Constructionist cooking: what is it?
Last night I put half a turkey breast, sea salt, two dried Turkish bay leaves, and water (to cover plus an inch) into a slow cooker on low, and forgot about it.
This morning, I have four pounds of tender poached turkey breast, which is now in the frig. Three pounds are going to be used for twelve dinner salads.
There are two quarts of turkey broth, most of which is in the refrigerator waiting for FreshDirect to come with cilantro, lemon and coconut milk. This will all go into a curried soup, along with the other pound of turkey breast, carrots, onions, celery, and barley (trying that instead of rice).
A cup of broth that won’t be part of the soup is still in the slow cooker, where it’s enriching two cans of Tuttorosso (“all red” ) crushed tomatoes with basil, a little more sea salt, a can of tomato paste and more water. These are combining, on high, into a red gravy (Nablidanze for tomato sauce) to which I’ll later add sauteed chopped onions and garlic, and sliced mushrooms.
Two cups of the finished red gravy will then be removed and used to sauce six servings of chicken parm (Parmesan), made with a luscious Morton-Williams fresh mozzarella that’s sleeping in the butter section of the frig. Once the two cups of finished sauce are taken out for the chicken parm, I’ll throw in a pound of Barilla whole-wheat fine spaghetti, and let it stay on high for twenty minutes. As soon as the pasta is cooked through, I’ll put it into serving containers, and clean out the slow cooker.
A few hours later, FreshDirect will have come. I’ll assemble the curried soup, and while its flavors are melding in the slow cooker and chicken parm is baking, I’ll spend ten minutes cubing the cooled turkey breast for salads. Then, it’s let everything that’s hot cool, put everything away in frig or freezer, and all done.
Over a span of twenty hours, the half turkey breast will have contributed to twenty-two servings of three different main courses, and six servings of soup. It will have taken only about an hour of hands-on time for me, including the cleaning-up. The good economy of time and money that a slow cooker makes possible, by using it to construct several dishes from a single base, would be difficult if it weren’t for a mild climate, like we have in NYC. A slow cooker is like a little oven, radiating a significant amount of heat as it cooks — that is, for hours and hours.
If I were cooking in Mumbai, which had a 1:00 PM temp of 106 F (41 C) the other day, I’d use a pressure cooker to shorten cooking times, and a completely different approach to things, irrespective of available foodstuffs, spicing and other ingredients.
A different set of skills would build, a different timing, a different texture to the day, a different jitter — and different tastes to feed people in different ways, ways meant to specifically promote good cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive health in a climate which must sometimes feel too hot and humid to bear. Different, yes. But it would still be a constructivist approach to handling food.
The variability of lives, people, places, and moments… this is what life is, for me. It blows me away. It’s a long complex piece of music, a surprising, lyrical strung-together series of moments.
My responses to life are dances, made to celebrate life, meant to make art out of me, to make my life both a descant and a counterpoint to a larger reality. This is constructivism. It’s about partnering the moment, and bowing to reality without breaking.
This goes for cooking, as much as it does for doing art, writing, dancing, walking, sleeping, dreaming, doing laundry, and even tossing a piece of paper into a trash basket.
Using this approach for cooking is a practical art. It’s a green way of handling fuel, a sensitive way to manage cooking’s impact on the local environment, a fair way of handling time and money — time that can be used for other, more important things, and money that can be used, in part, to help others.
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