Monday, November 16, 2009

Windy City Cooking: Week 16

(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday--even when (still!) recovering from surgery!--Chicago's Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)

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The Revisionist
by Jason Hissong
16 November 2009

       It starts with an idea. I hear a word, or see something on the television. Acorn squash. Risotto. Tomato bisque. I think: how? I think: what does that taste like? I think: what goes with that? I think: how do I cook that?

       I skim my cookbooks for a general idea. And it's at this point, I think, that I could do better. I am not a recipe chef. Part of that is a self-centerdness of me wanting to do it all. Part of it is that I just don't have the patience to go step by step. I figure I'll make it up as I go, and it will turn out one way or another. Maybe I should cook from some recipes and then modify. I digress.

       I try something for myself. It's okay. I can do it better, and will, when I serve it to others.

       It's Saturday afternoon. I have no plans for the evening. I call some people. "Hey," I say, "Do you want to come over for dinner?" Soon enough I realize I'm cooking for five or six. The rest of the day I spend cleaning and going to the grocery store for the ingredients I need, and then some.

       I make the dish. I serve. Everyone likes it, says it's really good. If they're lying they swallow those words. I think it's probably okay. It would be better if I cooked it from a recipe, I think. But it's over and done with at this point.

       That might be the most difficult part, really. The realization that, at some point, I have to serve this dish as is to other people. I can make sub par food for myself, no problem. I can take a failed experiment for myself and live with it. But when I have to feed others? There's a risk there. A risk of failing. A risk of looking a fool. A risk of hurt pride, and shot confidence and that sends me to question my cooking skills.

       That sequence never happens. My friends are too polite for that, if they even think those things at all. I know when my food's bad, when it doesn't work, how I could do it better.

       It's always a process, though. Of nipping here, and tucking there, and refinement. Practice. Making something over and over and over until I settle on how I want to do it and then when that status quo sets in I try something else to make it different, and new.

       * * *

       It starts with an idea. I hear a word, or see something on the television, or read something in a novel or comic. Mood Seven Mind Destroyer. I think: whose mind? I think: who's doing the destroying? I think: what's Mood Seven?

       I start by writing a brief little something with pen and paper. Or drawing something. I get no more than five paragraphs with pen and paper before I switch to my keyboard. I think it might serve me as a writer to try to attempt a first draft with nothing but pen and paper. To make me slow down. Sometimes my Romantic ideas of writers overtakes my pragmatism and I think, despite knowing that I hold my pens too tight, I could do that. Write an entire manuscript by hand.

       I get a draft down.

       I don't necessarily like it.

       I send it to people I trust to get feedback. I want them to tell me it's great as is, even though I know it's not. It's going to take another draft, or three. I know it's good, but not as good as I want.

       I get the feedback. It's good information from trusted sources to make my writing stronger.

       I print out a manuscript for myself and use a red pen- 'cause I'm neurotic- and I color my pages red.

       I sit down to write a new draft and I open a completely new document to do so.

       I finish and send it out again and this is where the doubt waxes and the self confidence wanes. Is it good? Is it better than the last? What am I doing with this piece?

       It's always a process. I could tweak a manuscript for a year and still not be done. I finally settle on a level of satisfaction, partly out of attrition, and let it go. It sits in my folder or on my hard drive, waiting for me to drum up the confidence to send it for submission somewhere, sometime in the future.

       * * *

       I love them both, of course. And when I look at the process I realize that they're the same thing. Idea, execution without full research, refinement, execution, refinement, execution. Somewhere in there I have to present my work to someone else. I have to break out of the invisible bubble of self and take a risk- a risk of failure and success. It's the same thing.

       What I've Cooked, What Others Have Cooked For Me, Where I Ate

       It's been an interesting week for food as I recover from my wisdom teeth extraction. It turns out I came down with the dreaded dry sockets which is really painful and annoying, by the way.

       I ate a bowl of macaroni and cheese from Au Bon Pain for lunch all three days I went to work last week. It's so good. Creamy and rich and normally I don't like those sort of mass batch foods but this turned out really well. It was soft and flavorful and good.

       On Wednesday night I went to a place in Wicker Park called Zen Noodles & Sushi with my friend Johnny. We went to a reading/signing at Quimby's right after. I had the sesame chicken. It was not the wisest choice as that was my first foray into solid food since the teeth came out. I kept chewing with my front teeth, which is difficult.

       Thursday night my friend Andy had me over to cook. Amy and Ashley joined us as we watched the San Francisco 49ers intercept Jay Cutler and the Bears five times. At least the food was good. Tomato soup with a grilled Gruy√®re and bacon on sourdough. I also made an arugula salad with a honey-dijon dressing.

       On Friday night I went to Orange Garden with my roommate Jason and Elizabeth. I had the Mongolian Chicken. Their dishes escape me at the moment and I didn't write them down when we got home. If you're reading, kids, pipe in and tell me what you had.

       Saturday I had an impromptu dinner party. Only two others attended- Jonathan and Ashley. I made asparagus with lemon-thyme butter and purchased Brioche rolls. The main course was chicken with forty cloves. That's right, forty cloves. And, of course, one would think that after knowing the man as well as I do for nearly a decade now I would be observant as not to include mushrooms in anything I cook for Jonathan. This escaped me Saturday night, and for that, I am sorry. Still, the chicken was very good and I have enough leftover that I'll have to make something new with it by Wednesday.

       The Brioche's lightness and sweetness made it perfect for Sunday morning French toast. It also made the last of the rolls perfect for cubing and making croutons that then went into the onion soup I made Sunday evening.

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