Friday, December 23, 2005

Perfectionism: the enemy in the kitchen

Well, here I am in balmy Massachusetts, where upended trees are still strewn hither and yon from the nasty storm that came through a few weeks ago. My parents had at least four trees come down in the yard but luckily none of them hit the house or did major damage. They did lose power for several days.

I haven't been up here since June, and I wasn't able to visit for the holidays at all last year, so it's nice to be here. One way to treat my parents is to cook a meal for them. Last night I thought I'd try "Garlic Fried Shrimp" from Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian. Of course, once I arrived in the kitchen, variables were introduced. My parents' electric range cooks hotter than mine. They picked up a bunch of veggies for the stir-fry although the recipe doesn't call for them.

The idea of the recipe is the Vietnamese technique of cooking garlic and onion down into a syrup (with the help of oil, sugar, fish sauce, salt and pepper). Once this is done, then the syrup is poured off and separated from the oil. The oil stays in the pan and is used to stir-fry the shrimp. Then the sauce is returned to the pan, heated through, and the shrimp and sauce are served over jasmine rice.

It was probably a mistake for me to try this technique (a new one for me) in a new kitchen with an audience I wanted to impress. The garlic-onion-syrup mixture quickly cooked down into something that looked more burned than anything else. I hacked as much of it as possible out of the pan and set it aside in a bowl. Then I started stir-frying the veggies, adding first the asparagus spears, then the sliced mushrooms, then the shrimp, then the pea pods. Stir-frying did pick up a lot of the burned crispy stuff left over from the sauce.

Then came the time to add the sauce back in, but when I attempted to scoop it out of the bowl, it came flying out and skated across the kitchen floor in a perfect imitation of a hockey puck. The mess had congealed and crystalized, doubtlessly abetted by the sugar. My mother opined that it was rather like a kind of candy, and even thought it didn't taste bad. All I knew was that it wasn't remotely what had been supposed to happen. Argh! So I just finished up the stir-fry and dumped the shrimp and veggies over the jasmine rice (which came out fine despite boiling over).

I couldn't think of the dish as a success since the end product was so different from what the recipe intended. But my parents loved it. I grudgingly had to admit that it was a successful meal, just not the successful meal that I had set out to prepare. And that's the real joy of cooking - those surprises that come along and teach you more about cooking than the tried-and-true comfortable dishes. Take the asparagus, for example. It was the first time I'd cooked asparagus, because I'm not a big fan of it. My dad loves it, though, so it went into the stir-fry as a treat for him. It came out perfectly done, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Even I liked it.

Someday, I'll try that recipe again and get it "right." But last night's meal will last longer in memory for its "imperfection."


obachan said...

Oh, what an experience! But I can see the love between you and your parents. Lovely story. :)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
I hope the year 2006 will bring you a lot of joy.

Winslow said...

Hi Obachan,

You're right, it was quite the experience, but I was glad my parents enjoyed the meal. That was really the main thing.

Happy holidays and a wonderful new year to you, too! Thanks. :)