Cooking is like sex—you feel your way through it, you endure on senses, you wait for inspiration to vaporize from ruffage.
Then, you strike.
No, no, it’s not about the formula of things! Scientists are better in the bakery than the kitchen, but this is the truth: You sear a steak in a cast iron pan over a fabulously hot flame. You do not toss it into a Pyrex glass baking dish, throw it in the oven, and expect a crusty cut. These are the basics. And you should know them.
But whatever causes that much beloved crust—entrée to the tenderness within—is well within the laws of chemistry to shift and change. A simple dusting of pepper might do the trick, as would a rub of cumin and cayenne—even a fleur de sel concoction with onion powder and a hint of garlic. There isn’t a rule, for if there were a rule, dinner would be little more than steamed broccoli and hard-boiled eggs. We don’t eat because we enjoy consistency; we eat because we relish surprise. Anyone who says differently is fooling themselves (or selling something).
At the same time, there are things we have come to expect: Hot dogs with artificially yellow mustard; hamburgers served on anemic, deflated buns; and spaghetti served with tomato sauce and never anything else. There are a few brave souls out there trying to upset the gustatory beast that prevails in this country—Grant Achatz being one of the most noble. In his own words, “food in an opportunity to be expressive, and therefore, food is art.” To wit: Out with what’s in.
Whoever looked at a Picasso and claimed there was a reasonable, mathematical explanation for noses on butts and heads twice the width of torsos? You get my point. Julia Child was famous because she was charismatic and adventurous. She had no appetite for science in the kitchen. What she imparted was less instruction than encouragement: Find the courage to trust your taste buds. The rest will follow suit.
These days, I often balk when white wines are presented as apt pairings for crown roasts and racks of lamb. “Don’t you know it’s a red occasion!?” I bellow inside my head. And then I see the sommeliers of starred restaurants pouring Pinot Gris with filet mignon. The boat is overturned and I must somehow swim back to shore.
All I mean is: Forget the numbers game. Recall the glory of taste, and let it design your meals. Sure, it helps to do a little self-education, but don’t over-educate. The proof in the pudding is not the measurements we cannot taste, but the flavor that we can. Trust that you have your own worthy palate and indulge it for a while. You may find that hamburgers are better off with toast points and pesto, and hot dogs are best substituted for brats and beer.