Friday, September 24, 2010

Kitchen Witching

I am not a foodie.
I cook things out of boxes.
I use margarine & Pam.
While I know what a truffle is, and that the white ones are nice or something, I have no idea how to properly use white truffle oil.
I buy organic when it's convenient to my budget.

But I like to cook. I enjoy cooking shows, even if I can't imagine ever owning a spring form pan or Cuisinart, by which I mean food processor, no matter what brand. Because while Cuisinart may make other stuff... I really only call the food processor the Cuisinart... just like the mixer is the Kitchenaid.

I inherited my mother's inability to follow a recipe. Mom's a great cook, but she's a rule-breaker. She knows how food works, and what tastes good, so she reads the recipe, improvises with what she's got and makes things better. So, I don't follow recipes well either. I substitute. I guestimate. And worse, I try un-tested recipes on first-time dinner guests. (Thankfully, my friends like me well enough to try it, and I'm not afraid to order last-minute take-out.) Learning "family" recipes requires watching, and paying attention, and understanding that there is no reproducing exact results. You use "enough" salt, and stir until it "looks right" and that's where the magic of kitchen witching comes in.

While the term "kitchen witching" is new to me, the concept isn't.
Long before I knew how Mom made spaghetti, I knew how Grandma made biscuits. In the fridge is buttermilk, and above the stove is a Yuban can of bacon drippings. The cabinet across from the fridge had a pull-out shelf on which rested a giant ceramic-type bowl full of flour, and a sifter. Grandma would get the buttermilk from the fridge, and pour it into the bowl*, and stir until it made biscuits. Then she'd pinch off a bit, hand it to the nearest grandbaby to "roll 'em up, roll 'em up" and put it in the pan. Then the back of a spoon got dipped in the drippings and Grandma would pat the biscuts and in the oven they went. Best biscuits I"ve ever had.

Then, one day when I was 10 or so, my brother decided to fix a snack after school. He stared at the pantry & fridge, and made shrimp alfredo. Yeah, you heard me. Shrimp Alfredo. Out of a packet of ramen noodles, some cream cheese, frozen pre-cooked shrimps and I think ranch dressing. No lie. My brother is the MacGuyver of kitchen witching. His pork chops knock my socks off.

But he doesn't bake. Thankfully, his wife does. You haven't had cookies until you've had one of her cookies. She makes these honey cookies, and one time a white chocolate cranberry almond thing that nearly caused me to buy new pants. She has recipes. She's even read them once or twice. But she knows what makes cookies work, and then tinkers with the details.

I was bored with the recipes I knew one evening, and had a craving for chili-mac, only I really wanted enchiladas too, so I decided to put the two together... sort of. There was salsa, and cheese, and noodles, and chicken. Could I recreate it? Possibly. I don't think we have the same salsa, and I'm not sure how much of what I put in, but it wasn't terribly complicated.

My husband makes a fabulous stirfry out of ramen noodles, but he made this thing that we call Chicken O'Quinn one night when he didn't know what he wanted to make. We had chicken, and the ubiquitous cream of chicken soup, and bread. So he made little crouton things out of the bread. Yea... he did. Spiced with things that "smelled good." Nobody knows how to make it. We make it up as we go along every time.

Perhaps one of the best resources for kitchen witching stories is my friend Megan. I can't do justice to her retelling of how her grandmother instructs people how to make gumbo, but when asked how big a pot to use, she (apropriately) replies, "Well, how much gumbo do you need?" There's also a story about a turkey cooked in a busted oven which wound up being the most succulent thing to ever have had a feathered butt outside of Las Vegas, and it was a total accident. That's part of the magic--no right, no wrong, just go with it. Start with good stuff, have good tools, and if neither of those things are possible, work with what you've got until it's golden.

Which reminds me of Steel Magnolias. "It's just the easiest thing. A cup of sugar, a cup of flower, a cup of fruit cocktail, with the syrup. Mix it up & bake at 350 until gold & bubbly!"

Now, if anyone has ever made that dish, lemme know how it turns out. I've always wondered.

So, to put it more plainly, "kitchen witching" is the art of cooking with purpose, with love, with intent, and with a firm understanding of rudimentary kitchen chemistry & physics. Or at least an over-medium understanding. It's not about Martha Stuart perfection or Julia Child intricacy. It's not even about Alton Brown precision or Jamie Oliver simplicity. It's about food for the people you love. Making a meal out of what you've got. Taking the disparate ingredients and making something more than the sum of its parts, because you took the time to think it up, make it happen, and do it with love.

And if you're lucky, a really cool apron.

*In my adult-type years, Grandma has since told me that I'm skipping the step where she pours the buttermilk into a bowl with self-rising flour, baking... powder, or soda, and I know there's an important difference, but I don't remember which one it is... anyway, she makes the dough before putting it in the big bowl, and that's just to get it from doughy to biscuity...


beylit said...

"First you take a pot.."
"How big a pot?"
"Well how much gumbo do you want to make?"
"Well I don't know."
"Ok we will come back to the pot. First you make a roux..."
"What is a roux?"
"Nevermind, you can't make gumbo."

I can't tell you how many meals I serve that are pure kitchen withching. Whatever is in the pantry combined with some ingenuity and sheer will power and a good helping of love, and you have a meal to remember. Sometimes in that laughable way as you eat pizza instead, but more often than not in the wondering if you can ever reproduce such glory sort of way.

DrJ said...

Around here we tend to call such experiences the "Tour de Fridge". You take what the magic box offers and give it your best. In the end there is "Omelette del Sol" or Dr J's famous "Oriental Gnocchi ala King" or some such thing.......

Cheers, or as we say in Hamburg: "Guten Appetit!".

Linnea said...

Oriental Gnocchi ala King sounds fabulous! Next time I'm on the continent, I'll stop by and we can see what the Tour de Kitchen Witching can create!

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