On Sunday morning I stood at the stove with my teal dutch oven heating in front of me. I watched canola oil begin to shimmer and then I waited a little longer, just to make sure it was hot enough. I ripped a few paper towels from their roll and patted a roast (that had been sitting in the fridge covered in salt overnight) to make sure it was as dry as possible and then I grabbed my extra-long tongs and clamped them around the squishy piece of meat. I lowered it into the pan and the second it touched the hot oil and enameled cast iron it began to sizzle. This is where I usually mess up. I get impatient and start moving the meat around the pan too soon and ruin the sear. Sunday morning my only goal was to achieve the perfect Maillard reaction, the chemical process that gives browned foods (meat, bread, toasted marshmallows, etc.) their special flavor. I heard recently that the meat will let you know when it is ready. There should be no resistance when you try to pull it away from the hot pan; when it is seared you can pick it back up with your tongs as easily as you lifted it off the cold plate. I knew I couldn’t encounter Maillard by being impatient. I was skeptical, but up for giving it a go. And…IT WORKED. Those professional chefs on television were right! I honestly couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why, maybe because I’ve never in my whole life waited long enough for the sear to finish, but I just could not believe that leaving it there sizzling away wasn’t charring my dinner. I couldn’t believe it until I tried it for myself.
As I stood awestruck before the wonder of science, my dad stood at our kitchen island and chopped carrots, onions, and potatoes. When he finished I dusted and splashed the veggies with salt, pepper, thyme, and worcestershire sauce. When they were coated I dumped them on top of the seared meat. Just before I put on the lid, my dad started dumping water onto everything. As with the wisdom of the sear, I was skeptical. I didn’t want a stew, I wanted a roast. Did he just drown my hard work? Either way it was too late and we had to go. I slid it in the oven to cook low and slow until we got back from church that afternoon. Mom came downstairs and double checked our creation, gave it the thumbs up, and we headed out.
3 hours later we walked back through the front door and were met with the best smell. I popped some rolls into the oven, began scooping the veggies and meat onto a platter, and then set to work making a roux: 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons flour heated until they made a paste and the flour didn’t taste raw anymore. Mom slowly poured the liquid from the roast (turns out all that water was the right call) into the roux while I whisked. It came together beautifully and just like that we had gravy.
As we sat down around the table – Nick had made it home from church by this point – we took our first bites and, I can’t be modest here, it was incredible. I wasn’t sure about the overnight salt situation. I didn’t fully trust the promise of the sear. I questioned my dad’s heavy hand with the water. But that meal needed every one of those things. Nick was the most shocked of all. Now safely chowing down on a good meal he confessed that he had not been looking forward to roast. His experiences with it to date hadn’t been bad, just not crave-able. He couldn’t stop raving over the meal. We both started dreaming about doing this on Sunday’s and inviting neighbors and new friends over to share.
I’ve always loved cooking and I’ve always loved learning. My parents are both good cooks. One of our favorite things to do as a family of three when I was growing up was to pick out a semi-challenging recipe and work on it together. Someone cooked dinner most nights and while it wasn’t always a communal effort, even when I wasn’t directly helping I was usually sitting at our kitchen counter watching.
Similarly, I’ve been watching cooking shows ever since my parents made the leap and started paying for cable around the time I was in junior high school. Emeril Legasse. Martha Stewart. Iron Chef. Later, Ina Garten. Now, The Great British Bake Off. Nick doesn’t really like watching food shows because he says it just makes him hungry. I don’t have that problem; I just get inspired. The kitchen is one of the few places I don’t have a fear of failure and I give myself the space to keep trying and perfecting a dish or technique.
In the past few years, as cooking shows have gotten more competitive and gimmicky and less about the science and art of preparing a meal, I have shifted my curiosity into cookbooks. My birthday was earlier this month and my mom brought me a cookbook I’ve been dying to consume since I heard it was set to hit the shelves: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat. I only got halfway through the chapter on salt so far, but already it has changed my life – as evidenced by Sunday’s roast. It was here that I learned about salting meats (especially cheaper cuts) for at least 24 hours before cooking them. The author-chef explains it much better than I do, but basically the salt works its way into the meat via osmosis and turns tough muscle into an almost gel making the whole thing melt in your mouth. She says she can always tell in her first bite whether or not someone salted the meat ahead of time. I believe her.
I could dig into this experience and tell you about how learning to cook is like getting to know God. How people ahead of us in their faith journey – in this case, my parents in particular – offer up a base knowledge through the witness of their words and life. Over time as we grow they hand us the metaphorical whisk and tongs and we start experiencing things for ourselves. We experiment and study and begin to grow in our own ways in our walk with God.
I could dig into that, but to be honest it’d be a little strained. The truth is on Sunday I found myself simply giving thanks to God that our bodies need food and that it can be delicious. It’s not just sustenance, it’s also joy. It can lead us to time together with people we love preparing and eating incredible and diverse flavors that give us energy.
At the church I called home in Waco, Texas (University Baptist) we ended every service with the benediction, “Love God, embrace beauty, live life to the fullest.” This past Sunday, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Waco I did just that. I loved God as I dived deeper into the science of the created world. I embraced beauty as I sat around the table with a delicious meal and my parents and husband as we enjoyed the last few hours together before I drove mom and dad to Richmond so they could go home to Texas. I lived life to the fullest as I stretched into new skills and dreamed of ways to invite other people to the table to share the fruit of those efforts.
Live life to the fullest.
Where do you see beauty in your life today? How might that lead you to loving God and living your life to the fullest today and in the days to come?