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I am Not Jaques

I once listened to chef Jaques Pepin describe his process for inventing a recipe. He explained that he cooked, taking notes as he went, and that after tasting the finished dish he would attempt to figure out what worked and what didn’t and to revise it for the next version.

Last night I was in the position of “inventing,” due to the fact that the mushrooms I had bought to make this had gone bad during a hectic week. I was feeling like something spicy, maybe Mexican-esque, and had about 2 pounds of pork tenderloin, most of a can of San Marzano tomatoes, and the usual assortment of garlic, onions and spices. I sliced two onions and cooked them in oil, added 3 cloves of smashed and chopped garlic, cubed the meat, and browned it. I then shook in an improbably amount of Chipotle chile powder (no fresh chiles in the house), cubed the meat and browned it in this mixture. I took notes, feeling a bit foolish about the fact that, if the dish was a flop, there would be documentary evidence of my naive belief that I was creating something worthy of re-creation and refinement.

So far, I was in relatively safe territory. If I added the tomatoes and stewed the mixture over low heat for a couple of hours, I would have a sort of pork chile to serve over rice, maybe with some shredded cheese and avocado. Tasting the mixture, though, I found it to be almost so hot as to be inedible. Often, in these cases, I add some sugar to balance the heat, but my eyes were drawn to a corner of the cupboard which contained half a box or pitted prunes left over from a Moroccan dish. It occurred to me that the prunes would essentially dissolve in slow cooking, adding sweetness and maybe a depth of flavor that I couldn’t get from mere cane sugar. I added the prunes (maybe a cup) and let the Mex-roccan fusion stew cook for three hours over the lowest possible heat, until the tomatoes and prunes became disembodied flavor (with a little help from my wooden spoon) and the pork became tender. I served the dish over rice, skipping the cheese which sounded unpleasant to me with the sweet-hot mixture. I dished up, turning my notes face-down on the counter in a sort of defense against possible failure.

It was, in the words of Randy Jackson, “just okay.” The pork was tender, the sauce was rich and spicy, but there was definitely something missing. Salt helped, but I kept thinking that there was something I could have changed that would have taken the dish from “okay” to “great,” only I lack the culinary depth to figure out what that something might be. Or perhaps the issue was not one of different ingredients, but  of the proportions. Maybe more onions and garlic and less prunes. Maybe less chile powder, no prunes and just plain sugar. Maybe fresh, diced chiles which would have added texture and little “pops” of heat as they hit the tongue and teeth.

Alas, I am not Jaques Pepin. On a good day, I could definitely beat Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee with my spoon tied behind my back, but I am just not able to invent dishes with a 100% success rate because I have not cooked long enough, read widely enough, or experimented enough. I saved my notes, and maybe the day will come again that I have similar ingredients and feel like something spicy. Maybe not. For now, I think I’ll just keep learning and playing and taking risks whenever I can.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

6 responses »

  1. Lime maybe? (I might even consider little chunks of “preserved” lime–done up like preserved lemon–along with some lime juice?)

  2. Well hello, Dr. Dreger! Is there someplace to get preserved limes around here, or do I need to preserve them myself? Actually, if I’m going to do Moroccan cooking it wouldn’t hurt to have some preserved lemons and limes around. I’ll try this again with some lime and let you know.

  3. Hey there,
    Great blog. Joyce Goldstein has a great sweet preserved lemon recipe in her Mediterranean Kitchen Cookbook. I keep a jar of them on hand. I like them better than the bitter ones with the salt.
    I think limes done this way would be fab..
    Check it out.

  4. all i can say is “you go girl”

  5. I have never actually heard of preserved limes — I just made that up, as one is apt to do when suggesting what someone *else* should cook! 🙂 I’m going to try this week preserving some limes and lemons (separately) and see what happens. But for the recipe you were working on, I was thinking that chopped up bits of lime (with skin) would be tasty. My tendency these days when I want to add salt is to try lime instead, because I love the taste of lime so much. When I suggested bits with skin, I was thinking of that Thai appetizer that has all the bits of stuff (including lime with skin, dried shrimp, coconut shavings, chopped roasted peanuts) that you roll up in a green leaf and eat. Mmmm…..

  6. Mary, thanks! My mom actually owns that cookbook, and I will steal it from her and make some preserved lemons. I have been feeling Morrocan a lot, lately (in the kitchen, anyway), and I think I may have many uses for them. Thanks for visiting, and for a good resource.

    claudia, this probably wasn’t up to your standards, but you have a better flair for the combination of flavors than I do. I’m still learning.

    Alice, I would LOVE to have some of your preserved limes or lemons, although if i remember correctly it takes ages for them to get “preserved.” I guess that means neither of us ca move until the preservation and delivery process is complete. As for that appetizer, I have never had it but it sounds like my personal idea of heaven. I would like some right now.


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