Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Little Help from My Friends

“Being a good cook takes intelligence, a lot of experience, and the ability to improvise. A sense of adventure is optional.” ~Heidi Dean, potsticker instructor extraordinaire

I have my own cooking personality. It was informed, just as my individual personality was, by my parents. They were both raised in low-income, post-WWII households where cheap food reigned supreme and pre-packaged, pre-made foods were revered for their simplicity. Where the cheapest form of procuring a food item meant making it yourself, I was taught to cook from scratch, i.e. baking cookies, making cakes, cutting and frying whole chickens. Where it was cheaper or less time-consuming to buy it pre-made, I depended on store-bought versions, such as jarred spaghetti sauce and canned soups. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, working at a magazine in Kansas City, that two of my coworkers (and very good friends) taught me the importance of truly caring about my food. Whether that meant exploring new kinds of produce I’d never experienced, making simple dishes with healthy ingredients, or taking the time to understand what’s in the items I’m putting in my body.

While my food IQ has grown tremendously in the past 10 years, there are still some cooking shortcuts that I feel a little vulnerable without. And some styles of cooking that feel strangely foreign to me, because, well, the food’s cultures are also foreign. So, looking to a friend once again to introduce me to uncharted territories, I asked my friend Heidi to teach me how to cook something I was completely unfamiliar with. Heidi’s cooking style is very different from mine because her background is very different than mine. Having traveled all over the world, and having broader ethnic influences in her life, Heidi’s cooking is far more globally inspired and her experience with cooking is more developed.

We decided to spend a day in her kitchen cooking potstickers—completely from scratch. This broached my apprehension toward any recipe containing dough (besides pies and bread, which I have practice at), as well as my avoidance of preparing my own Asian foods. That is one food culture I have never had good experiences with at home (aside from take-out).  

Surprisingly, the entire process was very simple. We made the dough from two parts flour to one part water. The filling was made of equal parts ground pork and cabbage, mixed with scallions, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and brown sugar. (In making the filling, I learned how to prepare fresh ginger, which was previously unknown to me: peel with a vegetable peeler, then cut against the grain.) We created small dough rounds and filled them.

Then we prepared them by shallow-frying them in a pan. They turned out properly cooked, extremely delicious, and also incredibly abundant. We both had plenty of leftovers for later.

What I noticed most about cooking with Heidi was her lack of worry. When I’m following a recipe, I read it all the way through first, then reference it every 5 seconds to make sure I’m following it to the letter. But she knew, without reservation, how to substitute ingredients and when something “just looked right”… or didn’t. And she never once picked up the phone and called her mom for advice. I was highly impressed. You can read Heidi’s much more detailed account of the day at her blog, Messing With Recipes.

More than learning a new recipe, I left with an understanding of how to prepare a new kind of food, one that previously seemed out of my reach. New skills and more confidence in them. Which was the ultimate goal. But I also left thinking about something else—the packaging on the ground pork. The pork came from a farm near St. Louis. Which means that I could, very realistically, see firsthand where my food comes from. I commonly cheer on the “Know Your Food” motto. But now that the opportunity is before me, I’m wondering what that would really mean.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, thoughtful post and photos!

    Two things, for the record:

    1. I was panicking, slightly, when the uncooked dumplings were sticking to the plate; you were the one who calmly came over and unstuck them.

    2. I do call my mom on occasion, and I called my late aunt Antonia all the time. There's nothing wrong with consulting an expert.

    Maybe you should pick the next Asian recipe; that cookbook has tons of them.