Tuesday, March 16, 2010

where credit is due

(This is the first of a hopeful series of linked posts that I'm doing with my friend Rose-Anne. You can see her take on things here.)

When I was a kid I was convinced that I was not a very creative person. I'm not sure why, because as I looked through the photo albums at my parent's house when I was in Arizona last month I found plenty of pictures of myself doing things like this:

And this:

So obviously there was something going on there. But I remained steadfast: I was the one kid in the whole world with no imagination whatsoever. (I was sort of prone to unnecessary martyrdom as a child, can you tell? Also melodrama. Also I’m pretty sure I stole the idea wholesale out of a Ramona book.) Even when I was older, after I got pretty serious about being a viola player, I focused more on the grunt work, the sheer physical and mental labor that went into just playing the notes. If artistry followed so much the better, but it wasn’t what I was thinking about.

But now I’m an adult, and somehow nearly everything I do would be considered “artistic” by most people-- I spend the majority of my working time playing music and arranging flowers, for god’s sake, and my main hobby is baking-- so I’m giving up the battle against acknowledging my own inventiveness; art takes legwork, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t creative too. But although I’m striving to get to a place where I can accept compliments gracefully and, more importantly, believe them wholeheartedly, I still tend to downplay my own endeavors. “Oh, we had a lot of rehearsals,” I say, or “Well, I might have made a much more interesting yet cohesive bouquet than you would have, but hey, I get to practice a lot more often,” or, my favorite, “I just followed the recipe and chopped things.” Which are all more or less true, but not the whole truth, as is so often the case.

The place where I have the most trouble admitting that I’m doing something besides just following orders is the kitchen, because while it’s true that much of cooking is just reading the directions and then chopping/measuring/mixing/turning the oven on, that’s not the entire story. It makes more sense to me when I think of following a recipe as an act of translation. A recipe is a set of instructions, a series of words that somebody else put together to describe the act of food preparation, but the act itself--and thus the outcome--depends largely on the person doing the actual physical work. The recipe says “chop the potato”, but how large? Exactly when should I put in the spices, and how brown should the onion be before I add the soup broth? Those things are, to some extent, subject to my own whims and judgment. And somehow, despite all the possible human error, where I end up is usually close to where I think I should be.

I use recipes a lot, and I’m not ashamed of that; for a while I used them exclusively, initially out of fear but then out of a desire to learn how to put things together. It was the polar opposite of my early cooking endeavors, when I barely glanced at a cookbook and turned out food that, while decent, was nothing like what I make now. It’s taken me a while to understand the space between these two extremes, to realize that it’s not about complexity, or time-consumptiveness, or fancy ingredients, at least not entirely; it’s about understanding what goes well together, and knowing how to cook things so that they taste good. That takes practice, and guidance, and for me that came from following recipes and trusting them to point me in the right direction.

Now, nearly eight years after what I count as me cooking life began, I’m coming full-circle to my origins. I still use recipes, but I’m also beginning to trust myself to know what will taste good and to stray away from the precise instructions of a well-written set of directions. Most of the time I still use a recipe as a basis for my own inspiration: a new filling for a pastry shell, or a different take on a soup, or adapting a cookie recipe to accommodate for food allergies. These are things I couldn’t do a few years ago with any degree of panache, and now I do them on the spur of the moment, joyously and with barely a thought for the recipe that I’m setting on its head. More rarely, though, I make something entirely of my own invention, and when these endeavors turn out well I feel proud and skilled and yes, creative. Most of them are dead easy; I’m not about to turn out a newly-invented soufflĂ© or anything, but I’m more willing to wriggle around within the scope of what I understand and wait for the results. Not using a recipe now and then feels good, because it’s an acknowledgement that I trust myself.

And so, here, is one of my new favorites, something I more or less made up, although theoretically I could site this recipe as inspiration because I’d never roasted sweet potatoes before I made it. Still though, this was my idea, conceived of a year ago and finally implemented about a month ago, and I’m proud of it. So proud that I’m willing to admit that I didn’t even make my own sauce (something I would normally do) because the whole point is ease, and food joy, and yummy warm goodness without killing yourself to get there. And so, before it becomes too warm for roasting, eat up and then change it all around so it’s all your own. I recommend it.

Sweet Potatoes Roasted with Barbecue Sauce

You need:

Two sweet potatoes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce, homemade or bottled (I used Culinary Circle’s Poblano Chili Lime and was astonished at how much I liked its subtle bite and tang. Granted, I’m neither southern nor accustomed to eating barbecue sauce, but I was more than happy with the results.)

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the (unpeeled) potatoes, then slice into rounds approximately 1 1/2 -2 inches long. Set the rounds cut-side-down on a cutting board and make perpendicular slices, cutting them into long rectangles. Toss these in a rectangular baking dish with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, stir, and roast for fifteen more minutes or until fairly soft with some crispy browned edges. Remove from oven, garnish liberally with barbecue sauce, then roast for five more minutes; any more and the sugars in the sauce can begin to burn, so be careful. Eat alone or with something else delicious.


Rosiecat said...

Ammie, I'm so glad we're doing this tandem post project! Our first posts have confirmed for me that yes, this is a very good idea.

As usual, your writing is brilliant and beautiful. I thought of you on Friday as I was in the barbecue sauce aisle, trying to find something with the words "chipotle" and "lime" in the title. But I didn't see a winner :-( I'll have to look for Culinary Circle's sauce down here. This recipe is going on my to-make list! I just need another pair of sweet potatoes.

One more thing: I totally trust you in the kitchen. Recipe or no, you make good food, friend.

a said...

Rose-Anne, you'd better hurry! It will be too warm for roasting down there in Texas soon ;)
And hey, I kind of trust myself! Some days, I'm even ready to throw my measuring spoons to the winds and wing it. Or something.

Laurie said...

What a brilliant idea. You and Rose-Anne make a great team. Looking forward to more in this series.

a said...

Ah, thank you! We'll be posting again next Tuesday, so keep an eye out!

Emily said...

You are obviously very creative! And I love that you and Rosiecat are dual posting. Your sweet potatoes sound incredible - a combo I've never thought of, but I know I'm going to love!