As much as I love the computer, I also have a need to make things - real things, with my hands. Without a machine shop or an electronics bench, I turn my kitchen into my workshop, cranking out experimental tinkerings on the stove the same way I sawed, sanded, spackled, or painted (but with much more delicious results). It doesn't always work, but sometimes it does - cauliflower tossed with olive oil, slivers of garlic and curry powder, sprinkled with kosher salt and roasted, over a bowl of rice scented with coriander and a single bay leaf during cooking, with a drizzle of sesame oil and sesame seeds on top. Follow that with a soup of sauteed leeks simmered with potato cubes in vegetable broth, and you've just had an amazingly satisfying dinner. (Okay, I guess I should have eaten the soup course first, but the cauliflower finished before the soup did, I was hungry, and it all mushes together in your stomach anyway.)
Pasta carbonara last weekend was somewhat less successful; I enjoyed the creamy sauce (which was, essentially, "mix two eggs with herbs and toss the raw mixture onto cooked pasta so the heated noodles cook it through") but there weren't enough bacon bits to stud everything with nearly enough pockets of crumbly, salty flavor. Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) came through with surprising decency despite large amounts of improvisation. Sebastian's mom had made it for dinner one night when we were visiting, and I thought they were amazing - so last weekend I sent him shopping for ingredients so we could recreate the same. The eggs and onion he pulled out of the grocery bag looked normal, but there was a giant jug of applesauce ("It's the smallest one they had," Sebastian protested, "and the smaller snack packages gave you the same total amount of applesauce for twice the cost!") and a box of dried potato flakes, which we soon found out were not the same thing as potatoes. It tasted about right, but using a powdered root vegetable instead of a grated root vegetable made the pancakes crumbly.
After several potato-hash-producing mishaps, we scaled down our flipping ambitiousness to tiny pancakes (3-4 in a pan instead of one giant one) and managed to flip a few beautiful golden-brown specimens apiece before running out of batter. Served hot with cold applesauce spooned on top before each bite, they were delicious, but our skills paled in comparison to those of an Actual German Mother... which just means we need more practice. (Also, next time: REAL POTATOES.)
Dessert was brilliant, though. I'd brought the remnants of a bag of chocolate chips from Raleigh and spoiled half of it in a failed attempt to create a double boiler with a soup bowl in the pasta pot, which led to water spilling into the soup bowl and seizing up the whole mass. Still, I managed to coat an entire little tub of strawberries in the remainder (melted in the microwave this time) and pop them in the freezer. When Sebastian saw the chocolate-covered strawberries, he grabbed the little carton of heavy cream from the fridge and made some vanilla sauce (note to self: thank Verena profusely for no-cook vanilla sauce packets). This turned out to be one heck of an inspiration, because chocolate-covered strawberries with vanilla sauce poured over them is heaven. (Blueberries in vanilla sauce are also darn good, although he beat the heavy cream for that one so enthusiastically we ended up with something closer to vanilla-flavored whipped cream. I don't care. I'm officially a vanilla sauce addict.)
Back to this week: I made some curry and then realized I had run out of coconut milk, so I panicked and poured in water and soymilk instead - which added the necessary liquid, but none of the creamy mouthfeel. So when I spooned the curry onto rice for eating purposes afterwards, I also added a couple spoonfuls of mashed-up lentils. Bam: instant creaminess. I was quite proud.
And this morning, grating potatoes and frying them into a large crisp pancake, draping that over a bowl and filling it with a sort of hash of black beans, carrots, onions - except that before I poured the hash (it was pretty wet, somewhere between a hash and a stew) I poked two holes on top, dropped in two eggs, and sorta poached them. Soft white eggs atop a spicy black hash on top of crispy potatoes. Will definitely do this one again.
I'm pretty sure this cooking kick has something to do with reading Michael Ruhlman (and other books about going around the world and apprenticing as a cook, like The Saucier's Apprentice by Bob Spitz). Whenever I read books like that, I get the urge to grab a head of fennel, thinly shave it, and... do... something with it. Never mind that the only way I'd actually know how to identify a fennel is by its picture on Wikipedia (which looks like someone grafted dill atop the root end of a very dumpy piece of celery). I'm sure the internet would tell me what to do with it.
The thing I love about cooking as a thing-to-do is the same thing I loved about set construction, workshops for prototyping, and TAing lab classes. Instead of multiple pieces of furniture or prototypes or students, you have multiple pots simmering at once; you're constantly going around, improvising, tasting - ah, this is a bit off... now fixed! - cleaning, chopping, being struck by inspiration for what to do with that little bit of something in the fridge. It looks like a mess; it is a mess, it makes a mess - but there's a rhythm to the mess, and a pulse of glorious flavors and smells and textures, and you move through all of them like music. When I'm improvising food, flow state is easy; it's an attentive complexity that I love to handle.
I don't yet do it well. I've managed to get to the point where 99% of what I cook is edible; of that, about 10% is great, 30% is decent, and the remainder is at least nourishing without causing a gag reflex. But I don't know technique; I need to watch good cooks in action, figure out equipment (actually get myself that cast iron skillet Karlie recommended, and possibly a dutch oven). I'll have a kitchen in Indiana, I tell myself, for long enough that I may want more than one wok, one little soup pot, and a single baking pan. And Indianapolis has cooking classes...
The future looks delicious.