There is a comforting romance to tracing your culinary roots back to grandma’s stained cookbooks or memories of mom letting you wear her apron and stir. These bits of nostalgia are stereotypically accented with the recollection of shared kitchen laughter and lessons learned at the elbows of others—food preparation that bonded the family and ended in feasts of Norman Rockwell perfection.
In my case, however, this love affair with formulas and mixtures and experiments began in the garage. My father had set up an old Formica-topped table, behind the cars and next to the lawn mower, where I could spend hours by myself just messing around in my own imaginary kitchen. I made milk by shaking together baby powder and water in a cast-off baby bottle, “reduced” dish detergent by pouring it into a plastic bowl and leaving it out in the sun until it congealed. Once, after I saw a special on PBS, I even took a handful of clay from some craft supplies we had and formed my own wine vat, mashing up grapes from our vines and sealing this mixture inside, burying the whole thing in the ground just as I had seen on TV. The next spring when I unburied the clay container and brought a glass of the reeking fermented liquid to my mother, the color drained from her face at the idea that I might have been drinking it. I was only eight, but still—perhaps they should not let me spend quite so much time alone in the garage.
Polaroids from my 1st grade science fair project. The experimental side of cooking is what attracted me.
I didn’t think much about those days once school and friends and violin lessons took over my focus and “playtime” was a thing of my past. In college I cooked to survive, and as a single working woman in New York, I cooked only on the rare occasion that I was actually in my apartment long enough to eat. Once I married, moved, and established a real home, cooking became a more seriously integrated part of living and my inner mad scientist reawoke. My fridge is now crammed with jars of housemade pickles and chutneys and various condiments. I lug home gallons of whole milk that I turn into yogurt and cheeses, fruit and honey that I ferment into mead. My freezer is packed with flours and yeasts of various sorts; I keep a jar filled with the latest sourdough starter, a life that I labored to bring into this world and yet now keep forgetting to feed.
I love to research but I’m not such a fan of measuring, so my favorite dishes tend to be more memory than recipe-based. In the process, I destroy and I discover. I’m still eight-years old really, just better outfitted this time.
Shake and Pour Pantry Peanut Dressing
When it comes to dinner salads, there is a point between a heavy dairy laced dressing and a simple vinaigrette that I often find myself seeking in order to accent a full meal of raw vegetables. More often than not, I’ll end up turning to this spunky peanut butter-based recipe. Though honestly, I feel like the instructions which follow should read along the lines of: “Open refrigerator. Remove several complimentary condiments. Shake together and pour.” Because really that’s what I do. I promise I actually measured the recipe below, but I’m never so careful in real life. I almost always forget at least one ingredient, and sometimes I add others, such as honey or toasted sesame oil. If there’s not enough of something, I just use something else.
As if that wasn’t a slippery enough slope, I also adjust it several times throughout its shelf-life to suit different purposes. Need it thicker for cooked veggies or as a dumpling dipping sauce? Spoon in more peanut butter and shake. Need it thinner again to cover another round of salads or to kick up some quinoa? Taste and add more liquid and adjust heat–usually a bit of soy sauce and a squeeze of mustard will do it.
2-3 T peanut butter (processed or natural, chunky or smooth)
4 T tamari (I use reduced sodium)
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. mustard
1/2 tsp tuong ot toi (vietnamese chili garlic paste)
Measure all ingredients into a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until well combined. Taste and adjust balance to suit your tastes. Refrigerate until needed.