Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Zen and the Art of Following a Recipe

Last night I made Epicurious' version of chop suey, as per my meal plan. It seems a bit finicky, as it calls for a long list of vegetables, and instructs you to cook each one separately, one at a time, in your wok. I have made the recipe before when I was feeling more pressed for time and made an executive decision to combine the veggies into three groups--the ones that take a little longer to cook, like celery, onions and the bok choy ribs, and the ones that cook faster, i.e., green peppers, bok choy leaves and snow peas, and then the instant cook ones at the last minute—bean sprouts, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots.

Made that way, it was good enough to make again, I certainly wouldn't advise against going that route if you're feeling rushed. But this time I had more physical space and the time available, thanks to the boys both having a long nap at the same time. I decided to follow the recipe exactly, to see if it made a difference.

What I discovered is that the real difference between the two preparation methods lay in the cooking experience, rather than the eating experience. Standing over a hot wok and cooking one vegetable at a time felt somewhat meditative. Each vegetable has its own way of cooking (becoming translucent for onions, for example, or turning bright green in the case of the snow peas and green peppers), and spending time on each one gave me an opportunity to observe and think about the properties of each—the colour, the shape, how it cooked, and how it smelled. Each vegetable released its own particular aroma as it cooked.  I finished the dish feeling more reflective about my meal—and the art of cooking it—than when I'd started.

Did it make a difference to the flavour of the dish? Probably not a noticeable one. My family enjoyed it as much this time as they did the last time. But having undergone the cooking process, it felt more meaningful to me when I sat down to it. A luxurious experience to have in an otherwise hectic and distracting life.

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