When I was eight, I sat at the piano, my fingers arched like spiders’ long legs above the keys, trying to hit all the notes correctly. For years I had asked for piano lessons, imagining the joy of sitting at the keyboard like Stevie Wonder, pounding away and bobbing my head. Instead, my teacher droned on about music theory before he ever let me touch the keys. And my fear of doing things incorrectly meant I didn’t really practice, which meant I never progressed beyond the first grade book of the John Thompson modern course for the piano.
I haven’t touched the piano in a couple of decades now.
Baseball? I could hit a whizzing triple down the third base line nearly every time I stood at the plate. And don’t bother trying to hit one past me at first base. I’d reach above my head and snag that line drive, then step triumphantly on the base before the surprised runner could turn back and hide. Double play, unassisted. I loved it every time.
But there’s no improvisation in baseball. The lines are straight, the rules are clear, and one team always wins.
Cooking, however, is one big improvisation around central themes. For years, I thought that good cooking meant finding the right recipe and following it exactly. This made me an uptight cook, chopping garlic with a rigid intensity, my fingers arched like they were on that keyboard. That’s not good cooking.
Sure, there are techniques and standard recipes and ratios to cooking. (And I would probably appreciate that music teacher’s insistence on music theory more as an adult than I did at 8.) But good cooking is about far more than numbers and tradition. These past few years, I have realized, my cooking has improved because I have played.
Mostly, I’ve watched my husband dance in front of the counter, his head bent down in concentration, but all his muscles loose and enjoying. He has taught me to not worry about being perfect but to smell the food instead.
And he introduced me to The Flavor Bible.
I have written about The Flavor Bible before, so I won’t repeat myself. Just know that this marvelous book lists most major ingredients available to home cooks, along with the other ingredients with which they pair. Pay attention to these flavor pairings and the techniques that work well with each ingredient, and you need never use a recipe again.
For example, if you have marjoram growing on your back deck right now, what should you do with it? Well, marjoram mixes particularly well with egg dishes, goat cheese, chicken, mushrooms, green salads, tomatoes, and thyme, among many others. What could you do with this information? You could make an omelet with goat cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and marjoram, along with a small salad of mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, and a thyme vinaigrette. If you know how to make an omelet, and a vinaigrette, you’re done. Just gather the ingredients and start cooking.
Or say you are at the farmers’ market, as we were two Saturdays ago, and you find fresh figs. The farmer who grew this luscious fruit tells you this is the last week she’ll have them available for the rest of the season. One of your best friends brought these figs to the canning party and made fig jam. You could do that again. Or, you could do something new, since you have a jar still in the fridge.
Danny cut figs into the summer quinoa salad we ate. We sliced them thin to top ice cream. We ate them out of hand, their soft pulpy flesh sweet and yielding. And then he wanted to do something else.
He pulled down The Flavor Bible and started looking at the list of ingredients that please figs no end. (The best friends are in bold.) Almonds, anise, blue cheese. Cinnamon, cream, honey, lemon zest. Mascarpone, olive oil, prosciutto, brown sugar, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, walnuts…
Danny lifted his head from the book and gave me that look. The “excited as a kid at Christmas clutching his GI Joe to his chest just after unwrapping it” look. He knew what to do.
“We’re going to pickle today.”
And so he pulled out the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. He ran outside to pick a bay leaf, some rosemary. He reached for the zester and de-nuded a lemon, quickly. I watched, laughing, learning more.
It has been hard to wait, the past week, for these pickled figs to be ready. But today, finally, Danny opened the jars.
“Oh mama,” he said, his playful moan. “Try these.”
Sweet and vinegary, clean and crisp. And oh, those seeds. They were sweeter in my teeth than I expected, punching out through the acidic taste. I was instantly addicted.
Now, we’re just trying to think about what to eat with the figs. I’m thinking a good, crumbly blue cheese, with slices of prosciutto nudged alongside, and roasted hazelnuts. Maybe some honey ice cream and the figs, with a drizzle of balsamic. Or a tart made with mascarpone cheese and an olive oil crust, the pickled figs dotting the top.
I imagined all those because I was reading the fig list in The Flavor Bible.
This week, The Flavor Bible celebrated its one-year anniversary of being published, and its one-year anniversary of being in the list of top 100 bestsellers all year long. (Good god. Any writer salivates to think of that.) Think of it a book like this making the bestseller list? We all must be cooking more at home now.
I love to think of it people playing in the kitchen, at their ease with flavors and making pickled figs.
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What has made you a better cook? (See this fascinating post on Metafilter to spark ideas. Danny and I talked about this all afternoon.)
And what do you like to eat with figs?