Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kitchen lessons

Not long ago, I was reading an article about Szechuan cooking in which the writer stressed the importance of using a wok that leaves plenty of room for the vegetables to cook. According to this culinary expert, it’s a common mistake to choose a pan that doesn’t leave enough room for each vegetable to have ample surface area touching the hot metal at any given time. “Don’t crowd your wok,” summed up the writer.

That’s my problem! I thought to myself. My stir-fries turn out mushy for just this reason: I put too many vegetables in too small a wok. Wiser, I used a bigger pan the next time and found that my stir-fry components were crisp and crunchy rather than soft and slippery.

But the more I thought about it, the more the instruction came to seem symbolic rather than strictly culinary: Don’t crowd your wok. It’s not only in Chinese cooking but in so many elements of my life that I crowd too many things together until none of them turn out quite right.

I thought about this yesterday while I was preparing for a party for a group of high school friends. As I blanched crudités, set out wine glasses and spread brie and chutney on crackers, I contemplated the many life lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen, many of which seemed particularly relevant as I planned yesterday’s party.

For example, you probably won’t need as much food as you think. You don’t need ten different appetizers for a group of twenty. Focus on what you think people will really like; don’t worry about trying to offer some of absolutely everything. Simplify, simplify.

And also, accept guests’ offers to bring food and drink. Doing everything yourself doesn’t make you a better person; it just makes you harried. Accept offers of help.

This, too: no one else notices what didn’t go exactly as planned. Maybe it was my vision to have artisan soaps in the bathroom, wine glasses arranged in lines and candles lit on the table, but guests don’t know about the parts that didn’t materialize. I may be looking at my own results critically, but no one else is casting such a judgmental eye on what I’ve produced. They’re grateful for what’s offered, not annoyed by what isn’t.

Furthermore, if I can possibly plan in enough time to do the cooking and arranging and setting up at my leisure, I’ll enjoy it a lot more than if I leave everything to the last minute.

I tried hard to follow these guidelines that I’ve learned through years of entertaining….and years of living. The similarities between food preparation and life are many, when I think about it this way. And the most important rule? Sit back and enjoy your own party. You’ve gone to all the trouble you can to do everything perfectly: don’t get so exhausted that when the time comes, you forget to have fun. Eat the food, drink the beverages, laugh and talk with the guests. Savor the moment as well as the menu. Be present in the present. Because ultimately, there’s no point in hosting a party if you can’t have fun at it. And there’s no point in living a life if you can’t enjoy what’s going on in it.

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