From Jessica’s Kitchen — A couple years ago, Dennis and I were invited to a family’s home to learn how to prepare authentic Indian cuisine. We showed up with a bottle of wine and a blank notebook — eager to learn and taste. It was a collaborative process, with someone chopping onions and another peeling the ginger. Meanwhile, our instructor was busily hovering over the stove sprinkling an assortment of spices into the pan.
“Wait! What did you put in there? What’s that? How much? A pinch? You don’t measure? What are those seeds? How long do you simmer in the oil?” I was frantically watching, asking, and making a mess of notes on paper (I wish I knew how to write shorthand). If you looked away for a moment, you would risk missing out on a key element of the process.
I had no clue what she was making. Was it the beginning of a sauce? Or a stir fry for veggies? I eventually stopped; put my notebook down, and opened my eyes to absorb the entire experience. She wasn’t making a specific recipe from a cookbook. Nor was it a dish that you would find in an Indian restaurant. She started with the basic trio of onions, fresh ginger, and garlic. After that, she put in whatever food and spices she had on hand (in the pantry, the fridge, and the freezer). She didn’t go out of her way to buy ingredients at the grocery store to use for one single recipe. As she heated her pan, she looked through her kitchen to see what all was available. Frozen peas, a jar of cashews, fresh cilantro, cumin seeds, and more of which I can’t recall.
Then our journey at the stove changed course entirely. Within minutes, she took her ingredients and hot pan of flavorful goodness and poured it on top of a big bowl of cooked rice. Dennis had the honor of digging his hands into the rice and mixing it. Voilà…Indian spiced rice pilaf!
Odds are I’ll never be able to replicate our guru’s pilaf recipe again (above photo gallery shows my latest variation). Nor will I ever taste anything like it again. My incomplete notes full of chicken scratch laid to the side as we sat together to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Heading home, I kept reflecting on what I learned that night. No, it wasn’t the new “recipes.” Nor was is the types of ingredients we used. For me, it was the her entire philosophy. It was the experimental and instinctive approach she took to cooking, and making use of available ingredients. It wasn’t about perfection or precision.
After that night, I felt a sense of liberation in the kitchen. I came home to my kitchen will an entirely new perspective on cooking. Don’t get me wrong, I still obsess over recipes, cooking magazines, and constantly feed my addiction of buying cookbooks. They fill my mind with ideas and inspiration on techniques, flavor combinations, and cultural traditions.
When it’s time for dinner, I no longer go onto Google or flip through a Barefoot Contessa book. Instead, I poke my head in the pantry, open the freezer, and dive into the fridge. From there I piece together and design a meal. A little rocky at first, but over time this approach has become a natural way of cooking for me. Be warned: you will make mistakes along the way. Embrace them, and learn. You will also cook dishes that are “one of a kind” masterpiece (one of a kind; meaning you won’t remember exactly how you made it and you won’t be able to make it again.) I can’t begin tell you how many times I’ve made a soup or a sauce that was heavenly, yet I won’t ever be able to recreate it again. Oh well. It teaches me to stop and savor these moments.
Moving forward, I will be forever grateful to our Indian guru for what she taught me in the kitchen, and out.