The Music Lesson

All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of  lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again.  The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees.  It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing. 

I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest.  Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb.  I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself.  It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other,  we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.

Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house.  Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard.  Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour.  So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on.  Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well.  Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.

As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet.  I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid.  I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well.   But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later,  I understood, I got it.

Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university.  He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students.  His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today,  “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”

I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook.  We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play.  While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t.  We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking.  Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment.   I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.

And in this is where the conundrum lies.

I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment.  I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen.   Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.

I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.

So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a  desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.

It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and  I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.

When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked.  I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out.  Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity.   At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes.  I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach.  My knife skills improve and I work on plating.  I want nothing more than to learn to cook.

My style at first is a conglomeration of  all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”.  It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience.  I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.  

I wasn’t born a chef.  I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.

 

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5 Resolutions to Make You a Better Home Cook (+ Pot-Roasted Collard Greens )

_TJH6714 (1)To be honest I lost interest in New Year’s Eve a long time ago. If memory serves me, the last New Year’s Eve I celebrated was sometime late last century. For that matter, I am not sure what year it was that I last made it to midnight.

It doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate, I do, I am just not in a rush to do so as the bell tolls. I guess I prefer to ease into it casually, like when my eyes pop open after a good night’s rest.

But let me just add: I am skeptical of New Year’s too. Maybe because we try to inject new vigor into failed promises, or because we also act as though eating a particular meal, either cleansing or lucky, is going give the rest of the year promise. The whole holiday feels dubious to me, with one exception: collard greens.

The caramelized smear on the bottom of the pot is an indication you collards are cooked perfectly.

The caramelized smear on the bottom of the pot is an indication you collards are cooked perfectly.

As always, combine collards with beans and rice and you can feel as though you are entering the new year at a low with nowhere to go but up. But there is another way of looking at it too. In my family, collard greens are not a one-hit wonder only to be served once during the year. Nor are they a fad. They are steadfast and as honest as the day is long. Sure you could hang out with the pretty people and eat kale, but kale isn’t collards. Neither are mustard or turnip greens. For me, because they are like the brainy girl who likes to read, collards are far more interesting. So much so that you want them around all year and with collards around there is no need to go up.

But, as always, sometime between Christmas and the new year I will put on the horsehair shirt, become all monkish and reflective, and try to set a direction for the new year ahead. I can assure you, in the kitchen, collards will act as a reliable compass.

 

Five Kitchen Resolutions for the New Year to Make You a Better Home Cook

1. Try to follow fewer fads and learn more technique. Take collards, for example. I had always simmered them in the typical manner with pork, pepper flakes, and liquid. While I still love cooking them this way, it wasn’t until I learned to pot-roast them vis-à-vis Thomas Keller that I picked up a new technique. And, I might add, one I am grateful to have in my tool kit.

2. It has been a battle this year with getting the kids to eat what is put in front of them, but, rather than forcing them to try new things, I am going to make more kid-friendly meals (that doesn’t mean junk) with the expectation they eat other meals without complaint. I also have this notion that if I feed them exotic foods all the time they will have to deal with the law of diminishing returns in that they will become bored with food. I also suppose I want them to have things left to explore and look forward to as they grow older.

3. Break out of your routine and explore other cuisines more often.

4. Choose three new dishes to master and do so. You know some say it takes cooking something a thousand times before you really understand how to cook it. While this might be a little extreme, I do like to be able to cook a dish multiple times and have it turn out the same each time. This takes practice.

5. Search out and explore five new ingredients.

Pot-Roasted Collard Greens ( Recipe adapted from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home )

Serves 4

8 cups collard greens, stems removed and leaves chopped into 1-inch squares, then rinsed twice and dried
1/2 cup bacon lardons
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Heat the oven to 300˚ F.
  2. Place a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven (with a tight-fitting lid) over medium heat. Add the bacon and let it start to render, then add the butter.
  3. Once the butter has melted, add half of the greens. Season them with a heavy pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir and turn under the greens so they are coated with fat. Add the rest of the greens and repeat the seasoning and turning.
  4. Cover the pot with the tight fitting lid and slide it into the oven. Roast for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the lid, and stir. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Put the lid back on and let the collards set until ready to serve.