally get to cooking school, but I would hope by the time I get there, that I at least know the proper way to hold the knives.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

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