I looked at the rubbery chicken breast, sprinkled sparingly with flecks of yellow curry powder. Steam pillowed out of the crock pot. This didn’t look like the curried chicken at the Cantonese restaurant where I worked. It certainly didn’t smell like it either.
“Uh oh,” I heard as the door to our small apartment creaked open. My future husband James stood in the entry way, holding out a brown crumpled bag of greasy fast food burgers.
“I picked up dinner, but it smells like you’re cooking something…” he hesitated, coming in and closing the door.
“It’s wrong, though…” I said, placing the lid back on the crock pot. “I don’t know what I did. It’s curried chicken. What else goes in it aside from curry powder – and chicken?” I huffed.
“Ask the cooks tomorrow.” James dropped the burgers on our over crowded coffee table and sat down. I hesitated at the kitchen door, unsure of whether or not I should eat the tasteless, watery chicken, or the cheap greasy burger.
The burger won.
When we moved to Alberta, living in a neighbourhood with varied ethnicities gave me access to ingredients I didn’t know how to find in Nova Scotia’s small towns. It also gave me access to ingredients I had no idea how to use. Living in an unfamiliar city, and without a large social circle, I spent my weekends attempting to recreate the elegant and intricate dishes I watched on The Food Network during the week.
I began filling our cramped and disorganized kitchen with dim sum bamboo steamers and sushi kits. Bottles of soy sauce, marin, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, and rock sugar lined the cabinets.
James was patient with my latest hobby. He never said a word when my homemade hollandaise sauce turned to scrambled egg yolks, or when my fresh baked bread was so filled with yeast it rose up and hit the top elements inside the oven. He smiled and thanked me when I attempted homemade donuts, even though I had served him crispy over cooked rings of dough with chewy raw interiors. The time I cut into – what appeared to be – a perfectly roasted garlic chicken, and blood poured on to the platter, he calmly picked up the phone and ordered a pizza. Defeated, and partially enraged, I slammed the chicken into the garbage can – platter and all.
One February, I flicked aimlessly through our cable channels while listening to the sleet from another winter storm pelt against my bedroom window. A boisterous voice caught my attention on the black and white screen. A tall woman with short hair held out a trussed chicken, clumsily pushing it on to a rotisserie bar. With the occasional stumble of her words, causal demeanour and off shade sense of humour, she drew me in. Julia Childs appeared so unrehearsed, so confident, so genuine.
“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients,” she said.
It changed me.
The next day, with a renewed sense of determination, I took a new approach to cooking. I had to master the basics before I could learn the complexities of any gourmet cuisine. After all, what was the point in learning how to create a perfectly balanced, silky smooth hollandaise sauce for eggs benedict if I couldn’t even poach an egg? Why I was struggling with the buttery flakey pastry of profiteroles when I couldn’t even properly execute a loaf of white bread? Why did I think I could make homemade sushi when I couldn’t even properly cook rice? Having access to mirin and nori did not make me a sushi chef.
The following evening, I stood at the counter top with five knobby raw potatoes. I sliced them as thin as I could with my sharpest kitchen knife. I moved slowly, awkwardly, and without finesse. They smelled like earth, and perhaps for the first time, it consciously occurred to me that potatoes were roots. I planned to practice this again and again, until I could make a simple, perfect scalloped potato.
I focused on simpler techniques for two years. I practiced how to perfectly sear red meat on cast iron. I learned the importance of patting meat dry before searing, and the consequences of over crowding the pan. I studied the many variations of salt, the cooking times on poultry, how to balance a dish by adding acid or sugar, and how to poach an egg at a simmer. As often as I could, I included vegetables from our garden. I put an emphasis on fresh herbs, and presentation.
I documented my learning experiences with trumpet mushrooms, olive oil, and home grown tomatoes. As I improved, I celebrated the properly cooked turkeys, the tender red wine braised short ribs, and the hearty winter stews on social media. I was thrilled when a local newspaper asked to use some of my photos in their Gastropost section, and even more thrilled when my husband told me he preferred my homemade chicken parmesan over take out.
With a focus on simplicity and quality ingredients, I began to take on different challenges. I wanted to serve James bright ribbons of egg pasta from scratch, not from a cardboard box. I wanted to toss the crisp greens from our garden in creamy, tangy homemade Caesar dressing. I wanted to make marinara from scratch using fresh garlic, tomatoes, basil and olive oil. Humbled from my previous experiences, I began to cautiously expand my culinary skills.
By the time we moved back to Maritimes, I had developed an appreciation for ingredients and a passion for food. Nova Scotia gave me the opportunity to purchase fresh lobster, scallops and mussels from fishermen. It gifted me the vibrant root vegetables of the valley – and an acreage of our own to grow fresh herbs and plump vine vegetables. Teaching myself how to cook altered my perspective on food. Now, I pay attention to the quality of every single ingredient I use.
Eventually, I hope to be completely proficient in the culinary world. I have so much to learn, but now that I have studied the basics experimenting is more enjoyable. Until then, I will continue to appreciate the sizzle in the frying pan from smoking whole spices, the satisfaction of properly executing homemade mozzarella, and the gratification of picking my own fresh vegetables for meals.
After winning a contest with a local magazine based on a home made seafood pasta I made, a friend said it best: “food and art are essentially the same thing. But food is better, because it involves all your senses.” I have to agree.