About the cook

My name is Scot and I am a wannabe cook.

I feel like I’m in a Cooking Anonymous!

I came to the kitchen indirectly. You might even say miraculously. Not that I’m anything special, but the sheer fact that I’m cooking is enough to make my family laugh outright.

Until very recently, I didn’t cook. Or rather, I cooked the way most people cook. Grudgingly. One or two “recipes” that I can trot out on demand. Spaghetti and meatsauce. Semi-asian stir-fry. And … err … ok, maybe that’s it.

You see, my Mom wasn’t really a cook. She cooked, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t something she was interested in or particularly curious about. She was “of that generation” where such things were expected, and given my Dad’s propensity for brown food, there just really wasn’t much in the way of encouragement or reward to do much in the kitchen at all. I can hear her voice every time I think of her, commenting on her own cooking: “Oh, that? It was fast and easy.”

Fast and easy. Pretty much sums it up.

That changed for me when I hit high school. Not right away, mind you, nor was it something that changed quickly. But I can tie it right down to the time, place and the one responsible. Senior year, sushi, with Ted, at a Niwano Hana in Rockville. I had never had raw fish before. Hell, I hadn’t even had much fish before. Yet there I was, trying to keep up with my new best friend and seem cool the whole while. I’m sure that fear was written all over my face — I know this because Ted abused me pretty thoroughly. Much later I learned that noobie sushi goers tend toward the “basics”: tuna, flounder, salmon. Ted, the kind, generous and gentle soul that he is, subscribes to the “throw you into the deep end of the pool with a straight-jacket and weights on your ankles” school of life, ordered me up a healthy serving of sea urchin, eel, octopus, and squid. Yes, it could have been worse. And no, I was not a fan.

But it started something moving around in my head, and I think was the first real crack in my brown-food approach to dining. We all have to start somewhere.

Years and years later, Ted continued to make forays into adventurous eating. Luckily, I got to tag along for some of them. I went to my first real steak house with him and a bunch of other guys (The Palm, in DC). I’m sure there were more, but I’m going to need prompting to pull those out.

My wife and I married shortly after meeting again at our 10 year reunion. She was very interested in healthy eating, which led to a long dalliance with Cooking Light magazine. She picked, I chopped, she cooked and we ate really well. But I don’t think I was really paying attention back then. It was just food. Tasty, healthy, but not interesting.

Then we started drinking wine. I think this really marks the departure for me. After one particularly interesting evening, we were sitting around the TV remarking on how very different buzzes were, depending on the medium delivering them. Beer made me belligerent. Booze made me cantakerous. Wine made me feel giddy. It was weird. That revelation led us to drinking wine. A lot of wine.

Which led me to Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate. Eventually. Backing up … way back in college, we used to have wine parties. Everyone invited would bring a bottle and we’d drink them all. The headaches from these parties were epic. It was from drinking these $5 bottles of plonk that I earned a strong distaste for tannic wine, which I mistakenly called “dry”. So, when ordering out, I’d specifically ask for “not too dry” when getting a red. Which meant “sweet” to the waiter. When the waiter would ask me wtf I was ordering sweet wine with steak for, I’d reply “Oh no, I don’t want sweet wine!” This took about 10 years for me to sort out … err … clue in on.

Flash forward to married-life. We both had jobs. We had no kids (then). So, we ate out. A lot. Living in Annapolis allowed us to walk to some tremendous restaurants. Wine was de rigeur. We moved. Ate out less, bought more wine for home. Moved to DC. Lots and lots of trips to Pearsons. A sip, a comment, and Larry behind the “bar” telling me I was an idiot. Good times.

Eventually, I was buying five, six cases of mixed bottles of wine at a pop and blowing through them in a month or two. At which point my wise and beautiful wife suggested we find a way to “get more for less”. Her reasoning: a great $100 bottle is no surprise — it had better be great for that price — but a great $10 bottle … now that is a treasure. So, I needed a better, more reliable way to rate my wine prior to purchase — I mean, there’s a LOT of cheap wine out there.

In my humble opinion, wine knowledge is pretty much a waste of time. Knowing regions, growers, and vintners is a lot of fun, to be sure. But it’s a fact that great wine is a hit or miss affair — no two vintages are likely to be the same, even when the region, growers and vintners are all identical. One year, perfection! The next … not so much. Learning wine quickly became an exercise in memorization — and like I said, there’s a LOT of cheap wine out there.

Enter the wine reviewer. The trick is to find one who’s taste is similar to yours. Over the last 10 years, I’ve used reviews by the big three: Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. Only the latter is the most systematically and consistenty agreeable — to me. YMMV, of course. So, thus began a wine course in FINE wine. I set the bar at 90+ and had at it. My wine motto: “life is too short to drink good wine — it has to be great.” And it’s worked out for me.

But getting back to food. Wine pairing was what made the jump for me. Flavor profiles, aroma signatures, all that stuff came together in a way that was pretty interesting at the time, searching for the “perfect pairing”. It’s an elusive pursuit, and today, I pretty much think its all crap. If you like the wine, chances are, it’ll go great with the food. Sure there are some rules-of-thumb, but there’s no absolutes.

But the upshot was that I was finally paying attention. I started reading Cooks Illustrated.

We’d been getting the magazine for years. I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention. No food porn pics! Oh well. But now I was reading it. Cover to cover. I couldn’t get enough. The notion that recipes were merely guides was alien. And then these guys not only showed you how to make something — they showed you how to NOT make it, too. Simply amazing, and probably ranks as revelation #2 in my culinary experience.

I started cooking then. I think that was perhaps two, three years ago now. My wife, in her infinite patience and supreme kindness, sent me to my first cooking class at L’Academie de Cuisine in 2007. Knife Skills, with Chef Brian Patterson. A great place to start. And now that I know how to use my knife I can mangle myself much more efficiently.

I’ve taken half-a-dozen classes there, but this year, I decided to take it up a notch and started the part-time professional program there in January. Enough is enough, I want to know what the heck I’m doing. What is the proper way to cook a steak? A mushroom? A scallop? A potato? I didn’t know any of this — at least, not then.

I have no idea where this is going. I suspect it’s something more than a hobby, but it’s still too soon to tell. All I know is this — I love eating. And drinking. And being able to do it all myself is intoxicating.

This blog is my attempt to capture what I’m learning. Hope it’s useful to someone — but really, its about me. Have fun! I am.

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