Why do we get interested in cooking?
For me, early on it was the mudpie mentality. "Candy? You can make candy? I'm doin' that." I had made popcorn balls, saltwater taffy, caramel apples, lollipops and peanut brittle all before the age of 16. I loved the chem-lab aspect of it.
Later, cooking was about flavors, and for an untrained hippie cook, that usually meant knocking all the dried-out spices off the shelf and into the pot. Well, that, and actually learning how to get a pot of rice to cook right. Complicate things! Fun!
Then there was the phase of ethnic imitation. Homemade potstickers. Curry. Risotto. Ingredients? Whatever! Make substitutions, go on a scavenger hunt, but just do it.
I still like those foods. I'm not saying I'm any good at making them; they are a little time-consuming.
But this morning, reading Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef, I came across a quote from Thomas Keller that completely defined my lunch — and my cooking — today: "If I have a better product, I can be a better chef than you."
And today I was a better chef than you.
Lunch was buttered asparagus, previously blogged here. They are simply spears of perfect fresh asparagus rolled around in a buttery cast-iron skillet until they develop brown blisters. Accompanying the asparagus was stunning buttered baby carrots, cooked just the same way in a separate skillet.
The only seasoning was sea salt, applied at the table.
I think it would be immodest for me to tell you how we swooned and drooled and invoked metaphor after metaphor for the flavors of this simple, simple meal. (Oh, all right: "meat, cookies, butter, pudding, squash, mmmnngggh, unbelievably filling.") And how the house smelled afterward of an unknown, captivating, mingled scent, best described as "really damn fine food."
But the truth is, I did next to nothing to these simple ingredients. True, it was an inspired next-to-nothing, and I recommend the method. The secret, though, was that I had "a better product." Killer ingredients, right, Keller? Nature did most of the work. I just got it all hot and bothered.