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Yes, it’s about cooking. It’s also about life. Savoring the flavors of living through food and the company that surrounds the sharing of meals and culture. I’m sitting here thinking of all the flavors I did not experience during the early years of my life and all the fun I have had since then exploring the many cultures and cuisines of the world.
For instance, I had been an adult at least a decade before I ever heard of saffron, that heavenly red/yellow spice from the Middle East. This is most likely due to its expense and exotic nature. My mother cooked sturdy New England meals—various mixtures of meat and potatoes, a smattering of vegetables from a limited, rotating selection, with a good dose of salt and pepper. She might have had cinnamon in the cupboard, but it would have been frowned upon to add some to the stew pot. My best friend Sharon grew up with her Finnish grandmother, who whipped up food from her world of flavors for her family and me, a teenager hungry for a change in cuisine. Though it’s been nearly 50 years, I can still recall the taste of her nissua bread. I’m guessing now, as I peruse recipes for it, that this was my first taste of cardamom.
I never had a family cook to guide me into the complexities of creating flavorful meals. As I entered my own years of cooking for myself and others, I looked around for some inspiration. Back then, I was aware of only two TV chefs: Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet, both aired before my forays into cooking. My mother would never have had time for such frippery. I decided to launch my flavor investigations into the ever-growing diversity of the Houston restaurant scene instead of seeking out televised instructions. As any global traveler can tell you, that’s the only way to learn. Luckily, I didn’t have to venture out to far-flung corners of the world to encounter the cultures which would influence my cooking. They were within driving distance.
When I left home, I was quite inept at my first attempts at preparing any repast of a “foreign” nature. I knew I had found a certain sophistication when I discovered pesto. When I ran it by a coworker, and she exclaimed “spaghetti ain’t green,” I instinctively felt I was onto something new and wonderful that other home cooks had known for centuries. I wanted to learn how to make it and explore the myriad possibilities for adding it into my flavor arsenal. The word seasoning began to creep into my vocabulary. As I began trying new foods and learning how spices and other flavor enhancers worked together to deliver the essence of the world’s most popular cuisines, I fell in love with cooking.
What cooks have learned about flavor over the centuries now has scientists telling us how it all works. It takes a bit of the beauty and mystique out of creating a gourmet meal, but also explains why things taste like they do for you analytical lab-rat types. Umami is one of those tastes that got its name from the Japanese over a hundred years ago, but has just recently been given due attention by the scientific and culinary worlds. As one of the tastes the human tongue has the capacity to experience (the others being salty, sweet, sour and bitter), umami has emerged on the food scene as that thing that must be built into your savory dishes. It literally means savory in Japanese. Some say it means “meaty,” which is an abomination to us vegetarians. I have taken the position that umami is whatever doesn’t fall into any of the other four tastes, which leaves it pretty wide open to include all the wonderful edibles on the planet.
Since my cultural culinary experimentations (eating and cooking) have widened and diversified over the years, I find myself willing to go all out on a semi-regular basis and cook a few extravagant meals from time to time. This might require a trip to the Asian market or the Indian grocery store—both within walking distance, as is the Mexican shop. I’m lucky to have landed in such a superb, little diverse corner of the mountains. Of course, shopping online for exotic foodstuff is the quickest and most convenient method for procuring those ingredients I never heard of, but not the most fun way to explore and acquire. The checkout cart icon never asks me what I am going to be making with that togarashi.
I received, as a gift, a cookbook which really challenges my culinary skills. Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen by Richa Hingle might cause lesser cooks to go scurrying for a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The first recipe I tried was entitled Kofta Balls in Nut-Free Cream Sauce aka Malai Kofta. It had 31 ingredients listed, 12 of which were spices, 6 of which I did not have in my spice cabinet. So, off I went to the Indian grocery. Did I even know what asafetida was? No. My neighborhood grocer knew right away and sold me a bottle of that vile smelling stuff, which permeated my cupboard for days before I realized which spicy thing was desecrating my sacred space and encased it in a heavy glass jar. Later I read that if you have garlic and/or leeks in your dish, you can omit Mr. Stinky from your recipe. I still have it in the back of my pantry. Way in the back.
To make my time-consuming (but delicious) Indian meal, I bought fenugreek leaves, garam masala, paprika, cumin seeds and some brown mustard seeds even though I did not need them for this recipe. It was like being a kid in a candy store as the very knowledgeable store owner explained what this or that was for. I made the meal in 2 hours and 15 minutes. The only thing I lacked was the fancy serving dish pictured along with the recipe. I did not see the need to question whether my final product rivaled its restaurant equivalent as I had never eaten it in any Indian restaurant—I’ve been to quite a few, second only to the number of Mexican restaurants in which I have gorged.
When inquiries are made as to when dinner will be ready, a shrug from the distracted cook means this is not a good time to ask that question. I may be heavily into a concoction that requires multiple steps, three of which I did early that morning which helped some, but preparations sometimes take longer to accomplish than I estimate. Some recipes give an amount of time one might spend on making the delightful feast, but I don’t ever count on that. Perfection cannot be rushed. If I have a strict timeline, I’ll make it the day before so I can spend more time chatting with company as I heat up the food and drink a glass of wine.
Between meal preparations I manage to get some writing done. Today, as I scribble out these pages, I marvel over the explosion in popularity of cooking over the past twenty years or so. The cooking shows make me feel inadequate, but a plethora of cookbooks allows me to explore and experiment on my own. The accessibility of spices and other ingredients my mother never heard of has grown as well. I can buy saffron at Publix these days, but I choose to shop at my local food co-op, which has the largest bulk section of spices I have ever seen. My latest go-to spices are allspice, a great addition to all those pumpkin-flavored (umami) seasonal eats and smoked paprika, the latest fad in cooking circles. It tastes great in a barbequed jackfruit sandwich or even in Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
My years of Tex-Mex cooking, along with delving into my latest cultural food obsessions have certainly added to the sabor (flavor) of both the meals and the fun surrounding them. Is it any wonder why spice is the metaphor for the most engaging aspects of life?
Well-seasoned hugs from the Hobbit House kitchen,