It was Thursday night, and supper was not going as planned. Due to a desire to try out a couple recipes I'd gleaned off the internet, along with satisfying a craving for smokey meat and gooey cheese, I had intended to pare some of our staple farmer sausage (I'm married to a Mennonite) with a homemade mac and cheese (which I found here) and stuffed zucchini boats (which my cousin found here and shared with her sister over Facebook as part of a conversation that showed up on my newsfeed...all the world's a conference room where the players meander aimlessly and eavesdrop on each other's conversations...but I digress). A look at the pantry, however, revealed such a large back-log of Annie's Mac & Cheese that making my own seemed superfluous, and my loan zucchini, while still mostly edible, was no longer boat-able. So it seemed I would have to make do with faux-cheese (70% organic faux-cheese, but still - not so gooey) and amputated fried zucchini.
I was standing over a pot of bubbling shelleroni, looking morosely over my pan of sausage and onions to the bowl of still-fresh - but chopped - zucchini that would never know the pull of slightly melted cheddar, when inspiration hit. I had the makings of a casserole. Without waiting for conscious thought to catch up with my intuition, I threw the beleaguered squash in with the sausage, pulled the pasta off the heat before it quite hit al dente, and shredded some real(!) cheddar cheese. I began my imitation roux by frying the garlic I'd intended for the zucchini in butter before mixing in the package of "sauce". Knowing I needed to cover much more than just pasta, I added some extra milk and stirred in a tablespoon or so of flour along with some smoked paprika, to complement the sausage, and dried thyme, which I vaguely remembered from the aforementioned recipe for scratch mac & cheese. It didn't seem to be thickening even after adding more flour, but, rather than double checking a recipe, I just threw in some cheese - oookay, now it's thick. I combined the pasta with the sausage, mixed in my near-congealing sauce, covered it all with the rest of my shredded cheese, popped it under the broiler, et voilà! A satisfyingly gooey, smokey cheese experience for Rachel (I let the rest of my family eat it too).
It may sound like an episode from the Adventures of Suzy Homemaker, but this little experiment of mine represents a real step forward in overcoming an old intellectual block. If I may borrow the terminology from "The Trouble With Bright Girls" (found, once again, by a friend via Facebook), cooking was once labelled as one of my "innate" inabilities. It was the first on my list of shunned-as-impossible skills that I ended up trying despite myself, and discovering that I was, indeed, able to accomplish, if not perfectly, then at least passably. It could even be fun. I just needed to try harder and pay more attention. It was then that I first began to question my self-imposed dichotomy of "do well" and "can't do at all", and to wonder what other potentially enjoyable activities I was denying myself just because they didn't come as naturally as math or English. It was my first inkling of how self-definition can double as self-limitation.
I had this little epiphany back when I was a teenager. And while it did keep me from avoiding the kitchen altogether, it wasn't until time and circumstance had me cooking on a daily basis that I began to free myself from the bondage of recipes. As it turns out, I'd acquired culinary improvisation much like sight singing; if I try to analyze every interval, I'll never keep up, but years of practice have led to a muscle memory of what it feels like to sing them. And so I do, almost subconsciously, and likewise my hand migrates to the right jar in the spice cabinet. I still use recipes most of the time, but more as a guideline than an unbreakable law. Gone are the days where the lack of a key ingredient has put supper at peril; I know enough about what might and might not go together to risk a few substitutions. What makes it to the table may be a far cry from what the recipe-writer had intended, but it usually tastes pretty good all the same. I do believe Michael Smith would approve.
Speaking of supper, there's a plate of thawing chicken thighs awaiting my attention. Time to think like a bright boy ;)