Mmmm. Food.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of cooking. Ten years ago I would've laughed at you for suggesting I'd ever love cooking, but I do. Maybe it's genetic, passed down from my mother. Or maybe it's just that, being an academic, I'm a sucker for anything that actually produces tangible results in relatively short periods of time. Writing a dissertation takes years, and at the end, all that might happen is that a single copy of your dissertation will languish in your university's library for all time.

Not so cooking. Spend an hour or two on a recipe, and you've got food. Good food, hopefully. Food you can share - more people will probably eat food I've cooked than will ever read my dissertation. And you can try new things, fail and succeed, experiment with old recipes or new ones - and be done, within a day.

Part of the recent cooking binge is that I've discovered Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking. I really dig Indian food, but had never tried making it at home. Good lord, what I've been missing out on!! I've made about 10 dishes from this cookbook so far, and every single one has been good. And not that difficult, either. Lemony Chicken with Fresh Coriander. Fried Aubergine Slices, with Yoghurt with Cucumber and Mint. She's got Stewed Tomatoes to die for. The friends we invited over almost got in a fight over who got to take them home. The Salmon Steamed with Crushed Mustard Seeds and Tomato was damn tasty. I made Gujarati-Style Green Beans that my friend Jennifer said were the best she'd ever tasted. I even, for the first time ever, made Basmati rice that tasted just like in a restaurant. I've never been able to get the rice to be soft but not sticky, but with this recipe and the simple directions, I finally managed - and it wasn't even that hard! So forgive the fact that I sound like an excitable blurb on the back of the book cover, but I am loving this cookbook. It seriously rocks.

Plus, once you get yourself the standard Indian spices - judging by this book, turmeric, black mustard seeds, cumin, garam masala, and coriander, as well as cayenne and garlic, which are standard in my kitchen anyway - you're good to go on just about any recipe. If you buy a huge bag of black mustard seeds, you might as well keep on cooking until you've finished using it. That's my theory anyway.

A good cookbook is half the battle. But there's also a difference between following a recipe and really cooking, and it's taken me a while to get to the point where I was cooking. In fact, I didn't really understand the difference until an ex of mine made it his personal mission to teach me how to cook. He rarely even had a recipe, let alone followed one, putting ingredients and spices together seemingly at random - except his dishes almost always turned out fabulous, so clearly it wasn't random at all. He just had an incredible sense of taste, and an understanding of how different tastes complement each other, so that what he threw together meshed well and turned out yummy. Watching him cook, and eventually cooking with him, taught me to let go of recipes and do my own thing.

I still usually use a recipe as a guide, especially the first time I make something; I don't (yet) have that ability to make up recipes on the spot. But I'll change it as I go along (almost always, this involves adding way more spices than called for), and if it's a dish I make often, my version ends up pretty different from the original. (I've got two of my own recipes up on this site - my green chile stew, which has played to rave reviews and never makes it all the way through a party, and my lentil stew, a modification of my mom's original recipe.) I've already been modifying some of Madhur Jaffrey's recipes to fit my own tastes (more cayenne! more mustard seeds! more hot peppers!), and figuring out which side dishes work best with which entrees. I'm loving it (as is The One And Only!), and I'm already getting excited about making further inroads into Mexican food cookbook my parents gave me last Christmas.

Back when I was writing my Master's thesis, it was baking; these days, I'm all about the cooking. It's everything my dissertation is not - practical, immediate, and something to share with friends. It's an excuse to be social, and it's fun.

Having written all this about food, now I'm hungry! Luckily, I've still got some Gujarati-style green beans and some lemony chicken with coriander in the fridge. Mmmm….

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