Slowing Down Great Food
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
From a food perspective, I’m fairly certain the households I grew up in were very similar to most American families in the late 80s and 90s. Both my parents worked demanding jobs and had odd hours—firefighting while going to grad school for fire science for dad and an emergency room as a nurse while also in graduate school to become a nurse practitioner for mom.
I bounced between their homes and my grandparents’ homes. No one truly had the time to slave away in the kitchen and create luxurious meals. My mother is a phenomenal cook and has always enjoyed good food. However, her modus operandi was primarily quick cooking, and by the early 2000s Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meal campaign had a tight grip on my mother’s cooking.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as there are amazing meals that anyone can make in minimal time, with the appropriate planning, organization, and skill. However, it sometimes sucks some of the soul out of the cooking process when you’re so focused and stressed about following a recipe just to potentially save time. Trust me, ultimately, you’ll spend more time scrutinizing the words on the page and double backing to check the measurement of that little ¼ tsp of ground black pepper than just going with the flow.
I do understand that if you are a person that isn’t comfortable cooking, or just not accustomed to cooking a particular dish, uncertainty makes it truly difficult to just go with the flow. Even culinarians have doubts and fears that something may not work out, especially if they’re just learning a technique.
There’s the phrase “fake it, ‘til you make it” that is extremely applicable to many things in a person’s life, but truly I felt like this phrase embodied when I started cooking professionally. I don’t remember getting berated nearly as much as I’ve witnessed happening to others in kitchens, but nonetheless I screwed up a lot in kitchens—and I still do. No one perfectly cooks everything instantly and most people don’t see the late-night practice sessions post 14-hour shifts standing in a stark quiet, dimly lit, shabby apartment kitchen essentially playing with food. I’ve lived many of those tormented hours of changing ratios and exploring weird ingredients, or just cutting butternut squash into tournes because there’s a meditative quality to perfectly carving vegetables into unnatural, yet charmingly classic shapes when nothing else worked during the day.
I’m not saying that having insomnia, or being manic, is necessary to become a better cook, but those were the moments in my life where I truly fell in love with slow-cooking techniques. As a vegan during my early 20’s, I wasn’t the cook that obsessed over cooking the most unctuous pork belly possible, but how to infuse flavors and change the texture of hand-made seitan, and barbeque pulled jack fruit. However, during culinary school I found myself transfixed by cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork from the Yucatan Peninsula). The intense color and smell of annatto seeds mixed together with cinnamon and other earthy spices like cumin mingle with bitter orange juice, and garlic to create this pungent, but transfixing blend that is meant to be rubbed and marinated all over pork shoulder, or even more traditionally a suckling pig, and covered in banana leaves just to be lowered into a fire pit, buried until so tender and juicy that it falls apart from its own weight. One usually takes this meat and places it into freshly made tortillas with pickled red onions and perhaps habaneros or cilantro.
Why this particular dish shook me to my core is more than likely because I watched a video highlighting the ceremonious process of covering the pork and burying it in a fire pit. It was probably the first time watched a group of people care so much about the entire process of making something—and it’s not fast. Usually, the marinating happens overnight and the slow-roasting happens over another 5-8 hours. It’s a labor of love and a lot of patience, but worth the wait.
Slow cooking, like braising or stewing, honestly takes longer than other methods, but it has a lot of hands-off time where you let the food and the liquids do their thing. What makes this more feasible for those who don’t either have the luxury to work in a kitchen, or don’t think they have the time in general to put together time consuming dishes, is a crockpot. Most people have a crockpot and either only make a few dishes in it, or it’s still in the box it came in somewhere tucked away. You don’t even have to have a stove top to use this appliance and get seemingly sumptuous dishes. While in our upcoming cooking class ”Low and Slow is the Way to Go” we will do most of the dishes on the stove, there’s typically a smart way to reconstruct any dish to conform to time or space constraints. It still does take time though and cooking from scratch, or close to it, has to become a priority to be a success.