Plate of the Union: The Joys of Campus Cooking

October 24, 2013

This is the first year I have had access to a full kitchen at Georgetown (sorry Village B, but size matters), and it has been a blast to experiment with cooking and develop a culinary personality.

Sriracha hot sauce features heavily in my food identity. Try any dish that comes out of my kitchen, and probability says you will ingest a healthy dose of Sriracha. I have to buy this stuff in bulk because of how I often I use it. Eggs, pasta, soup, meatloaf—you name it, and I’ve put Sriracha on it. Thus far, I’ve only managed to avoid squeezing a bit of the good stuff into baked goods.

From time to time, I’ll peruse Pinterest to get ideas for dinner party menus. But really, I usually just throw things into a pan, turn up the heat, and hope for the best.

We live in an age with instant access to tens of thousands of recipes. At the click of a button, my computer screen will display 40 different ways to make the perfect pizza dough. A Google search for “chocolate chip cookies” yields more recipes than I would gander or are even possible to bake in a lifetime.

Some of the more popular cooking websites are incredibly helpful tools for working in the kitchen. An algorithm counts how many eighths of a tablespoon of baking powder you’ll need to make a batch of pancakes for one, if you’re all alone and hungry for breakfast.

My mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking certainly lacks that function and other high tech characteristics of these recipe sites. I’ll admit that The Joy of Cooking has not seen much use at our house in years, but the book sports an impressive array of marginalia from my mom’s years in graduate school. There are notes about adjusting the oven temperature and better instructions for mixing ingredients penciled in the empty spaces of the cookbook’s pages.

This advice is certainly helpful, but they pale in comparison to whispers about “the secret touch” or “secret ingredients” exchanged in the kitchen between generations of chefs.

In the world of digitalized recipes, the opportunity to customize ingredients isn’t encouraged. There are small check boxes next to each “correct” ingredient, a handy tool when you aren’t sure whether you already added the baking powder, but one which can stifle culinary creativity. While baking with a friend once, I suggested we add a dollop of Greek yogurt. “But it’s not on the recipe,” she said.

Her observation was true, but I’m not convinced that deviating from the recipe necessarily dooms a dish to disaster status. Martha Stewart leaves a lot of things out from her recipes, but that does not mean they should not be added to the mixing bowl.

Your grandmother’s cookies aren’t delicious because she followed the recipe to a tee. They’re delicious because she has a heavy hand when pouring in vanilla and because she has spent decades experimenting with flavors and butter-to-sugar ratios to make the recipe her own. Recipes become special when we tinker with them.

Of course, you can Google “secret ingredients” and find endless accounts of perfect additions that give unexpected flavor to any dish. Yet this misses a big point of so-called secret ingredients. It takes out a large part of the fun of experimentation. Google doesn’t get the message “Don’t add chili peppers to strawberry cake” across in quite the same way as taking a big bite of a foul-tasting baked good that you tried to give a bit of pizazz.

Because what if chili peppers in strawberry cake actually taste good? You won’t know unless you experiment.

The best meals I’ve ever cooked were always the result of this “Why not?” attitude. After a long night of dancing and sipping on Tombs Ale, “Why not?” was the guiding principle behind emptying the contents of my refrigerator to make the best mac ‘n’ cheese ever. Dumping a can of beer into the salsa bowl at a party (because “Why not?”) might not end up tasting as good as pouring beer into a pot of chili, but the process of experimentation is equally important in both cases.

So don’t be dismayed if your search for the perfect secret ingredient sometimes yields a less-than-delectable product. (This is college, after all, so someone on this campus will likely eat it regardless of its taste.) Rather, buck up and press on. Try different combinations, different additives, and different methods of mixing everything together.

Good luck, and don’t forget to invite me over if your homemade tikka misala turns out to be amazing.

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