Confessions of a Culinary Autocrat

Hello. My name is Desiree and I’m a Culinary Autocrat.

Let’s first define autocrat as I know it’s one of those words people think they know, but may not be sure. The purpose of this exercise is to bring awareness, as well as help those who are in denial to recognize it within themselves. 

Autocrat:  a person ruling with unlimited authority; one who has undisputed influence or power.

It took a hot minute to determine the exact noun I wanted to use to describe my condition. I first selected bully, but that is defined as someone who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker or in some way vulnerable. I am not cruel, insulting, or remotely threatening to anyone—it’s not in my nature. Dictator didn’t work as I’m not an oppressor—unless you ask any one of my kids, but that’s for another time. These two words alone are quite negative in connotation and I don’t think my condition warrants that kind of cynicism. 

The word autocrat seemed to fit perfectly as I do have unlimited authority in my kitchen and hold all of the power and influence as to what goes on there. Think of a chef in a restaurant. This person is in charge and decides on what is to be prepared and how. I am no different in my kitchen, but the concept changes when people around you aren’t employees. With that, I am using this post as a sort of confessional as I recognize that my autocratical ways may not always be positive. 

Herein lies my problem…I like things prepared or cooked in a certain way—my way. My argument is that I have been cooking for about twenty-five years and I think that gives me some authority. Right? I know I have made it far from fun to cook with me sometimes—okay, most of the time—but, there are methods to my madness. There are certain ways things are to be chopped, or diced, and there are specific ways ingredients have to be measured and prepared (see Alton Brown). There’s a science to the art of cooking and it ALWAYS matters how things are done.

I am confident in my abilities and know my limitations. I know I should use my powers for good and teach my teenagers, but I lose patience. I can show them how to use a knife, measure ingredients, and put everything together. The problem is that the next time they help, anything I’ve taught has vanished from their memory. I show them again—and again—and again. To watch them haphazardly pour milk into a measuring cup used for dry ingredients EVERY SINGLE TIME, rather than use one for liquids, makes me crazy.  Now I am done and my tone will discourage them from any future culinary exercises. However, I do need to ensure my kids know how to cook for themselves as they have to be comfortable in the kitchen, knowing all the tools to use, spices to add, and various ingredients that work well together.  Or, they grow up thinking it’s easier to open a box and just add water…with the wrong measuring cup, no less.

Now, cooking with your significant other not only shares responsibilities, but it’s an engaging way to bring you closer together. There are random conversations, laughter, and even some sensual taste-testing.  Michael and I have had some fabulous cooking sessions and it can, quite honestly, be very romantic. However, the days of us preparing meals together have been put on the back shelf—like some ingredient that is used on rare occasions, such as truffle oil or saffron. He knows how to cook and has prepared some delicious meals.  I have learned with him that I have to let go and let him prepare things as he wants. However, I find myself making little comments—not to insult but to suggest. At least that’s how I see it.

Now, cooking with your significant other not only shares responsibilities, but it’s an engaging way to bring you closer together. There are random conversations, laughter, and even some sensual taste-testing.  Michael and I have had some fabulous cooking sessions and it can, quite honestly, be very romantic. However, the days of us preparing meals together have been put on the back shelf—like some ingredient that is used on rare occasions, such as truffle oil or saffron. He knows how to cook and has prepared some delicious meals.  I have learned with him that I have to let go and let him prepare things as he wants. However, I find myself making little comments—not to insult but to suggest. At least that’s how I see it.

Things all came to head when he wanted to help and asked how I wanted some potatoes cut. They were going to be roasted in the oven, so it was important that they were all relatively the same in bite-size pieces to cook evenly. What started as a friendly argument over diced versus chopped turned into eerie silence in the kitchen.  I’m honestly not sure it was me being offensive or him being defensive—but, it’s been a while just the same. 

So, I find myself alone in the kitchen these days and I know it’s my fault. I have to let go my need to be in culinary control and allow my family to learn—just as I did (and still do). With Michael, I have to let him cook as he pleases, without my commentary (unless he asks, of course). I will add that I don’t complain about having to do all the cooking—the culinary autocrat in me is good with this. But, the kitchen being the most commonly used room in the house is a meeting place for families. I am exceedingly happy on those rare occasions everyone is home and standing around the counter as I cook—laughing and sharing stories. I even love it when just one person hangs out with me—until they ask to help.

I’m a work in progress. 

Too Many Books in the Kitchen

As a book lover, I believe you can never have too many books—hoarder or not. In the genre of cooking, I’m wondering if my collection has become somewhat excessive (or is it obsessive?). In the quest for healthy eating, I spend an enormous amount of time flipping through cookbooks looking for new recipes. The problem is everything looks so delicious! I have been successful in creating a menu for a week’s worth of meals twice in the past few months. Those other weeks, the menu looks like an editor took to my work and hated everything. I’m constantly changing my mind because there’s something that pops up that looks better than what I’ve planned. 

The cookbook I have turned to most is Milk Street’s Tuesday Nights and it’s fantastic. I’m not sure how many recipes are in there, but I think I’ve covered at least a third of them so far this past month. When we brought it home, we sat down and turned each page, marking the ones we wanted to try—green tabs for him and orange for me. Yes, we are nerds—chef nerds. What I love is that there is no set category, i.e. American, French, Italian, etc. I made a Palestinian Crispy Herb Omelet for breakfast and Chicken in Chipotle Sauce for dinner (they actually used pork chops in the book, but I’m shifty like that). 

Now, this doesn’t include the ten other cookbooks on my counter (eight in the cabinet), magazines in the drawer, and internet websites I use. I love to cook, so all of this is stimulating for me. The only anxiety I feel is waiting for Michael to take that first bite. If I don’t hear any words come out of his mouth and he continues eating, I’ve done well. If he says, “Interesting,” then it can go either way. If he literally licks the plate, then the recipe gets a gold star. He’s a trooper and will eat absolutely anything I put in front of him. The only exception is when chicken breast is in any way soft—it has to be thin and firm. I’ve learned this, so I don’t make that mistake anymore. It makes me feel like I’ve failed all humanity when food gets put in the trash. He never makes me feel bad as he knows it’s his personal preference—but, a little bit of my soul dies like any other chef who disappoints. 

The essential element to any purchased cookbook is that the ingredients are attainable. I’m a frugal shopper as it is and already go to three different grocery stores each week—yes, three. One is a local farmer’s market with a large variety of fruits and vegetables on one side; and meats, poultry, and seafood on the other. The second is a regular grocery store for all the ancillary items like seasonings, oils, dairy, paper products, etc. The third is a specialty store similar to Whole Foods, called Lucky’s Market. If I want garam marsala, tamarind paste, or some unique organic item—they have it. I also love that I can get red or green lentils, sesame seeds, coconut flour—or whatever they have in a snazzy dispenser—by the ounce or pound. 

If the book’s recipes call for some weird ingredient like hunza apricots, kiwano (it’s a thing), or tears of a mountain goat—it doesn’t come home. And, I don’t order food from the internet. Call it old fashioned, but that’s unnatural to me. I welcome any persuasive arguments you have to convince me otherwise.

The bonus to all of this is having made some sensational and delicious discoveries for my food palate. Most of my meals before we started eating healthier consisted of Mexican food or something breaded and fried. Mexican food hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just made healthier now (if only in my mind). But, I’ve discovered I like turmeric, curry, and even tofu—among many other flavors and textures. I continue to dislike thyme in any form or fashion. If the recipe calls for any amount of it, I’m only putting 1/8 of a teaspoon…maybe. 

I do think having a variety is key to keeping your diet fun and interesting. Our daughter refers to all of our meals as being rabbit food, but healthy isn’t just about salads and fruits. It’s making dishes with fresh ingredients and being smart about how they’re prepared. Michael had a southern craving for fried green tomatoes and being the good guru of a chef that I am, I made baked green tomatoes. Not only were they delicious, but had a better crunch than the fried variety. Mix up a little avocado oil mayo, yogurt, ranch dressing seasoning, and chipotle peppers with adobo sauce—you have yourself a dip.

So, don’t see eating healthy as limiting. There are always ways to get around to your favorite dishes. You just have to find a few good recipes—or be like me with 19 cookbooks, six magazines, and the never-ending world wide web.