Innovative or Wacky

While my passion for Iron Chef America has waned over the last few years, I am for various reasons amazed by the Next Iron Chef American competition and glad that Alex Guarnaschelli is doing so well again this season (go Team Alex). What has inspired me this week were two things: the chairman’s challenge for this past week of innovation and my friend Warren Caterson’s post on Facebook about this being Wacky Wednesday. Personally, I think he created this day, but I can always use a “reason” to be wacky. For those of you who did not watch this episode, there were three global street foods, tacos, falafel, and bahn mi’s. The chefs were assigned one of these three street foods and then told to be innovative and create a new approach to it. While Chef Faulkner’s bahn mi pasta did not appease the palettes of the judges, her idea reminded me of bruschetta pasta I had made once that was really quite good.
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Lower Lies, Higher Zen

As I have been thinking about my reflection for this week, I found myself wanting to go back to where I started almost two years ago, the whole notion that the kitchen and the process of preparing food can be a state of Zen. Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk, wrote this about Zen. He said it is “A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence on words and letters; Direct pointing to the mind of man; seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.” Being able to attain a zenful state is the ability to realize a state of enlightenment in one’s own time. “Zazen melts away the mind-forged distances that separate man from himself; leads one beyond himself as knower, to himself as known. In Zazen, there is no reality outside what exists here and now. (http://www.amacord.com/taste/essays/zen.html).” Over the last two years I have listened to many people tell me why they do not cook, are scared to cook, do not have the knowledge to cook, and the list goes on.
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It’s not your Mama’s ground beef

Growing up my mother had a pretty set relationship with ground beef. You used it for a set number of dishes: hamburgers, meatballs, and stuffed cabbage. The only one of the three that was, what I as a young child, considered palatable was the stuffed cabbage. The hamburgers were, like any other meat, either still mooing or tasted like shoe leather. The meatballs were normally dry and tasteless and were not even craved by our dog Puggy. In her stuffed cabbage, however, somehow she managed to transform this everyday kind of ingredient into something special. I no longer have her recipe
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Oh what we were missing!

When I would go to visit Zoe in Alexandria, Virginia, we would pass this restaurant on Route 1 that had a large yellow sign out front that said Korean BBQ and Sushi. With neither of us ever having had Korean BBQ, we had no idea what we were missing. We both assumed it was like American BBQ and as Zoe does not like Sushi, it wound up never being a restaurant we went to. Oh what we were missing. A few weeks ago, I saw this sign on Facebook about the countries in the world that had the lowest percentages of overweight people and the number 1 country was Korea, followed by Japan. So I began learning a bit more about Korean cuisine. The most common dish I kept finding were various forms of Korean BBQ. In some respects, it is similar to American BBQ in that it can be marinated and then grilled; however, that is where the similarity ends.
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Seek, But Do Not Follow

Matsuo Basho, a Japanese Haiku poet, once wrote, When journeying upon the path of wisdom, do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. Seek the meaning behind their footsteps, and not upon the steps themselves. For in seeking the footsteps you shall be glancing only upon the next footprint. And you’re sure to stumble upon an unforeseen obstacle. But in seeking the meaning behind their footsteps you’re sure to see ahead; comparable to looking up while walking. Thus allowing you to easily maneuver around the hurdles on the path you walk. …And if you walk like this long enough, you’ll one day, to your surprise, find yourself among the wise.
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The must have and the go for it lesson.

This week I had this epiphany while I was baking. I baked dozens of biscuits and loaves of bread and in the process of being creative with my bread and biscuit making; I had one of those AHA moments. You know that moment when you see something you have never been able to see before. Or maybe you saw it before, but now you are seeing it in a new way. I have been aware of how my ability to become increasingly creative in the kitchen has enabled me to tap into a zenful state that avoids me when I am following someone else’s recipe. For me, it is like those shoes that feel great when you first try them on in the store, but after walking in them for a few hours, you realize they are nice, but not exactly what you are looking for. Unlike the shoes, I can adapt the recipe to the needs of my palette or that of the person or people for which I am cooking.
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Waffles Can Be Zenful Too

My guess is that when most people think about Zen the last thing they think about is a waffle. My guess is that very few people even think about cooking when they are thinking about Zen. For me, cooking is just one of the many ways that I work through all the programming and rules I have consciously and unconsciously agreed to in life. It is through the acknowledgment of the existence of the rules, but also the willingness to not limit myself to them, which allows me to find the Zen in cooking. It is when I tap into my intuitive creativity and my ability to express myself through my cooking that I am able to move beyond the boundaries and rules, experience, and create in a way I am not able to otherwise. I literally chop my way through barriers. As I was explaining this to a friend of mine the other day, she asked me if I had experienced this when I made waffles for Zoë’s surprise birthday party a few years ago. As I thought about it, I came to realize that it was through my waffle creations that day which I experienced Zen. I guess I should explain
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Making a way out of no way.

I had started writing this reflection a few days ago, but something kept me from posting it to my website. Perhaps, it was because I needed to go to Zoë’s last chemotherapy session first. A conversation with one of the husband’s there touched my heart. His wife was going through her third bout with cancer, this time in her throat. It was hard to get her to eat because nothing tasted good. He was beating himself up because he could not find a way to make food taste good to her. When you are on chemotherapy it affects your taste buds in ways you cannot describe to anyone else. For those preparing the food, it is a constant guessing game because what tasted good on Monday does not taste good on Tuesday. It can take the Zen out of cooking even for those who experience Zen while cooking. Learning how to make things taste good for Zoe has challenged me to really listen to why something does not taste good, so I can think about what will make it taste good. This is what I had asked this gentleman. What are her complaints?
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Trying not to get chopped!

If you have read my blog, you know that I am a chopped fanatic. Just about every episode I learn something new and exciting about food. I also learn a spiritual lesson in the process. The last few weeks have been a challenge in our kitchen and in my own way, I feel as if I have been on the chemo-care version of Chopped. I have no been given a basket of mystery ingredients from which I have to create an appetizer, entrée, and desert. Rather, Zoë’s taste buds are on a temporary vacation. It started a few weeks ago when most things started tasting like cardboard, and then I discovered the amazing ability of salt to take things from cardboard to palatable. I though I had it all worked out and could figure out how to create things that would make her enjoy eating again and not want to send the food back to the kitchen because it tastes like cardboard.
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Your basic vegetable stock – nothing more, nothing less.

I was talking to my brother this afternoon about cancer and how it has affected his life, the lives of friends, and now my partner who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the things her diagnosis made me think more consciously about was the impact of the food we eat and what it does in our system. I am not a super health freak. I am what my doctor would say “morbidly obese.” I have more excuses about why I cannot or do not exercise then Hasbro has games and Carter has pills, possibly combined. With a hectic life, I have enjoyed the convenience of packaged and processed foods. However, the last couple of months have catapulted me to this place of rethinking what I cook for my partner and I. So for the last two months, I have been trying to be more mindful about what goes in my body and working at making everything from scratch.
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Who Knew It Was This Easy?

Have you ever bought something at the grocery store just about every week because for some reason you thought it had to be so difficult and impossible to make at home. This is how I felt about tortillas. I cannot tell you how many tortillas, corn and flour; I have bought or eaten in my life. I have had whole wheat ones, tomato basil, spinach, and white flour ones. I had bought corn ones at the grocery store until a friend turned me on to the corn ones at the local Mexican grocery store. What do I love about tortillas? What is there not to love? You can stir fry them and throw them in with some eggs, cheese, peppers and other fresh herbs to make migas. You can use them as a wrap to make a breakfast burrito, a sandwich wrap, burritos filled with whatever and let us not forget the amazing quesadilla
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Teikkai

It can be a bit of a challenge to curl up anywhere to read a 700 plus page book. Yet this is what I found myself doing today as I began reading Deborah Madison’s book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. As I looked at this book for a moment, I had this wave of feelings that went through me as I wondered, for a moment, what I had just committed to doing this year as I cook my way through her book, seeking to develop a deeper relationship with the plant offerings I eat, developing my culinary skills, seeking to modify them when needed to be diabetic friendly, and inspire me to create new dishes. At the same time, there was this wave of excitement. This cookbook about vegetarian cooking has been compared to Julia Child’s cookbook on French cooking. So until I am done cooking the over 1400 recipes in this book, it will be Sharon and Deborah, just like it was Julie and Julia. Then the journey began and like Bastian in The Never Ending Story, I opened the book and began reading the Introduction to my new culinary and spiritual adventure
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Cooking can be a spiritual experience.

While I realize that for some people cooking can be a stressful experience, for me it is a spiritual experience. As I have read the stories of so many chefs, those well known (i.e. celebrity chefs) and those who most of us have never heard of, I have come to realize that for all too many people food saved their lives. Food, for so many chefs, is not just food. It has become the vehicle through which they found a deeper relationship with themselves, with their Higher Power, and with others. Food for them, and the preparation of it, is a spiritual experience. Cooking for me is like that as well. There are so many ways in which food and the preparation of it is spiritual. Recently, I read a quote by Heather Ash Amara who wrote “When we live our life as art we make room for creativity, flow, connection, synchronicity, and magic.”
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Lessons from my mystery box

Since I did not get any ingredients from anyone, I decided I would take one of the mystery boxes from Chopped and create something with them. Before I talk about the ingredients and what I made, I want to reflect a bit more on what it is about Chopped that I find so spiritually inspiring. One of the things I enjoyed most when I was pastoring, especially when I was going by the lectionary, was taking a series of scriptures that seemed to have nothing to do with each other and seek a way of bringing them together into a cohesive and inspirational message.
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God is in the details

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, a German architect, once said, “God is in the details” and Maezumi Roshi, a Zen monk said “details are all there are.” so what does that have to do with cooking. Creating in the kitchen is a process; it is like the story in the Hebrew Bible of how God created the earth. God would create something, look at it, and think it was good, but then the next day, God would create something else to go into this creation and so forth and so on. The creation was not a one time instant creation, it was an ongoing process of paying attention to the details, and tweaking it until it had become what was sought after at that moment. Creating in the kitchen is also about the details.
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Orange you glad, I didn’t say banana

One of the lessons I have learned in the kitchen is that there are no mistakes. Some of the most amazing dishes I have learned to make have come because I “made a mistake.” While someone else might say it was a mistake, I have come to realize everything I do is a part of the journey to a greater level of awareness, understanding, and creativity. The day that I accidentally bought curry paste thinking it might be a good substitute for the curry leaves I could not find anywhere, opened up a whole myriad of opportunities for me. Once I realized they were not substitutable, I began thinking about ways I could use this jar of paste because I certainly did not want to throw it away. I guess one could look at this situation and say I was seeking solutions to a problem. However, I saw it as a gift, which was going to allow me to experience a wealth of possibilities.
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