On taste. the best cook I know.
Oh, it was nothing, just something I threw together, is the most maddening phrase known to man. Usually it is accompanied by a wave of the hand as I am presented with a beautifully arranged platter of some delicious thing. I know I am guilty of this, but when I say oh, it was nothing, I am likely holding a bowl of fried rice or a plate of macaroni and cheese. Not the lightest cheesecake I have ever tasted or perfectly sliced duck breast stir-fried with slivers of orange zest. Hearing those words is like sitting across from the most beautiful woman in the world and having her tell you that she uses only soap and water and wears no makeup save for a slick of lip balm and a swish of mascara.
The three people I consider the best cooks I know all have distinctly different styles. One is a close friend of my mother’s, J., who designs jewelry (usually at her dinner parties each woman is wearing something she made, delicate earrings or a dramatic necklace) and is an incredible cook. It is not enough for something to taste good, but it must be beautifully presented (usually on platters made by a potter friend) as well; red-braised pork belly is sliced into precise cubes, arranged in a perfect square, and wreathed in baby bok choy like jade-green flowers. Other courses are adorned with sprigs of cilantro, brightened with cheerful red slivers of bell peppers. It is Shanghainese cuisine, and it is home cooking, the best kind of home cooking, elegant and unpretentious, elevated to something sublime. When someone expressed surprise that I would go have dinner with my parents’ friends without them (they were out of town), I said that J. was the best cook I know and when she invited me to dinner I never thought twice about accepting. She has a stable of classics which we look forward to each time, but once in a while something new will appear. Old dogs can learn new tricks, she tells us.
Another friend of my mother's, A., whose lemon cheesecake I wrote about yesterday, tends towards more Western-style cooking, although she sometimes makes Chinese food as well. I remember on one occasion being served a gigantic bowl of pasta, a tangle of flat noodles and porcini mushrooms faintly slicked with olive oil, followed by an intensely flavored steak roasted in the oven. The ingredients had all come from the Pike Place Market, just blocks away, and everything was fresh and simple and vibrant. I cannot remember anything I have eaten in her airy downtown apartment that has not been absolutely wonderful. She used to be a caterer, and moves confidently around her open kitchen, wielding knives and pots with ease. A.'s cooking is always relaxed, even when it is a complicated dish (such as paella), and every meal is different.
And then there is my mother, who makes Shanghainese and Taiwanese-inflected dishes, some learned from her Shanghainese mother, some influenced by other friends or things she’s seen on tv or eaten in restaurants. (Iron-Chef-inspired mushroom-stuffed fungus, anyone?). One of my recent favorites is a dish of peas tossed with shreds of prosciutto and bound together with beaten raw egg (which cooks as it is stirred into the hot peas), served in boats of endive leaves, which she first had at a restaurant in Taipei and then adapted herself. The emulsified egg lightly coats the peas, much like a pasta carbonara, and it is a play of contrasts – sweet peas, salty prosciutto, creamy egg, crisp and slightly bitter endive. Her cooking is, on the whole, mostly vegetarian (although she does make meat dishes for the rest of us carnivores) cooking at its most refined, simple, and elegant. The key word is refined.
And then I realize that it is no accident that three of the best cooks I know are also three of the most elegant women I know, the kind of women who wear caftans or t-shirts and fleece as easily as they wear designer fashions. Taste and style are inextricably intertwined. Three completely different styles of cooking, but each is subtle, refined, and elegant, simple but with inventive flourishes, unexpected flavours and accents adding life to a dish the way a piece of jewelry or an unusual jacket transforms a look. And they make it all seem effortless, as if a meal or an outfit came together of its own will, as if everything they touch takes on something of their personality. Food is life. It is about taste in all things, style in all things; the way you eat and cook reflects everything about you, everything you do, and the way you live, everything you are. That is why food matters to me, why it should matter to us all.