December 07, 2006

The anti-recipe - a sensual journey through one woman's kitchen

Part two of the thought-provoking six-part Butterfly Effect meme has me pondering the single recipe or dish that has forever altered my "foodie life". This one's a challenge -- I can think of lots of candidates, most of them heirloom or signature dishes I've collected over the years from those who have most indelibly marked my journey with food:

The first and most obvious -- toothlatch -- the ricotta and chard ravioli that my family and I rolled out on an ironing board every Christmas season. A headliner on the Christmas Eve buffet table between the baccalau salad and the smoked salmon, my great grandmother's ravioli are the closest our family comes to an heirloom recipe -- at least from my father's side. But the story of passing the tradition on to my nephews will have to wait for another post...

From there the possibilities are endless: the neighbor who taught me how to make zucchini fritters from summer's bounty, Aunt Linda's signature torta di riso, Andy's grandmother's Rainier cherry pie, John's mom's saurbraten or her pommes frites.

Each of these dishes has its own story to tell (and tell it they will, in their own time). But after much deliberation, I decided the story behind THIS post lies in one of my first cooking classes at the hands and in the kitchen of my parents' friend Maria -- and her non-recipe for chiles rellenos.

At fourteen, I'd done my time as an American and Italian sous chef. My mirpoix passed both my father and Henriette's inspection for inclusion in the Thanksgiving stuffing. I could make a mean hollandaise and a bernaise sauce. And I'd assisted with prepping, rolling and stuffing several hundred pounds of the aforementioned toothlatch. I knew my way around a kitchen and a recipe. I was ready to broaden my horizons, tackle new techniques, new cuisines.

And Maria was happy to indulge me -- and to teach me how very much I didn't know.

In hindsight, I'm a bit embarrassed about how very little of Maria's story I know. She was born and raised in a small village of Mexico. Moving to California as a young adult in search of the proverbial American dream, she settled in Oakland where she lived for over 60 years -- and where she and her husband crossed paths with my parents and forged a lifelong friendship. I know she lived a difficult life in Mexico -- one she rarely spoke of. She was a strong, gentle, stoic woman -- a role model in ways it's taken me a lifetime to discover.

But back to the kitchen. That warm summer afternoon found me as confused as a Top Chef candidate staring at a vending machine searching for inspiration. Maria presented me with a list of ingredients. No quantities. No instructions. Just ingredients.

"What's this? a shopping list? Where's the recipe?"

She smiled her soft, patient smile and sighed, "There's no recipe." We were going to do this entirely by feel, by instinct. Gathering the chiles from the counter, the flour from the pantry, the eggs and cheese from the refrigerator, I knew I was out of my league. I also knew I was going to learn. I had no idea how very much.

I abandoned note taking almost immediately, realizing I'd miss more than I'd capture with that approach. In subsequent attempts to learn the kitchen secrets of my food friends I often employed a tape recorder. With Maria I simply stood back and absorbed as much as I could.

She taught me how to pick the best chiles from the batch, roast and peel them. How to determine when the egg whites had the right consistency. Where in the Mexican grocery to find the cheese -- no plain Monterey Jack would do. How to slice it so that it melted consistently. The proper proportion of egg yolk to flour -- and the pale lemon yellow of the yolk mixture when they had been beaten to perfection. Folding it all together and dipping in the stuffed chiles without breaking the batter. Frying them to crisp-tender and finishing them in a low oven.

I've made chiles rellenos a dozen or so times since that first lesson. I've almost always consulted a published recipe. But I've never used it as more than a guideline. More often than not, my result is a qualified success. And when it's not, I know why not. I added burned the chiles. Added too much flour to the egg yolk. The oil was too hot or not hot enough. And I can identify these same mistakes when I order them from a restaurant kitchen. I cannot eat a chile relleno without wondering what Maria would think.

Maria taught me that a large part of the cooking process is sensual, tactile. Not how much or how long or at what temperature. But how it looks, how it feels, how it tastes, how it smells. That's changed how I approach everything I make, from pancake batter to salad dressing. No matter how closely I follow the recipe, I also consider the texture, taste and color -- and I'm not afraid to adjust accordingly until it looks/feels/smells right.

You just can't get that out of a recipe or a cookbook. And although I don't have a treasured family recipe for Maria's chiles rellenos, I can't help but feel I have so very much more.

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