Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cooking with dog, cooking with spider

Somewhere around six months ago, I decided to learn how to cook. Not to sound too old-fashioned, but it was shortly after Brian proposed that I realized I wanted to do this. Was it my June Cleaver concept of wifedom rearing its hot-rollered head again? Not exactly. Okay, maybe a little. But I think it basically just finally hit me that if I didn’t want to keep thinking up excuses to drive to my parents’ in Barrhaven around dinner time, something was going to have to be done.

For many people, I recognize that this is not a big decision. Upon committing to the concept, many people would simply buy a cookbook and try out a recipe; if it didn’t work out, they’d just try it again. Easy, right? Alas, not for yours truly.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food since my teens. Upon developing thighs at the same speed as breasts, I became hyper-aware of the role that food played in my life and how it could be manipulated to produce physical results. My grade school BFF and I would talk about how we’d never let ourselves get fat and even made pacts to stop each other from ‘turning into a fatso’. This was grade five. Through my teens and twenties, I have dieted, binged, purged, dieted, abstained, and overeaten. I have ranged from a size 14 to a size 4. And I honestly have hated my physical self equally at both ends of the clothing rack. There’s a larger discussion to be had about body image, and it’s one that will no doubt come up as we tackle our P:P—NEST goal of '`Improving ourselves'. The important point here is that food has been my friend and foe for years—but mostly foe. Learning to cook means, in a way, learning to embrace food…fats, oils, salt, spices, sugars, carbs, and proteins. It’s a big journey, and at 29 years of age, I feel way behind the class.

Adding to the roadblocks of learning to cook are two unalterable facts: I have a sensitive stomach; and I am OCD about meat. Perhaps the two grew from each other. Whatever the case may be, there is a laundry list of ingredients that hurt my little tummy (most notably, because Brian has the same problem: lactose), and I’m afraid to cook meat because I’m absolutely convinced I will poison everyone.

With these challenges identified, I started around Christmas by learning about tofu. A few hours of internet research later, I was pretty sure I could handle the stuff. (And yes, because someone will write to tell me: I know you can poison yourself with soy protein, but it’s easier to cook through and frankly, it’s just less intimidating.) I watched one particular video on YouTube that convinced me I could do this: it was called ‘Cooking with Dog’ and it appeared to be a clip from an Asian cooking show where—I’m not joking—a woman cooks a meal while her big grey poodle sits on the counter. He doesn’t get involved, he doesn’t eat her efforts, he just sits there. For some reason, the absolute absurdity of this clip convinced me: if the lunatic on the video can cook a noodle soup, with that unhygienic dog sitting up there on the counter, surely whatever minor germs I had in my kitchen were not that big a deal. And so I spent a couple of months shopping at the T&T Asian grocery store, learning to improvise Asian soup recipes. I’ll give you a walk-through of one of my soups another time, but the great thing that came out of making soup was that I got the confidence to try cooking tofu other ways.

Recently a friend of mine named Alison, who writes a foodblog based out of Newfoundland, started including some tofu recipes…perhaps because I kept harassing her about it on facebook. Alison knows what words like ‘sautee’ and ‘braise’ mean, so I usually don’t try to follow her recipes…but this recent one was just too easy not to try. It’s called Corn and Tofu Au Gratin, and she credits it to another recipe site, with some modifications she made. I suggest you give it a read on her blog.

The first time I made the dish, I faced the typical challenges of a new chef: my timing was off, I left things to the last minute, and if Brian hadn’t open cans for me while I stirred, I would have burned the whole thing. Here’s a little video we took:

As you can see, unlike Ali, I forgot to crumble my tofu and instead just stabbed at the cubes I’d cut with my spatula ‘til the broke apart.

The recipe calls for chevre, which is a type of cheese I have never used before, and I think was actually completely new to me. We bought a little tub of pre-crumbled cheese and sprinkled it over top as the recipe calls for. Even if the tofu itself had turned out disgusting, I have to say the recipe would have been worth the effort, simply for introducing me to this lovely cheese. If you’re out there and as clueless as I am, chevre is a goat milk cheese that has the consistency of a really gooey cheese curd when bought crumbled; and as I learned when we bought some more, it can also be straight-up spreadable like a super-soft cream cheese. What makes it awesome is that it tastes like fresh cheese curds. (And because someone will wonder: lactose intolerance isn't a black-and-white thing, and this cheese has been good to us thus far.)

Brian and I both LOVED this dish. Yes, it’s so good that it calls for all-caps. I admit I didn’t follow the recipe in regards to the spices, so it may have tasted nothing like the original, but I’m certain the chipotle is the star of show and that really shone through. We loved this dish so much, in fact, that yesterday I went to my parents’ and made it for them.

I brought my spices—at least, the ones I remembered using—my tofu, my chevre, and my broth and corn. It was weird, using a different skillet, and a different stove. Every little thing in cooking seems to cause such disproportionate effects on your efforts. For other newbie cooks out there, remember this advice (and remind me of it, too): you may not be the reason why things aren’t working. If you want to see what I mean, fry an egg over-easy at your own house in your favourite pan…then go to a friend’s place and try it again with their margarine, pan, and flipper.

Regardless of pans and spatulas, I ‘browned’ my tofu, added my corn, and seasoned the whole thing like a consummate expert. I toss and stirred the mix with a deft hand, and everything was looking very pro…until a spider ran out from behind the stove. Have I mentioned that spiders scare me almost more than sharks and aliens? It took me about twenty-five years to master my fear enough to kill them myself instead of just leaving my house ‘til someone could come do it for me. The creepy little bugger skittered across the wall beside the stove, running full-bore at me like an eight-legged suicide bomber. I shrieked. Actually, I kind of wailed. It was, in fact, a wailing shriek, and it just kept going. You remember Beaker on the Muppet Show, when he’d be upset and make that long high-pitched screamy sound? That was what came out of me. It continued as I realized that my only weapon was a wooden spatula thing I’d been stirring the tofu with. It increased as I realized what I was about to do. It intensified in pitch and paused with every thwap of my flipper against the wall—eeeeeeTHWAP…eeeeeeTHWAP…eeeeeTHWAP…eeee—as I tried, in vain, to smash the thing to oblivion. Tofu and juices splattered across the wall, staining the white paint. I didn’t care, flinging it harder and faster, creating more of a mess. He ducked and dodged under every smack, and, I kid you not, ran up my spatula. As I tried hysterically smashing the flipper against the edge of the wall, he continued his mission up the handle of my weapon, and just as my Beaker sound became a non-stop squeal, Brian came to the rescue. Unthinkingly, I handed him the spatula, spider and all, and ran out of the kitchen in my prancey old-lady run. From a safe distance, I turned to watch Brian as he finished squashing the bug with his heel, but he remained bent in half, staring down at the floor. I was confused for a moment, until I saw his face: his eyes were streaming with tears and he was laughing so hard he’d gone silent. I gave him an incredulous, outraged look  for about four seconds, before I burst into laughter myself. We stood, bent over with sore sides, laughing ‘til our faces hurt. Then Brian triple-promised me that the spider was dead, I held him in absolutely adoration for a moment, and then I went back to cooking.

Our finished dish!
I’m learning lots about food and about cooking, practically every day. I’ve learned that there are countless variables when you’re cooking, ranging from the freshness of your spices, to the speed, distance, and velocity of a spider running at you. I know I’m going to have to cook meat at some point, but after this, I think tofu is plenty exciting enough for now.


  1. Oh man I'm glad I didn't read this at work -- no laughing in the library!

    I totally agree with you that cooking in other people's houses is weird. Their stuff makes things different.

    Keep cooking -- it's really not that hard!

  2. Oh my better half has had long running disagreements with spiders. She has a two-pronged attack method: fly swatter (we've spatulas that would damage dry wall) and a vacuum cleaner nozzle (attached to the vacuum cleaner). Dispatch and remove! Cold and efficient.

    Is it bad I adore the Cooking with dog channel? I actually watch it with the audio off to observe technique from the lady cooking. She has some serious skills. Look for an episode called "melon-pan." Watch her work dough. Her knife skills are much better than mine. Because of her, I'm looking for a ceramic knife.

    Anyhow, I've blogged about cooking and how society is losing even the most basic skills, never mind what kitchen you may be cooking in. Everyone bemoans how much time it takes to prepare food and celebrates "quick and easy." Add to that the harried pace everyone lives their lives. The result? People convince themselves not to bother. They don't have time to learn. They don't have time to fail.

    Thing is, better cooking skills means you can prepare food faster, the healthy kind, using whole ingredients.

    It isn't that difficult to ramp up to be able to fashion a decent Monday night meal from just about anything, sitting in the fridge and be able to spend quality time with your loved ones.

    And, I think you're demonstrating such!

    Congrats on the gratinéed tofu. Now switch it up! The technique of crusting something on top of ingredients can be done to meat, fish, vegetable, fruit.

    Good luck in the kitchen!

  3. Don't be so scared of meat! Just get any good beginner's cookbook (you can even find those at second hand stores - basics never go out of style) and just follow the instructions for temperature and cooking time. Using the oven to cook meat is easiest for beginners - pork chops, chicken, meat loaf, sausages, fish - anything you can toss in the oven and leave for half an hour to an hour. Once you convince yourself that Jordan + cooking + meat does not equal botulism, you can start being more adventuresome.
    P.S. You can force Brian to cook too. Men can cook just as well as women. Nobody cooks for me, and I enjoy what I cook.

  4. Alidoes it: I admit, cooking isn't quite brain surgery, but it's not 'easy', in my eyes, if you're trying to do it well. Maybe it *gets* easier.

    foodiePrints: Thanks for the lovely comments! I will indeed look for that 'Cooking With Dog' episode. I tease in this post about the absurdity of her videos (because it IS crazy) but she is, indeed, a smart chef! She helped me stop running eggs poached in my soup.

    Dirk: Thank you for pointing that out: Brian can, indeed, cook, and it's always delicious. That's how I get some animal protein into me once in a while. Brian's skills run more towards the caveman: fire, meat, grill. I don't think he ever prepared veggies before I showed up. Between the two of us, we can do a standard 'square' meal...but we'll both go crazy if all we can manage is chicken and rice. So Brian is learning with's fun. Most of the time. ;)