Cooking Lessons

Good morning, class. I’m glad to see all of you here with your aprons on and spatulas in hand, ready to learn the ABC’s of the fine art of cooking. You’ll forgive me if I throw in a few words of homespun wisdom from time to time, won’t you? I find the kitchen a perfect little microcosm of real life. There are plenty of lessons to be learned there, and not all of them about gourmet cuisine.

As members of the Jewish people, our festivals are accompanied by plenty of good food. Certain times of year, we are called upon to cook up a storm. Some people have a habit of cooking up the wrong kind of storm. Are you familiar with the expression “a storm in a teacup”? Think about someone you know (it could even be yourself) who has a tendency to blow things up just like a hurricane huffing and puffing over the Atlantic. When she decides to make landfall, watch out! She can make an entire sound-and-light show out of virtually nothing. A wrong word, a wrong look, a simple oversight, anything can precipitate a tornado.

But back to the kitchen. There are some wonderful tools that can help make your cooking experience a delight. One of them is a food processor. It really pays to learn how to process things before we react to them. Throw all the facts in, grind them up finely, analyze well and mix with a pinch of wisdom and forbearance. The results will be much more palatable than if you jump to conclusions and allow those conclusions to give free rein to your tongue!

A pressure cooker is another useful tool. The buildup of pressure inside the pot cuts down your cooking time by a substantial margin. But don’t make the mistake of pressure-cooking those around you in real life! Nobody wants to be strong-armed into doing, thinking or feeling exactly like you. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, either, by comparing yourself to other people. My advice? Relax. Dial down the pressure. Look into your own pot, not your neighbor’s, and everything will go more smoothly. That’s a promise!

Here’s another handy-dandy kitchen implement: a long wooden spoon. It’s used for stirring things around in the pot. Don’t we all know people like that? A “kuchlefel,” such a person used to be called; someone who was always stirring things up, usually conflict and controversy, with a hefty seasoning of gossip. Here’s a tip: use your lefel for cooking up delicious dinners, not for mixing into things that don’t concern you or stirring the broth of machlokes. That’ll just make your whole kitchen smell bad.

A stewpot is nice to have on hand. You can throw all sorts of things into it and come up with a hearty meal that will have everyone licking their plates. Outside the kitchen, though, you’d best keep the stewing to a minimum. Don’t stew over a perceived slight, simmer with resentment, or let yourself become steeped in depression. If that starts happening, it’s best to get out of the kitchen and take a walk in the fresh air. Talk to people. Get your mind off your troubles. Remember, there’s a wide world out there, much more interesting than the overcooked mess that’s been stewing in your brain for far too long. Or just open the kitchen window to let the wind blow away your blues, and at the same time send out the aromas of all the good things you’ve cooked up to make other people happy. A win-win-situation!

We’ve touched on a lot of no-no’s. Before we begin our actual lesson, let me inspire you with this picture of what I consider a successful concoction. Recognize this? It’s called an angel-food cake. Light and fluffy to look at, but chock-full of golden goodness. Just looking at such a treat makes you smile! It’s not always easy to get the cake to come out just right. It takes determination, concentration and care. But you can do it, ladies. Each and every one of you has a master chef hidden deep inside!

 

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Okay, let’s get down to business. Our first lesson (don’t laugh; not everybody has mastered this skill) will teach you how to boil water. Pour some water in a pot, like this… Turn up the flame, and wait. Just wait. As the adage says, “A watched pot never boils.” You have to have patience. Lots of patience. Patience is a wonderful tool for the kitchen, and everywhere else, for that matter!

Next week, we’ll try our first actual recipe; today I’d like to end with an overview of the whole process, from beginning to end. To start with, make sure you have all the ingredients you need on hand. This will call for some advance planning. Leave spontaneity for a game of charades; in real life, thinking things through ahead of time and making the necessary preparations form the recipe for success.

People sometimes think that cooking ends when the oven door slams shut. No such thing! Cooking calls for paying careful attention throughout the process. For instance, notice what temperature the oven is on, and how high the flame is under your pot. Life demands attention, too. Marriages and children thrive on attention. It’s easy to get distracted, so make sure to set a timer to remind you to turn off the oven when the dish is done. You don’t want a charred meal and a kitchen full of smoke and noxious fumes. I know some people who regularly go around spreading that kind of stuff. Believe me, no one wants to be anywhere near them!

Now, to the end of the process: serving your dish. When it comes to presentation, little touches count, like those small, thoughtful gestures that make you remember a particular person with fond gratitude. A good cook cares about her guests’ and family’s taste preferences. She takes pains to cook what they like and present the food in a way that will make them comfortable and happy. Remember: a warm smile is the best spice! A little bit of sugar works far better to sweeten the atmosphere than an acid splash of vinegar.

Don’t be beggarly with your portions. The plate may look more artistic with just a few measly dabs of food on it, but that won’t fill a hungry person’s stomach. Let’s get real, ladies. People care much less about how we present than about being filled with the warmth and sustenance they crave. It’s only that nasty, superficial voice in our ear that tries to convince us otherwise. Let’s spend less time putting on a good show and more time serving up platefuls of love!

I think we’ve covered some pretty important points to get us started. Remember: the goal is to provide a filling, satisfying meal that looks good, tastes delicious and smells heavenly. You want everyone leaving your table with the feeling that the world is a pretty good place after all. If you can manage that, then you’ll win the prize every cook yearns for: seeing your guests put down their knives and forks with a contented smile, and then come hurrying back for more!