It is rare, at least for me, that an old blog post should make a comeback. But a recent surge in views of On Cooking and Living Sensually, originally published in November 2017, prompted me to revisit that discussion early this morning. To decide if, a year and a half later, my thoughts on the special role that cooking plays in forging a creative, sensual, and aesthetically rich existence are still the same. And I’m pleased to say they are, but there’s more…
In my original post, I noted that when I am in the kitchen, I consider myself the epitome of concentration. I am fully sensorially engaged. Moving back and forth between tasks. Working with my eyes, my hands, my ears. By taste, by smell, by intuition. Mindfully. Artfully. I am at one with myself and at one with the moment. And I am being guided almost solely by instinct. To me, this kind of engagement is the equivalent of moving meditation, of whistling while you work, if you will. It’s not only aesthetically rewarding, but also soulful, as this kind of practice serves to refine and hone our instincts, our innate poetic faculties. For me, a ritual among rituals. Here are some additional thoughts on cooking sensually:
Taste, taste, taste.
If you’ve ever made a brand new recipe from start to finish—especially for a party or other special occasion—in a state of prayerful vigilance (Please, God, let this taste good!), then you understand the value of tasting as you cook. Indeed, in the first part of this discussion, I talk at length about the importance of seasoning food with our hands. Because that is how we learn to season precisely. It’s also an important step in imparting flavor by, say, really massaging a dry rub into a piece of meat. But, to be sure, it would be impossible to learn how to season accurately and precisely without tasting what we’re seasoning as we’re seasoning it.
And for those of us who view cooking as equal parts life-sustaining responsibility and sensual ceremony, tasting is also very much an art. An indispensable exercise in educating our palates. For instance, you’ll never know how much salt is too much for you, which spices tend to overpower others, or which tend to bloom and change in taste with long cooking times if you don’t taste your food periodically and adjust your seasonings as you go. Tasting likewise opens up an exciting new world of sensory experience. If, for example, you’ve ever tasted a completed dish and felt that it was somehow flat, that “something” was missing—but you couldn’t point your finger at what—and then experienced the vivifying effect of a simple splash of lemon juice over the plate, you know the magic of experiencing how your ingredients work together. How they harmonize.
The more comfortable you become with the process of tasting and adjusting, the more confident you can be in experimenting with flavors and textures going forward. With creating your own sensual experience from scratch.
Plate like it is an art form.
Plating should involve as many of the senses as possible. Ladle soups into their bowls carefully and place your garnishes on top with care. Do wipe the rim of the bowl to clean up any stray splashes. Toss salads with your hands, so you can ensure by feel that they are properly dressed. And arrange them on the plate with your fingers. Sprinkle fresh herbs or a brightly-colored sauce over a plate for color…but do it with care. Otherwise, your herbs—if not chopped well and scattered over the plate evenly—may be dangerously close to looking like a pile of lawnmower clippings.
Don’t create a meal. Create an experience.
That means being cognizant of the details. From table settings to lighting, music, and room decor. I, for example, am a stickler for lighting. For cozy dinners served in dimly and warmly lit, ambient spaces. Usually with a soft, lounge-y vibe. Hone your aesthetic abilities here. Figure out what feel you want your meal to have and then create around it. Focus on the whole—on that lingering feeling you want your guests to keep with them long after they’ve left—and the parts will fall into place.