I happen to live in the same state as Alana Chernila, author of the blog Eating from the Ground Up, The Homemade Kitchen, and most recently The Homemade Pantry, and used her cookbook release party as an excuse to visit the lovely Berkshires and be a blog fangirl. When it was my moment to chat with Alana as she signed my books, she asked me “What kind of cook are you?”. For someone who spends almost every waking hour of her day doing something food related, this should be a very simple question. But I stumbled. More out of shock that no one had asked me this before and I hadn’t thought to ask myself either. “What do you like to cook?” is the more common lead in with an ever-evolving answer. With a line behind me I more answered this question than the one asked, and said I like to cook with lots of vegetables. Not the most eloquent, but certainly a true answer.
Defining what kind of cook I am has been on my mind since the event (which was in October, and I’m sure will be an eternally ongoing question). The answer is still not complete and definitely not succinct, but it is forming. I am a cook that constantly tries new things. New recipes from new chefs with new ingredients. Dishes that I’ve read about but only tasted in my own kitchen. Processed items that I’ve bought and have a curiosity about how their made. Foods I’ve eaten someplace distant or at least inaccessible on a daily basis, and want to have again and again.
Depending on the recipe and mood, I made just read one for inspiration and then go on an entirely different track, half follow one and let my instinct direct me otherwise, or follow it exactly. It entirely depends on what kind of cooking I’m doing, how comfortable I am with the dish, and what my goal is (learn something new? just get dinner on the table?). I have great appreciation for well written recipes and when reading and writing recipes I want exact ingredients (weights please!!!), even if I don’t think you should always follow them (but they should be there for when you need to).
As mentioned in haste, vegetables are far and away my favorite food group to cook with and to eat. I relish the challenge of cooking one vegetable in it’s season as many ways as I can think of, to test out all its potential and keep dinner interesting. This is also how I get other people to eat eggplant repeatedly, even though it is never as much as I want to. Perhaps absurd to those who have to eat rice and beans out of necessity, I cook them constantly. The practicality, cheapness, stability, nutritional completeness, and varied cultural traditions that are packed into such an elementary dish make it endlessly pleasing to me.
I appreciate the art that food can be elevated to, and the influences of high end cuisine on more accessible restaurants and home kitchens. But the kind of cooking that means the most to me is practical home cooking, where you make substitutions with what you have and it is ok to use ingredients a bit past their prime to avoid throwing them out. Food that doesn’t have to be pretty, but is nourishing and more quietly delightful. I may get the most joy out of cooking when given a real life Iron Chef challenge: make something good to eat with only what you have here. Those meals may not go down as the best things I’ve ever eaten, but are when my skills are best used and I’m proudest of what I’ve made.
This may not be the kind of cook I am right now, but it is what I’m constantly aspiring to be: resourceful, creative, fearless, skilled, and practical. One that doesn’t waste, can adapt to people’s tastes, but also get them to try and like new ingredients and dishes. One that can pass on all of these skills to others. And one who can effectively translate these experiences from the kitchen onto a page. Alana, thanks for asking. What kind of cook are you?