Friday, December 28, 2007

Who's Afraid of a Big Pot? Part I

They say there are two types of fear: irrational fear, commonly known as phobia, and rational fear. Fear is a natural human instinct and reaction to a perceived threat, and is meat to keep us safe. A phobia, on the other hand, is a completely irrational reaction to something that in reality poses no genuine threat to our safety. I began to consider fear and phobia this week as my mother and I prepared to cook our first full meal together. It was one of my favorite dishes, and one that I make sure to sample every time that I'm in Spain. Unfortunately, as I've grown older, my trips to the motherland have become less frequent, so I was thrilled when my mom suggested that we make the dish, cocido madrileƱo, on Christmas day.

I figured since we'd be spending the whole day at home, that we'd be making cocido the old fashioned way. The dish is basically a long simmering stew of meats, veggies and chickpeas that results in a rich broth (as a first course) and a platter full of proteins and veggies (as a second course). Traditionally, it takes anywhere from 2-4 hours to make, but actually requires very little effort on the part of the cook--it's really just a matter of time on the stove. So, why, if it's so easy, did fear set in? Well, my mother decided that we would be cutting corners in order to reduce the cooking time, and it would involve the one cooking vessel that I fear: the pressure cooker. Nooooooooooo!

You see, the pressure cooker was omnipresent in my home as a child, and was a very helpful tool in my mother's cooking repertoire. Hearty, balanced meals were cooked in minutes after coming home from work, but tasted of all day effort. I had fond memories of the pressure cooker (despite warnings that if used improperly it could blow your face off) and enthusiastically purchased a small one when I moved into my first studio apartment several years ago. Needless to say, it was my first attempt at using the pressure cooker by myself that led to my fear (or phobia?). It overheated, created too much pressure within the pot, and locked itself tight (which in later years I came to learn was actually a safety mechanism designed to keep the lid from exploding). Terrified that it would blow clear through the ceiling (or my face) if forced open, I finally gave up. A few hours later I tried opening it again to no avail. The pricey pressure cooker, the bean stew trapped inside, and my resolve as a chef, went straight into the garbage.

So it was with some trepidation that I set forth towards the hardware store on Christmas Eve in search of a pressure cooker. Not only would I have to face my fear, I'd have to buy it. Yikes. I ended up with a bigger, scarier model than the one I had before and feared that a bigger, scarier meltdown would ensue. We began making the meal in the uncovered pot to the sound of Christmas carols. And it was nice--really nice--until the pot came to a boil and it came time to clamp on the lid and let the pressure do its thing. My mother tried clamping on the lid and it wouldn't budge. I tried (not very hard) and (not surprisingly) also failed. We ended up having to grease the rim of the pot and finally managed to get the lid on. I distracted myself from the impending doom of lid removal by setting up my camera and lighting equipment for photos of the final dish.

After 30 minutes of cooking and a few more of cooling, the time came to open the cooker. My mother reached out to the looming H-bomb before us, and with nothing more than a flick of her tiny wrists, removed the lid. I asked her how she did it and why she wasn't scared, and with the confidence and culinary bravery of a pro said, "I've been doing this for 40 years. Besides, who's afraid of a big pot?" Too embarrassed to raise my hand, I feigned distraction and began plating the meats. She was right--who is afraid of a big pot? Why had I been hiding in the living room under the guise of photography, while my mother fearlessly took on the frightening deathtrap before us? If she could do it, then so could I. I marched into the kitchen, chopped a few potatoes, added them to the pot and clamped on the lid. I slid the cooker back onto the burner and waited.

Two minutes later the potatoes were done and the lid had to come off. I ran the pot under cold water (just lifting it into the sink was progress enough for me) to help release the pressure, and waited for it to cool. I braced for the impact and held my face as far back as possible as I twisted the the pot open. With barely even a whisper of pressure, the lid came off and the aroma of a long simmered stew flooded the air of my minuscule kitchen. I'd not only overcome my fear by facing it head on (quite literally) but I got an amazing meal as a result. We plated up the soup, added the veggies and chickpeas to the meat platter and set aside a bowl of condiments. The meal was complete, and I had one fear almost entirely conquered--after all, I have yet to do it alone.

The final dish was outstanding, even though my mother insists that it's the least successful cocido she's ever made. Fortunately, she blames the pressure cooker and not me. Evidently, it's just too big and fancy, with too many bells and whistles. I liked the meal just the same, even though a few ingredients like ham bones were hard to find in Manhattan and didn't make it into the dish. If I'd had more time to prepare and less phobias to deal with, I probably would have found them somewhere. We did find the peperoncini that are served alongside the dish for heat, and a nice bottle of red wine, which, according to my mother is a must. I'll be posting the recipe and some background on the dish in a forthcoming entry (part II), now that I'm done venting. Now if I could only get over my fear of flying or my fear of clowns, it would be a very happy new year indeed :)


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