cooking out loud…

…getting the sensory band back together.

We have at least 5 senses and it can be tricky to get them all firing at once. Guess what can do it? Food. Between my test kitchen adventures and the photography thereof, I’ve pretty much concentrated on only two, taste and sight. This weekend I began to notice the others and it all started with brownies. But first a little bit about zizzing.

I didn’t have the rebellious energy required to fully reinvent my summer holiday menu, but I wanted to zizz it up. I know “zizz” isn’t a real word. But to Louise of the East it is and I know exactly what she’s talking about when she uses it. As my work-wife, she’d speak of zizzing-up a story or a graphic piece or a photo. Sometimes my feeble attempts at makeup needed to be zizzed up. I believe I’ve already covered charcuterie boards, but same idea. As luck would have it, the simple act of zizzing is what that led me to explore the more subtle sensory components of my cooking routine: smell, sound and touch.

Memorial Day dinner: steak with umami butter sauce, broccoli salad, grilled baguettes, chile-lime watermelon, grilled nectarines & feta salad, grilled corn.

There is a saying in cooking, “you eat with your eyes first.” It’s a bit of a cliché, but it would seem that what we see, colors in particular, can change how we perceive flavors, which is simply information gathered from taste and smell. As a photographer learning to document my cooking, I completely agree. But on this terribly lazy Sunday afternoon Husband and Food Taster fake-casually wandered into my kitchen not because of anything they saw, but because of the smell of warm brownies that drifted through the house.

These particular brownies were monstrosities – I sliced them too early and was left with impossibly ugly, asymmetrical chunks that were poorly displayed (piled) on the still-gooey cutting board. They were gone in an hour. Why? The brownies were an unexpected delight that lived up to their irresistible scent, despite the underwhelming imagery. I zizzed up the afternoon with a wonderful smell.

brownie wads; still didn’t last the day

I’m not always graceful or tidy in the throws of cookery. I’m not quiet either – cooking tunes typically go to 11. However on Sunday as I was preheating for the brownies, the oven produced a loud BAM over the dulcet tones of Crazy Train. It was the sheet pan I had left on the bottom rack which warped when the oven hit 300°. It occurred to me that sound is definitely a factor in the cooking process, even if we don’t technically hear flavor. Cooking and eating rely on sound in very much the same way painting or chemistry might, in an extra-sensory way. How do you know a melon is ripe? Thump it. How do you judge the scald of fried chicken? The crunch. How do you know a 3-minute egg is done? Well, Love Train by the O’Jays is 2:56.

I once thought Emeril Legasse became a caricature of himself with that obnoxious “BAM” routine. It was loud and distracting, but perhaps that was his point. He seemed to capitalize on the auditory aspects of cooking – sizzling, crackling, pounding, rhythmic onion-dicing, the thuds of kneading bread or even the predictable clink of a wire wisk in motion. It was all part of his cooking schtick and it was fun, not taboo. Plus the theatrics behind yelling BAM suggested to the world that an emotional connection to food was more than okay – it was to be celebrated. If he could “take it up a notch” I could zizz.

much too much muchness, as my Aunt Cardo would say

While I can’t conjure up Emeril’s unbridled enthusiasm every day, how about that spontaneous little naan & Brie sammie I made myself last Friday? Not a big deal, but it was a delightfully surprising boost and just wacky enough to earn a smile. It was not an Emeril BAM! It was a bam, lowercase in every aspect. But for that moment alone in my kitchen, eating my fabulous, creamy invention hunched over the sink, it was utter perfection.

perfection in the moment: warm naan, a schmear of Brie, some sliced tomatoes, fresh rosemary, olive oil and a few grinds of pepper

This odd little sammie was a purely accidental experiment in textures. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to taste, but I had distinct a craving:

a soothing, gentle bite with aspects of rich comfort food punctuated by perky zingers that can withstand the soft pillow of warm bread and creamy cheese.

This was about touch and mouthfeel, an ugly and utilitarian description of what really can be a divine experience as multiple senses collide. The idea of “mouth watering” surely has its origins here.

Now that I had identified all 5 senses at work, I turned back to the actual menu. It’s hard to mess up a steak and it usually doesn’t require any extra help. Looking at the plate, I tried to make the meat an ensemble player rather than the star, for health reasons. So adding a sauce of roasted white miso paste pan-roasted in butter and sriracha might not have supported that cause. If I tucked it in with enough fruits and veggies I thought I’d be safe (and I was until we started dipping into the leftover sauce.) But those fruits and veggies needed to actually compete and not just sit like an unwanted shrub of kale or a tasteless mound of cole slaw. All this to say that despite the brownies and the steak sauce, I actually spent some time experimenting with fruits, herbs and spices. I zizzed:

I was once known for my homemade salsa cruda which was internally dubbed, Tia Betsy’s Salsa Meany, due to its deceptively subtle heat – it was a next day kind of thing. Summer salsas can range from sweet to firey but Sous Chef found a nice balance with this simple pineapple version. 2-3 cups of chopped fresh pineapple are zizzed up with a healthy half-cup of chopped cilantro, 1/4 cup of finely diced red onion, a minced jalapeño, and the juice of a fresh lime. It was hard not to just eat this on it’s own, however it is also dynamite as a functional relish.

I’m of that generation and region that was force-fed watermelon at every summer gathering. And it’s fine. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. I’ve tried to make it more interesting over the years with injections of vodka or crumbles of feta or even as frozen pops, gazpacho and margaritas. Meh. But this simple trick was an enlightenment: sliced jalapeños and a sprinkling of a chile-lime seasoning called Tajin, although Lawrey’s makes a version. Salt, citrus and heat bring out the sweetness in even the most stubborn late May melons.

I love grilled fruit, fruit with savory meats and fruit with cheese, but I stand alone in this household. I was always drawn to them as appetizers in restaurants to the point that with one glance at a menu Husband could guess my order. But I never made it at home. Times change and now all bets are off, so to speak. To my surprise everybody has played along pretty well, even Food Taster. I based this version on an apricot salad, but the nectarines were so aromatic right now that I couldn’t resist. Feta and prosciutto top the grilled fruit and arugula before the whole thing is drizzled in lemon juice and olive oil. It hits every note. Based on this recipe.

Asian broccoli slaw is a staple on the summer pot luck circuit with its reliance on bagged goods and premixed “spices.” This grownup version kindly discards the ramen packets for seasoned rice vinegar, sesame oil, lime juice and honey. Green onions act as a foil to the sweetness and also scare off the undeserving – I do love a side dish with high standards. 2 packages of dry noodles toasted with sesame seeds and pecans really expanded the crunchy mouthfeel in terms of texture, size and flavor, which is a subtle, but exponential improvement. Broccoli changes its entire demeanor in slaw form and I’m here for it. Based on this recipe.

The danger in firing all cylinders at once is creating a plate that is combative instead of complimentary. Maybe I’m easy because even the tiniest hint of a zizz can make me notice and smile – a greener green, a sweeter perfume, a deeper baseline, a softer silk pillowcase or a more succulent steak sauce. That said, by no means did I pause at every step to give thanks to the sensory gods. But I was far more conscious of cooking as multi-sensory activity. Perhaps that is why it has become a passion rather than merely a tasty but necessary chore.

I also zizzed a lot more than normal this weekend and made a quiet couple of days at home seem more like a BAM-worthy holiday, solemn as it is. With bright images, delicious scents, outrageous flavors, an array of textures and a flood of noise, I made my own serendipitous moments. Or maybe I simply noticed.

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