Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cooking with Isabella

...and with Helena. And with pomegranate.

Recently someone asked me if I can cook, and spontaneously I answered, "Yes, of course!" implying that I did so very well.

The truth is: my reply was out of character. And it weighed on me.

Ordinarily, I would say, no, I'm not much of a cook. Pressed, and with a realistic and honest assessment, I would admit to being a fully competent cook.

But in that brief exchange, either I was, for some subconscious reason unknown to myself, fleetingly and wishfully adopting the persona of a "good cook," or perhaps I was letting an unprocessed inner truth escape.

For in truth, I cook a lot; I cook better than many people I know; and the more experienced I've become, the more cooking excites me.

I can't tell you how thrilled I was to have a copy of Nigella Christmas land on my doorstep. Thrilled!

I'm not really good with cookbooks. (I love them though. I don't have very many, but maybe I should.) That is, I'm not good at following a recipe. Maybe because so much of my working life is governed by rules, creating rules, making sure others abide by the rules, I feel I should be allowed liberty in my kitchen. Really, such freedom should be reserved for cooks who know what they're doing, but I'll take it anyway.

I'm always missing an ingredient. There's never thyme on hand, or whole mustard seed. Maybe my kitchen's not properly stocked. And most days of the week, I'm not organized enough to plan a meal and shop for it in advance.

Then there's the measuring. Maybe I don't have enough gadgets (where would I put them?). Sometimes the measuring cup is in the dishwasher, and I don't feel like washing it, so I eyeball quantities, using whatever receptacle is handy.

(This is normal, isn't it? This is what it is to cook, to have to cook daily, to not be gifted at it, to not have hours to devote to it, but to be competent. This is my culinary truth!)

Anyway. Nigella Christmas. Gorgeous book. Makes me hungry. Makes me want to cook. Makes me want to try to cook better.

The first thing I notice: this year's Christmas culinary trend appears to be pomegranate. If you want to make it festive, just add pomegranate! Holiday drinks? with pomegranate juice, of course! garnished with pomegranate seeds! Salads, for Christmas, should be red: cherry tomatoes, red peppers, red onion, pomegranate seeds! Stuffing, with pomegranate. Tired of turkey? — have some couscous, made festive with pomegranate.

I happen to love pomegranate. So this is all very exciting and inspiring. I am now fully deluded into thinking I can create exotic meals by adding a simple pomegranate flourish. (Sometimes my ambition exceeds my capability. My pomegranate lemon chicken was more than edible, but it looked pretty weird — splotchy.)

Still, I'm planning on following a number of recipes, as closely I can, this holiday season. There will be red salad. And there will be a sampling of Nigella's cocktails.

(One of the most important ingredients to have on hand while cooking is alcohol. Primarily for the cook. Also for the guests. I find this goes a long way to making a meal a success.)

While the book has inspired me to add pomegranate to just about everything lately, I've tried following only one recipe in earnest: Cookies! (Without pomegranate.)

This weekend, Helena and I made cookies. Scores of cookies. Two kinds (Nigella's, and perhaps more importantly, the cookies I made with my mom when I was a little girl). I even planned, to the extent of buying new cookie cutters (I'm finally beyond using plastic play-doh shape cutters) and setting aside enough time. As I'd predicted, the project that would take a reasonably organized and motivated adult about an hour or two when you add a very interested and helpful 6-year-old to the mix becomes a very messy day-long event. But, oh, was it fun!

Nigella's cookies, festooning the inside cover of her book:


My cookies, of which I'm unreasonably proud:


And they're tasty, too!

I had some trouble with the recipe: All the quantities are in weights; I'm used to measuring by the cup, as, I'm fairly certain, most average, non-serious cooks are. The recipe in the book doesn't say anything about mixing the butter and sugar together first (as the recipe at the link does, and which I think is a sensible thing to do). I don't own a food processor; I have a hand mixer; and I don't know what the difference is in the results they produce. I have no idea how soft dark sugar is different from any other kind of brown sugar. I've never heard of royal icing, so I looked it up on the internet, and kind of had to wing it (a bit too runny in the end).

(Then there's the decorating. Do Nigella's cookies look as if they were iced with a teaspoon, as she directs? Mine were.)

So the cookies aren't perfect. But they're pretty good! They have pepper in them! And they're pretty to look at. And they'll be even better next year.

Eat your heart out, Nigella! This year I feel like a domestic goddess!
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