Cooking Creatively

There’s this web site called twitter. It’s at twitter.com. The purpose of it is to allow people to basically say what they’re up to in 140 characters or less. It also let’s you get an idea of what various people you’re interested in are doing. Not a site for complex philosophy, but it’s good to give you an idea of what’s happening in various people’s lives.

I’m on twitter as thefoodgeek, and various people interested in food follow what I say. One of these, called snitty, asked, “I can cook and bake, but not very creatively. Is there a book that will teach me some general theories that I can apply.” Now, there are simple answers to questions like that, and there are complex answers. The simple answer, I.e. The one I could give in 140 characters, was, “Alton Brown’s books, and Shirley O’Corriher’s Cookwise. However, the question is very interesting, so I figured it might be nice to explore it a bit here.

I’m not a terribly creative cook. I occasionally do some creative things, but I’m not that interested in the creativity, yet. I’m more on the path myself, so I figured I’d share what my path is, so people can follow, ignore, or avoid the path, as you see fit.

When I was younger, I experimented more with the cooking. Part of that is because I was a bachelor, and there’s a certain, oh, lack of concern about the way things have to be when you’re a bachelor. If you decide that perhaps peanut butter will go with hot dogs, you cook up a hot dog, slather some peanut butter on the bun, and see what you’ve created. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not.

This is a path many cooks take, some more successfully than others. Psychologists say that one of the big differences between people and animals is that people have this big section of the brain whose job is to pretend that what you’re imagining may happen in the future is actually happening, so you can react to it and accept or reject the plan depending on if you believe the outcome will be favorable or not.

The intuitive path is to engage this portion of your brain, and figure that’s enough to get you going. “I like eggs on my cheese, so what if I mixed the egg and cheese before I cook it, so the cheese will be all nicely melted in the eggy goodness?” If you’ve ever tried it, you know that the answer is, “The egg won’t set properly, and you’ll have this really nasty sort of not-quite-custard thing.” So sometimes you can predict well, and sometimes you can’t. People with a lot of talent at these predictions can go on to make great chefs.

So, what if you aren’t so good at that prediction? All is not lost. Logic can save the day in instances like these. Logic, practice, and experience.

The first step is to learn all of the basics. Learn what happens when you take some food and cook it various ways. Grilled meat, steamed vegetables, roasted vegetables, steamed meat, macerated fruits, baked bread, steamed bread, steamed and baked bread, broiled meat, pasta with a simple sauce, etc. Don’t do a fancy recipe, just get a decent example of whatever it is you’re cooking, and do the minimum that you can in order to cook it properly, so you can understand what it tastes like as well as the essential methods that get you to that point.

The next step is to try a variation or two on some of these recipes. This is more important with baking than it is with cooking, because there’s more controllable chemistry going on in baking, which you can mess up by being incautious. But still, see what a small or large variation of your favorite recipe might do.
After that, or during that process, I like to try to find out what’s really going on when I do things. This ingredient is thickening the sauce, but only when it hits a temperature near boiling. This ingredient is preventing the eggs from curdling. This ingredient and technique keeps the dough from becoming too tough.

The above steps are your foundation. If you are serious about what you’re doing, or maybe not even all that serious but with enough talent to make up for it, then you should be a great cook. You should be able to follow recipes and ready to ignore parts of the process because you know there’s a better way to do it, whether you’re right or not. However, that hasn’t quite gotten us to creative.
There are many paths to creativity. Many people see creativity as an inborn process that uses your instincts to see what you can do to make the world a more interesting place. It’s an interesting theory, but it’s not terribly useful for us. It’s a descriptive theory, to explain why creative people are creative: "Because they are."

If someone wants to take the next step, how to become creative if creativity is an inborn talent, generally the suggestion is to either do creative things (learn to paint, write a book), or to hang out with creative people and hope it soaks in.
On the other hand, you could look at creativity from the practical perspective: creativity is introducing other people to something they’ve not had a chance to experience. This perspective ignores the origin issue and gets to the effect. This perspective implies that there’s a mechanical process that can get you started on the path to creativity.

So, from a practical perspective, you have a number of options. Flavor pairings. Texture combinations. Deconstruction. Reconstruction. Desperation. Stealing. Baconizing. All of these are perfectly good tools for the creative process.

Flavor pairings. You have some strawberries. You know that strawberries goes well with cilantro, because you’ve read on some web site that strawberry and coriander go well together. Cilantro is often used in Tex-Mex food, such as salsa. Therefore, you may think, I could make a strawberry “salsa”. Find something to replace the onion, such as fennel. Maybe sneak in some balsamic vinegar. Maybe a chile or two for heat. Perhaps, instead of a corn chip, you use a madeleine as your salsa transportation device. Could be you’d want to try to make a taco with this, so you have to find a substitute for the meat. Or don’t, and use a meat that could handle the strawberry salsa. Maybe duck. Who knows?

That’s what flavor pairings do for you. You could start with a simple use, such as adding cilantro to your strawberry shortcakes to see what happens, but if you let it run away with you, you can make something crazy. Could be crazy-good, could be crazy-bad. If you’re willing to play, then you can find out. But don’t let one bad diversion keep you from trying.

Texture combinations. Mixing crunchy with smooth is a classic method of livening up a food stuff. Creme brulée works on this principal, as does putting potato chips on a roast beef sandwich. Oh, don’t try to tell me you’ve never tried it. In any case, take something smooth, and add crunch to it. Or vice versa.

Chocolate pudding. Smooth and creamy. Add something crunchy to it. Puffed rice cereal is one option (yes, I’m talking Rice Krispies®) would be quick and safe. But ginger goes well with chocolate. How about crystalized ginger? That gives flavor and texture. Maybe the pudding is too smooth to handle that, so you could try some crushed up oreos. Or toasted brioche.

Deconstruction and reconstruction. These are fun ones, and not too terribly difficult to try out. You say to yourself, “Hey, let’s pick a food and deconstruct it.” So, what if we tried…caesar salad. Great. You have lettuce, egg, anchovies, garlic, bread, parmesan cheese. Maybe some other stuff. Okay, the idea behind it is to have the anchovies (properly from the Worcestershire Sauce) provide some umami, egg providing a medium for flavor and for binding, garlic croutons for crunch, and parmesan cheese for favor. Oh, and the lettuce for, well, being lettuce. There we go, deconstructed. We could arrange for a dish to be somehow like this, but we could instead reconstruct it in a benign or a startling manner. Let’s swing towards startling.

Make some parmesan cheese crisps. Before they cool, roll them into tubes. Take an anchovy, dip in in flour then an egg wash, then garlic breadcrumbs. Fry it. Dash a little Worcestershire Sauce on it for good measure. Wrap it in lettuce, stuff into the parmesan crisp. Win your quick fire challenge.

Desperation. This is the favorite of college students and bachelors. You haven’t eaten in 18 hours. You have some pasta, some ranch dressing, and some bread. Toast the bread, pile some pasta in, add a dash of ranch, and watch Dr. Atkins scream at you from the spirit realm for the creation.

Not everything made in desperation has to be disgusting, of course. But you’re more likely to eat a mediocre-to-disgusting desperation dish than you are a badly executed flavor pairing dish. See what works from that, and what doesn’t. Salvage as best you can. What you’ll find from the pasta sandwich is that the warm and crispy toast sets off the squishy pasta well (as discussed above). Perhaps a warm pasta salad with croutons would be a better takeaway. Or a bruschetta pasta salad. Probably not so much to be done with the ranch dressing, despite what the Hidden Valley people want you to believe.

Stealing. Nigella Lawson has this fantastic Crab-Avocado Asian salad. Turn that into Asian Crab Cake Sandwich with Avocado. Steal, modify slightly, and introduce it to people who haven’t heard of it. Because, again, it’s not necessarily about making something that the world has never seen or tasted before, though that’s fun, too. It’s about being able to do something that you and your dinner guests haven’t done before.

Part of stealing is finding out what others are doing. Read books. Go to web sites.

[amtap book:isbn=0688102298]

[amtap book:isbn=0684800012]

Naturally, feel free to post more links in the comments if you have some.

Add bacon. Seriously. Everyone knows that everything goes better with bacon. Take a food that’s never seen bacon (to your knowledge, because it’s been done before, but still). Figure out how bacon would work with it. The larger exercise is taking a limited playing field (i.e. Must go with bacon) and turning it into a challenge. The best way to be creative is not to give yourself an unlimited playing field. That just leads to option paralysis (writer’s block). The best way is to force an artificial limit, and try to work within that (Iron Chef).

It's possible to become a more creative cook. There are plenty of techniques. Combine that with a good foundation in understanding the inner workings of food, or at least the outer working of food, then you can do amazing things in the kitchen.