Food That Scares Me

And I don’t mean green bean casserole, although that stuff definitely scares me. I’m talking about food that has gotten the better of me in the past, or intimidates me enough that I’m afraid to even try it.

Risotto. I know. Risotto should be second nature to me, like polenta, which I can make with my eyes closed. I’ve attempted risotto many times. It’s never inedible, but it’s never right. It’s not creamy, it’s not flavorful, and it takes twice as long to prepare as it should. I’ve asked my mother what I’m doing wrong, but she can’t help me. Risotto is a personal hurdle.

Risotto is all about technique. I not only know the technique, I understand it. But I can’t transfer it from my brain through the spoon into the pan. I’ve wasted a lot of lovely Arborio rice in this fight, a fight I keep saying I’m going to win. But the thought of another failed attempt gives me anxiety that should be reserved for dental surgery or being forced to sit through Flashdance again. All I can see is defeat. Weird, considering most cooking failures make me determined to get it right. The problem is I can never tell what I’ve done wrong. Was the liquid at the right temperature? Did I sauté the rice long enough? Did I stir it too much, or should I have stirred it more? Was the liquid evaporated when I added the next ladleful? I’ve always said I learn more from my mistakes than I do my successes, but it’s hard to do that when I don’t know what the mistakes are. So I’ve given up on risotto. And it pisses me off.

I’ve never tried to make puff pastry, and by all accounts it’s a total pain in the ass. It’s too much work and it could tire out Elle Woods on a cocaine binge. Better to buy the frozen stuff and be done with it. I’ve used store bought puff pastry innumerable times, and I make a great sugar palmiere with it. But puff pastry is just flour and butter. I can make a pie crust, so I should be able to make puff pastry. It’s at the top of my list of things to try. Except I haven’t yet.

I’m worried I’ll get part way through and decide it really is a huge pain in the ass, but I’ll be so far in I’ll feel I can’t stop. I’m worried I’ll actually hurt myself from repeatedly rolling out the dough, ending up in bed for a week with a slipped disc. I’m worried I’ll mess it up and want to start over, and think of all the butter I’ve already used, and now I have to use more, and what if I mess it up again, and Oh My God, I hate to waste food.

I swear I’ll get started on it next week.

Grilling used to be a three-step process. Throw some coals on, douse them with lighter fluid and let them get raging hot, slap some chicken, hot dogs or burgers on the grill, and soon enough you have dinner. I was never great at it, and usually ended up with blowtorch chicken and shrunken, overcooked hamburgers. I left the grilling to my friends. The burgers were still shrunken and overcooked, but at least it wasn’t my fault.

The popularity of multi-level fires didn’t help. “Set up 473 different piles of coals in the bottom of the grill, and allow each pile to reach a temperature that’s 1.75 degrees cooler than the one to its left. Gradually move food from the bottom rack to the top rack, with five minutes on each rack in between the lowest and the highest rack. If you have fewer than five racks on your grill, don’t even bother. Just order out.” It’s easier to build a nuclear power plant.

Last year we inherited a gas grill from our neighbors. I was still a little nervous about using it, but we tried it a few times with fair results. This year, we had a blistering heat wave in early June. Even the air conditioning couldn’t keep the kitchen cool, and grilling was my best option if I didn’t want to collapse from heat stroke in the middle of making dinner. Quickly enough I discovered how to control the heat and when to move something to the top rack. It’s great for roasting peppers, grilled corn on the cob is fabulous, and I’ve even done tomatoes on it. A grilled pork loin is ten times as good as one made in the oven. My grill and I have a perfect relationship. I keep it clean and it keeps me fed.

Grilling experts say a charcoal grill is the best, and good wood chips are required for maximum flavor. I won’t argue with that. I would never have bought a gas grill, and I still want to learn how to cook with charcoal. But for now, my ratty gas grill that has to be lit with a match is my favorite cooking appliance.

I’ve heard it said that being a cook means not being afraid of anything, that it’s as much about the cooking as it is the food. The fact is, we all go through a learning process, and that process lasts as long as we can still pick up a spatula. For me to deny myself the thrill of learning something new because I’m afraid of it seems like a bit of a food crime.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get started on the risotto stuffed puff pastry I’ll be grilling for dinner tonight.