Crouching Tiger, Cooking Dolphin

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 42 comments

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.
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; 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.

Serves 4
(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

To make:
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.


  • Anonymous said...

    I guess for me, nature has more influence. Growing up, I was only exposed to a limited number of ingredients, but as soon as I started cooking on my own, I just could do it and create my own dishes. Of course, I did learn some basics from watching my mom and grandma but they didn't use any recipes ever. I actually have problems following recipes and this is why I don't make too many desserts. That Professional Pastry Chef cookbook I was looking at yesterday is just scary :)

  • Anonymous said...

    I guess I'm a little bit nature and a little bit nurture when it comes to cooking. I'll do solo runs but then I usually have the safety net of a recipe somewhere. My trouble is trying to remember what-exactly-it-was-I-did-that-time-when-it-tasted-so-good. My blog actually forces me to be a bit more precise about that now - my nature is to be terribly precise about a lot of things but often not so much when it comes to cooking! I also think that lots of practice and mastering a few techniques will go an awfully long way towards gaining dolphin status :)

    You might also be interested in Jenni's take here:

  • Laura said...

    Great post. I think I am more nature than nurture--but I am a cookbook addict AND I know how you feel because I am addicted to baking recipes. This past week I invented my own frosting and my own cookie, and am SO excited because it is the first time I have ever done any baking without a recipe. They both turned out great--there's a lesson here about just trusting your instincts I think. :)

  • Anonymous said...

    You are a riot! I too find great comfort in having a recipe in hand but after 20 years I have finally started being able to occasionally let go and create a new dish or at the very least read a bunch of versions of the same recipe and then create my own. This does come with time and practice although I do believe that there are those select few that are divinely blessed. The rest of us however just keep creating until we occasionally get it right. I think you did a great job with your slutty sardine dish! Good job!

  • Reeni said...

    I don't think your giving yourself enough credit. You merged two recipes together to make this dish, that counts for something. I cook a lot by intuition and visualizing a dishes look and flavor. Your dish looks delicious, love the last photo, so comforting!

  • Manang said...

    I think your perception and opinion of me is quite flawed. I, too, rely on recipes, which I try to tweak, and I make notes, then enter my final recipe into my blog, to refer to later on, so that I can duplicate whatever good results I come up with. Without my blog, I do feel lost (one time we lost internet, I was like a father waiting for a baby to be delivered!)
    Anyway, thanks...
    I have to tell you I admire your sense of humor! Do you write in any publication? You should.
    I noticed your census note on the sidebar...made me wonder why so few Filipinos actually open up a restaurant...maybe I should take a look of the census here and try opening up a restaurant...hmmm....

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

    Elra - This was my first time cooking with sardines (I don't think I'd even tasted it before!) and red pepper flakes are a current favorite ingredient.

    Joelen - I enjoy the variety on your blog and I keep hoping I'll get lucky on Freebie Fridays! It's great not only meeting other Filipina bloggers but also Chicago ones, too!

    5 Star - You are one of the bloggers I was thinking of as I wrote this. Your current recipe for Crispy Dlled Potato Cakes is a perfect example: I would've just said, "Hey, were having mashed potatoes again!" rather than come up with something new. Thanks for being an inspiration!

    Doggybloggy - When I saw that statement, I knew I needed it in my post. Thank you!

    Daily Spud - I feel like I know my techniques, flavors, and textures but they persistently remain separated in my head! I can't seem to combine them spontaneously the way you and others can. I'll keep trying, though, and having fun while I'm at it!

    Laura - Are you referring to your white chocolate buttercream frosting? Chocolate mint is my husbands favorite! I'll have to bookmark the recipe. Thanks for your words of encouragement regarding instinct. I suppose I'm too busy being worried to listen to it but I'm working on it!

    Danielle - Thanks! I think it was too easy for me to rely on convenience foods that reduced cooking to just re-heating on the stove or oven. Now, as I try to develop my skills, I'm having fun despite all of my complaints and whining!

    Selba - Thank you! The dish turned out even better than I'd hoped and was different from most pastas I've had (my favorites are the creamy ones!).

    Heather - I know what you mean! My husband picked up the tin of sardines thinking it was something else he craved (don't ask me what!). I didn't want to waste it but I honestly had no idea what it would taste like. Now I'm hooked!

    Reeni - Thank you! I'm sure this combo's been done many times before but I was happy that I pulled it off AND was able to use up ingredients that might have gone to waste!

    Manang - Although you may use recipes, I notice from your blog that you are willing to make changes to them or to adapt in new ways. If I find a recipe that might have one or two things I don't like, don't have or whatever, but it is otherwise very good, I end up rejecting it rather than trying to figure out a way to make it work for me. That's what I need to work on.

    Thank you for your kind compliment - I don't write regularly but I have written some freelance articles for a local women's newspaper and I'm hoping to submit some more this year (once I learn how to manage my time!). As for opening a restaurant, if you don't do it there, come here to MN - we need one desperately! Or, we should band together and petition the Philippine government to sponsor a tourism initiative to establish Filipino restaurants as a way to promote our culture through food. Thailand and Malaysia already do it, to great success!

  • Anonymous said...

    Tangled Noodle - oh, thank you so much! I just have to be creative in my house where my significant others don't eat leftovers and want new dishes everyday. I swear I only have a few favorites that they will eat regularly (once a month). A lot of times, my recipes, even really good ones, don't get used ever again. And here's a secret - they had no idea that the potatoes were leftover for the potato cakes :)

  • Bob said...

    Great post! It's hard to say which kind of cook I am. I have been cooking since I was little, with the encouragement of my mother, but most of my family, extended included, cooks. Maybe my tiger is nurturing my dolphin? ;)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - I promise not to reveal the potato secret! Maybe it's our family around us who are part of the secret of cooking. My husband is not terribly picky so a simple yet tasty meal is satisfactory to him - I challenge myself only once a week to try a new recipe. When my mother visits once a year, I'm always inspired by her ease in the kitchen but when she leaves, I fall back into my old patterns. So now, I draw that energy from fellow bloggers like you!

    Bob - Thanks! That's a great way of putting it - given the many cooks in your family, it must come naturally and yet you've also been doing it as a child. Quite honestly, my mom's a great cook but I can't say she encouraged or taught us in the kitchen - I didn't start 'cooking' until I was in high school, old enough to prepare some dinners when she'd be late from work.

    Phanitha - Thank you! My husband thought I actually referring to 'cooking' the dolphins! 8-)

  • The Beancounter said...

    Another great read! Funny, witty, and informative! I did not know that 'bout dolphins! I'll have to seek out this curator of mollusks next time i'm in Canberra. Thanks Tangled Noodle!

    As much as i would like to think cooking is a special talent (like singing) it is more like a skill that just improves with practice. I started young needing to fend for myself with no siblings to help me out...

  • pigpigscorner said...

    I really thought you were going to cook some dolphins! I guess it's both for me. I love cookbooks and browsing. I don't follow recipes as I like to adapt it to my own taste.My fiance is a picky eater as well, so I have to consider his as well.

    You did a great job here so I guess you are both!

  • Anonymous said...

    I think in addition to creativity many cooks who don't use recipes trust themselves and have a bit of an ego.

    I distinctly remember one of my chef instructors when I was getting my culinary degree catch me checking the temperature of a steak by cutting into the underside. He came over and told me sternly, if your confident its medium-rare, its medium-rare.

    Some recipes need to be followed exactly as written to make it work. Some need a little encouragement by the chef to be tweaked to make it more "me" or to take into account an allergy, or to be made better.

    Your stuff looks pretty amazing on the blog and I bet you are lot more creative in the kitchen than you give yourself credit for. Maybe you just need a little nudge...have your husband pick 10 ingredients and have yourself an iron chef with no recipes!

  • Anonymous said...

    This is a wonderful post! You are a fantastic writer.

    I think that you are also well on your way to becoming an intuitive cook. As you said in your post, you intuitively knew what flavors would go together. Now, all you need is the confidence to put them all together. And I think you're close!

    I think that, for the next phase in your "evolution", rather than focusing on the ingredient list in a recipe, you should focus more on the preparation part of the recipe--that way, you'll know procedures and can adapt them for whatever you happen to have on hand.

    You know the saying "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life?" The ingredient list is "give a man a fish" the preparation part is "teach a man to fish." Keep at it--I love your blog!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Many thanks for everyone's comments - I hope I don't sound like I'm "fishing" for compliments! [Groan]

    Beancounter - If you meet the mollusk curator, you must tell me about him! It seems like many of you started cooking at early ages which may have helped to make it a comfortable and 'natural' activity. I have to catch up!

    Pigpigscorner - That's so funny! My husband thought the exact same thing when he first read the title - he gave me a weird look as if to say, "You can't write about that!" 8-) Thanks for your comment!

    Gastroanthropologist - Your instructor's comment is a great thought for me to keep in mind! I tend to overthink as I cook, torn between sticking with the directions given ("bake for 25 mins) instead of being confident in my instinct. I recently let a gorgeous cake come close to burning b/c I didn't trust myself enough to change the baking time even though it seemed wrong to me.

    I like your idea of an iron chef challenge! Perhaps what I should do is join one of the food challenges I see among bloggers who are given a theme (not a recipe) and asked to create. Thanks so much for the words of encouragement!

    OPC - Thank you! I will keep that in mind - being more aware of preparation. Perhaps that's the reason why a lot of what I make tends to be stew or sauce type dishes b/c I focus on ingredients and want a method that is easy or secondary. I'm going to watch out for that for the next dish I prepare!

    Gera - It's seems weird at first but then why not? Dolphins have brains as big as humans'. I'm just upset that they can make calamari, which I've never done! BTW, thanks so much for including me on your list of blogs. Your recent post on aromas and scents is fascinating!

    Spryte - Thanks! I haven't forgotten your generous passing of awards to me: they're in my next post!!

    Chitra - You're welcome and thanks for your comments here! The puli saaru looks so delicious and soothing; the moment you mentioned rice, I started to get hungry for it!

  • Maria Verivaki said...

    my main problem with creativity in the kitchen is that my family may not eat it. there are times i get away with it and others when i dont, meaning that i end up eating the leftovers.

    i think the main rule to apply when being cretaive in the kitchen is to test and taste constantly when trying out ingredients in unconventional combinations. i came across a recipe that the author admitted was her own creation, which used mastic gum, chocolate, harissa, garlic, saffron, cream and yoghurt altogther in a meat sauce - i doubt that what she cooked was really acceptable, despite her efforts to prove that she did eat it!!!

  • Joie de vivre said...

    Hi Tangled! A Happy Valentines day to you and Mr. Noodle! (Do you ever watch Sesame Street? There is a character on Elmo's World whose name is Mr. Noodle. He doesn't speak, but instead goes through silly physical movements to answer questions. He's really quite a talented physical comedian so to say Mr. Noodle, I smile a little) Anyhooo.....

    The cookbook thing....I also read TONS of cookbooks. I used to be in two bookclubs but dropped out last year because I really only want to read cookbooks. It's hard to find other people who share that desire. Because of that, I think that the "natural" ability to put something together or to substitute an ingredient comes easier. I subliminally know what works because I've read so much. There is hope!

    Thirdly, your recipe for the sarde puttanesca is intriguing. I made a traditional pasta puttanesca a few months ago with anchovies that I posted on my site. My then pregnant sister was so enraptured that she made it a couple of times a week while she was preggo. I'm not only going to bookmark this recipe for myself, I will make it within the next week and let you know how it goes, I'm going to send it to her too!

  • The Duo Dishes said...

    A cook is a cook is a cook. If what you create makes folks happy, you are a cook in your heart and soul. We JUST talked about recipe adapation/creation/inspiration on our blog this week, and it's comforting to know that no one expects nor everyone is or can be recipe chemist concocting something original or out of the box all the time. We take from others, we learn, we change, we adopt and adapt. So that being said, keep doing you! Create what cook and cook what you create. And enjoy it. :)

  • Anonymous said...

    Well, missy--your innocent little post caused me to rant at great length--all for your benefit. Go take a look; I hope some of it resonates w/you and with others, too :)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Mediterranean Kiwi - It's tricky cooking for others, isn't it? On occassion, I've branched out and tried a new recipe that I could tell my husband wasn't all too thrilled about. Now, I have a good idea of his likes and dislikes and try to work w/in those parameters but as you've noted, it can put a damper on trying to be creative or trying out something news.

    I'm still quite conventional with flavor combos - I experiment when I've tasted something interesting elsewhere (someone else took the chance first!). As for the recipe you mentioned, I know enough to know, that's a lot of different tastes going on! 8-)

    Joie/Amanda - Thank you! I like reading cookbooks, too, and I go so far as to 'imagine' myself preparing a dish. I have definitely collected way more books, magazines and random recipes than I can ever hope to cook but perhaps I should be more conscious of how they're put together and see if I can pick up those techniques.

    As for the recipe, I hope you'll enjoy it! As I said in the blog, the challenge was to use what I already had so I didn't have the proper ingredients for either version. Although this was a 'smooshing' of the two, it still came out pretty well.

    Duo Dishes - How could I forget your blog post about "doing you"! I promised myself that I shouldn't compare myself to better cooks but rather learn from them instead. Thank you and your current posts on adaptation hits the spot!

    Onlinepastrychef - I'm headed there right now!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Chef d- It has that really nice salty flavor from the sardines and I'm so happy it turned out better than I'd hoped!

    Chef E - I don't know if I'd ever had sardines before but I really enjoyed them in this dish! Now, I think I'd like to try fresh sardines.

    Your poems was so lovely!

    Netts Nook - Your welcome and thank you for visiting. I just checked out your site as well and I must say, the chicken pot pie recipe immediately caught my attention!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Eric - You're welcome! This was my first time using sardines, canned or otherwise, and I was really impressed with the result. I received a comment from a Foodbuzz'er who said she had con le sarde in Sicily made with fruit - I think the contrast between sweet and salty would be really interesting!

    I've already started making plans on when to serve the polenta topped with bacon! 8-)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    WANF - Believe me, I'm scouting for fresh sardines! Thanks for visiting my site - I just visited yours and thought it is fantastic! I love the South American flavor of some of your posts (especially about cachaca!) and I look forward to going through the other entries more thoroughly.


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