Picture a chef at work in their kitchen.
I’m guessing you imagine a human dynamo: someone dicing shallots with lightning speed while simultaneously managing five flaming pans on the cooktop and shouting out directions to their crew.
And that would be an accurate depiction of life in a professional kitchen, sometimes.
But the idea behind it — the one that equates cooking with intense doing — can have a negative effect on an everyday cook like me, and perhaps also you. There are times when cooking, even cooking from scratch, mostly takes restraint.
I learned this lesson several years ago, when I was an assistant cook at a summer camp for 200 girls in central Vermont. Another cook and I were assigned to make tempura vegetables for supper. The other cook, J, was tall, muscular and tattooed; she entered the kitchen at the beginning of her shift like a kickboxer entering the ring. She scared me.
That day, we stood side by side at an enormous gas range, each facing a pan the size of a truck tire filled with hot oil, with a small mountain of vegetables and a bowl of batter off to the side.
We dipped the vegetables in the batter, lowered them into the oil and waited for them to turn crisp and golden. Except we didn’t wait. We pushed them this way and that until all the batter fell off and the naked vegetables got singed.
For the next batch, I decided to try leaving the batter-dipped veggies alone to fry in peace while I quietly hummed a few lines of “Let it Be” in my head. I flipped them and did it again. They came out just right. I transferred them to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and made another batch.
J, meanwhile, poked and nudged her vegetables this way and that, her vehemence increasing as she disrobed batch after batch. She eyed my operation suspiciously. “Maybe try moving them around less?” I offered meekly.
“I don’t need advice,” she huffed. She turned her flames up, then down, and carried on until she’d fried up a dozen batches of naked vegetables and a great pile of batter bits.
Suddenly she said, “Let’s switch pans. Mine isn’t working.”
“OK,” I said.
The outcome was exactly the same.
I hate wasting food even more than I love some well-earned schadenfreude. But the main reason I remember that afternoon has to do with something else.
I am more like J than I care to admit; I compulsively stir pots, peek in ovens and push things around in a sauté pan — even when I’m not the one in charge of whatever is happening in those pots and pans. I like to tinker, in other words. But that day I learned that sometimes tinkering is not merely unnecessary, it’s actually deleterious.
I’m the same when it comes to recipes. I rarely follow one to the letter, instead adding or adjusting various ingredients. So when my friend Zanne told me over lunch the other day about a wickedly simple buttermilk soup made with four ingredients, all cold, and all simply stirred together, I was already imagining that I would tweak it.
I continued imagining even after Zanne told me that the recipe was a favorite of legendary food writer M.F.K Fisher, that Gourmet magazine had featured it a handful of times and that The Gourmet Cookbook included a slightly more elaborate version.
Then I tried it.
And, yeah, it was delicious. I stepped back and admired it, just as it was. Let it be, I said to myself. Then I added a few sprigs of dill, because I couldn’t help it.
Cold Buttermilk and Shrimp Soup
Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook (2004)
- ½ pound medium shrimp in shells (31 to 35 per pound)
- 1 quart well-shaken buttermilk
- 1-2 teaspoons dry mustard (to taste; see note)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ pound cucumbers, peeled, seeded and finely chopped, plus a few slices for garnish (optional)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
- A few sprigs dill (optional)
Cook shrimp in boiling salted water until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Drain.
When shrimp are cool enough to handle, peel and devein. Reserve 2 or 3 shrimp for garnish, covered and refrigerated, and chop the remainder.
Whisk together buttermilk, mustard, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add chopped shrimp, cucumbers and chives, and stir. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold, about 3 hours.
Chop reserved shrimp or slice lengthwise. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with shrimp and cucumber slices, if using (plus dill).
Note: Zanne likes Coleman’s dry mustard.