Pasta con Sarde Puttanesca
I begin this post with a belated yet heartfelt 'thank you' to Manang Kusinera who passed the Lemonade Award to me several weeks ago. Her blog, Kusina ni Manang, features an array of excellent recipes, especially Filipino, as well as great slideshow tutorials to help novices like myself navigate more intricate techniques. I was particularly honored by her recognition because Manang (older sister in Ilocano, a Filipino language) is incredibly accomplished in the kitchen - cooking, baking and canning/preserving are all second nature to her.
Come to think of it, such talent seems to come naturally to so many of my fellow food bloggers. Post after post, I've come across the most fantastic dishes springing effortlessly from creative minds and skilled hands, and often created sans recipe. As I admire these beautifully crafted plates, I can't help but wonder: why can't I toss together a dish like that with such ease? The answer is all too sad and terribly true.
You see, I am an inveterate recipe reader, a captive of the cookbook. I can't function competently in the kitchen without having precise ingredients, exact measurements and to-the-second cooking times. Like a neurotic kindergartener, I need boundaries and parameters to keep me focused and it's been that way since, well, kindergarten. I was that kid who not only colored inside the lines, I actually re-traced them first to ensure total compliance. 'Inside the box' is my happy place, 'by the cookbook' is my mantra.
This reliance on structure is deeply ingrained in me, crowding out any free-spirited creativity that seems inherent in most talented cuisiniers. But I yearn for the culinary nonchalance that many of you possess - the ability to begin with a random assemblage of ingredients and end with a gourmet presentation. Is there any hope that I can learn to cook with such confident abandon or is it the luck of the genetic draw, a trait passed down on a molecular level to only a charmed and fortunate few? Is cookery a gift of nature or a product of nurture?
A recent tidbit of scientific news tips the scale in one direction:
Canberra (Reuters) - Dolphins are the chefs of the seas, having been seen going through precise and elaborate preparations to rid cuttlefish [related to octopus and squid] of ink and bone to produce a soft meal of calamari, Australian scientists say."It's a sign of how well their brains are developed. It's a pretty clever way to get pure calamari without all the horrible bits," Mark Norman, the curator of mollusks at Museum Victoria and a research team member, told the Canberra Times newspaper.
Stop mocking me (photo by Just Taken Pics)
Aside from wondering how one goes about becoming a curator of mollusks, my reaction to the news that Flipper is a better chef than me was to curse the Fates. If opposable thumbs, a subscription to Cooking Light and a set of All-Clad pans do not a good cook make, what chance do I have? In the gameshow of life, I'm the losing contestant on Are You Smarter Than a Marine Mammal?
It shouldn't be this way: if cooking is indeed instinctive and inheritable, then I certainly had a promising start with my mother, a masterful cook. And yet, instead of a lovely little cassoulet of DNA from which my sisters and I should have received equal portions, my parents produced a buffet of single-serve genetic traits. Eldest sister M received prime rib - the juicy ability to cook with enviable ease; to second sister L went the beauty of dessert while baby sis P picked up the creative artistry of a fusion dish. Me? I got the peas and carrots - an affinity for reading and writing - the kind of stuff you ate only because your mom made you. At least I'm smart, right? Just not as smart as a dolphin.
If it's all about having a natural gift for cookery, then I probably shouldn't aspire to more than being a very competent recipe follower. But what if it isn't? I found a glimmer of hope in a recent post, Wedding Balls, by the intrepid doggybloggy of Chez What? who wrote:
"By now you have figured out how I cook - no recipes. I know basically what goes into a dish and then I improvise based on what I have on hand. I have been reading cookbooks since 1973 so I have a lot in the old memory banks."
The first part seems to confirm the whole natural skills thing but it's the last sentence that really perked me up. Could it be that some accomplished cooks like doggybloggy have simply been at it longer than I, that their culinary expertise is the result of years of dedicated practice and knowledge acquisition, and not predestination? K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and a world-renowned 'expert on expertise', seems to think so. His research on expert performance and deliberate practice has found that presumably innate abilities actually take a lot of hard work. The gold standard is golf champion Tiger Woods, who undoubtedly possesses natural skill but whose legendary training regimen from childhood and iron discipline through adulthood underpin his awesome achievements. As Dr. Ericsson explained in a Fast Company article:
"With the exception of some sports, no characteristics of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level . . . Elite performers engage in what we call 'deliberate practice' - an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance."
He also noted in a CNN/Fortune story that such 'elite performers' practice daily for years on end, which goes a long way toward explaining not only Tiger's success but also that of super-bloggers (you know who you are!) who post a new dish practically every day, as the less-gifted of us clutch our whisks in envy. But if Dr. Ericsson is correct and it is possible to reach such a level of cooking skills with diligent study and practice, then there is hope for me yet. After all, I've been perusing cookbooks, recipe cards and food magazines for years - some of that must have rubbed off on my thought processes - and I've ramped up my cooking from just occasionally to several days of the week.
I decided to test myself against this hypothesis and see if I've retained enough knowledge from all of my recipe reading to keep the cookbook closed and cook on the fly. I took stock of pantry and fridge, and chose my fare: a can of sardines in tomato sauce (unopened but unlikely to be eaten soon), a half pound of linguine, a jar of olives and some leftover mushrooms from Pizza Night. Keeping in mind another key element to better performance, I employed a mental imagery of my final dish and imagined how the ingredients would come together in delicious harmony. I visualized . . . and visualized . . .
. . . and visualized myself right into booting up the laptop and Googling for a recipe. In the end, I was defeated by lingering self-doubt about my skills and the fear that I would literally make an inedible hash of it, thereby wasting perfectly good (for the time being) food and leaving Mr. Noodle hungry for the night. Until I learn how to quit you, cookbook, I need a recipe like a junkie needs methadone.
Still, I give myself a tiny fraction of credit for knowing enough to recognize that the above ingredients were complementary and for having adequate skill to produce, with a bit of guidance, a lovely little meal. While I fell short of effortless culinary artistry this time, I won't give up; I'll continue to read recipes and practice my techniques until I achieve the state of expertise I so admire in others. And on that day, I'll show those dolphins who's cooking.
Which kind of cook are you: Dolphin (nature) or Tiger (nurture)?
Linguine con Sarde Puttanesca
I found a recipe for pasta con sarde on RecipeZaar.com; at the same time, I recalled the wonderful puttanesca sauce my mother made during her visit last summer. Although I was missing key ingredients to make true versions of either sauces (no fennel for con sarde or anchovies for puttanesca), I had enough to merge them, both in form and name, resulting in a rich, savory taste and a surprising texture from the breadcrumb topping. And so, I give you Linguine con Sarde Puttanesca, which loosely translates into "pasta made with slutty sardines". Or something like that.
(Since I was trying to use up opened ingredients, I only had enough for 2 servings. The following is for a full recipe for 4)
1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Coarse salt and black pepper
2 medium shallots, sliced
1 cup plum or campari tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 (4 oz) tins of sardines in tomato sauce
1/2 - 3/4 cup olives, pitted and halved
1 - 2 cups baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 lb linguine, cooked to al dente
1. In a large skillet preheated to medium, add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and chopped garlic;
2. When garlic begins to sizzle, add breadcrumbs and stir until a deep golden color;
3. Add parsley and salt & pepper to taste; transfer mixture to a dish and set aside.
4. Return skillet to medium heat and add 3 Tbsps of olive oil; sauté shallots until golden;
5. Add sliced mushrooms and sauté until they start to soften;
6. Add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes soften and begin to break down;
7. Add sardines, stirring to break them up; olives and red pepper flakes;
8. Add wine and stir mixture well; bring to a gentle simmer for about 5 minutes;
9. Remove from heat. At this point, you may add the bread crumbs to the pan, tossing to thoroughly combine, and serve over linguine OR spoon the sauce over the linguine first, then top with breadcrumb mix.