Every Saturday afternoon at 4:00pm I go to church. After church, since it is so conveniently located nearby, I drive over for an entirely different sort of worship at the altar of my favorite local food market. I vainly attempt, as I navigate the busy outdoor mall parking lot, to bite back a torrent of bad words and maintain my post-church serenity, as I dodge motorists who don’t believe that checking the rearview mirror or using a turn signal is de rigueur for vehicular safety all the while minding the hordes of pedestrians weaving in and out of traffic.
Speaking of church, I have a confession to make. Despite my passion for food, I have no imagination when it comes to creating new dishes or preparing meals. You will find no photos of beautiful towers of food or artfully plated dishes made with exotic ingredients on my website . . . at least none cooked by me! Perhaps if I had discovered my obsession with food at an earlier age, things might have been different. Having an opportunity to apprentice with talented, professional chefs tends to nurture creative ability; alas, I am past the age of interning and am the sole chef at Chez Laura, certainly not a learning environment! I am, however, able to follow directions, wing it and adlib when necessary but like many home cooks in America, I get bored. I try to explain this to my family when all I hear is silence or my favorite; “Whatever” in response to the question, “What do you want for dinner?” C’mon, throw me a bone here! “Whatever” is simply not inspiring. Trying to figure out what to make three hundred and some odd days a year is way too heavy burden for anyone to carry!
This is where shopping comes in or, to borrow yet another ecclesiastical term, food worship. A good grocery store or market is an intrinsic part of life’s foundation, as far as I’m concerned. Considering that I love to cook, it makes my life easier and provides a multitude of recipe ideas. I can walk in and walk out an hour later with a week’s worth of ideas in my head. If I happen to spend more than my weekly allotted food budget buying pretty food then so be it! Thus, in recent years, I have developed a “shop first, determine the menu later” method of cooking.
For example, when strawberry season commences, the display beckons me. It’s not just the luscious red velvet outer wrapper, a perfect foil for the green stems and crown of leaves that calls, “Come hither!”, but also the scent. The fragrance of fresh strawberries picked straight from the field is intoxicating. I have to have them. Moments later, a few pints stowed securely in my basket, I am not yet exactly sure what I am going to do with them but my mind is in a frenzy. What will it be, strawberry muffins or strawberry cake? Perhaps, it should be a salad with strawberries, toasted pine nuts, goat cheese and roasted wild salmon; a family favorite. The point is that the act of shopping and purchasing great key ingredients is the ideal solution for the, what-to-make-for- dinner dilemma. Last weekend, I was seduced into buying some lovely Roma tomatoes at the market and since I am crazy for balsamic roasted tomatoes with goat cheese as a side dish for steak, I picked up a porterhouse and the meal just seemed to come together when paired with a wonderful mushroom barley pilaf I had been dying to make.
Food worship reaches far beyond the mere process of; here comes a boring description of what needn’t be a mundane weekly chore, “grocery shopping”. Food worship involves research; discovering unusual ingredients, new foods and exotic spices and having the perfect market basket to put all of those wonderful things into. It’s exciting to find a certain ingredient such as patty pan squash or Japanese eggplant, items that I have read about but never been able to find locally, all of a sudden make an appearance at my market. There is energy to a great market as well; something that just makes me happy to be there.
So seek culinary vision wherever you can find it. Read a cookbook, watch A & E’s Julia Child biography (seen it at least four times!!!), visit a cool market or buy a new toy at a fun kitchen store. I recommend something like a wildly expensive cutting board or a shiny new sheet pan, perfect for roasting tomatoes. A new chef’s knife is always a thrill; yes, I am serious. Laugh all you want but a new piece of kitchen equipment can have the same effect as a new pair of shoes that you wanted but didn’t really need. The purchase of either can be exhilarating. Ina Garten said in her wonderful book, Barefoot in Paris “. . . good cookware not only enhances the quality of my cooking, but it’s also an incredible joy to use.” Barefoot in Paris: easy French food you can make at home. (New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2004), 107. SO true! I heard somewhere that life is too short to eat the same food every day. A somewhat daunting maxim but an exciting one, right? Happy shopping!