The other day, a friend said to me that one of the most important things cooking can teach us is restraint. That we come into cooking like toddlers in a fingerprinting session, unable to control ourselves from using all the colors and painting everything in sight. But hopefully, over time, we learn when to hold back and apply the less-is-more rule. He was commenting on the dinner he had attended the night before at the house of a new cook. "It was delicious," he said. "But it was a little heavy-handed. Too much garlic, too many flavors, a few too many dishes. She hasn't learned yet how to edit, how important simplicity and restraint are in cooking."
My friend has a point, but he was only halfway there.
Of course restraint is important in cooking and one of the lessons we hopefully learn early on. But we also learn when a certain amount of recklessness and abandon are needed, that sometimes the dish or the occasion calls for us not to hold back but to splash in with boldness and an extra handful of chili. Sometimes a dish can be enlivened with more: more salt, more fat, more lemon juice. So it's not so much about restraint vs. boldness but about balance, which is a much trickier thing to achieve.
A good cook is always in search of balance. When she thinks about planning a meal, or creating a dish, or tasting her soup before she plates it for her guests, what she is looking for is balance: of flavors, of textures, of acidity, of richness, of coolness and heat, of sweet to savory. She needs to know when to ramp it up and when to step back. She needs to understand that a rich entree needs to be preceded with something tart and brisk. She needs to understand balance.
Think of pesto, a very extravagant and forthright sauce that requires handfuls of basil and cloves of raw garlic and all that wild pounding and grinding with mortar and pestle. Pesto in itself is not a restrained dish but we use it with restraint. We temper it with pasta or offer it up in dabs and swirls in soups. We don't serve up whole bowls of pesto to our friends for that would probably make them ill. But even within the wildness of the pesto you will find some restraint: too much garlic, too much salt, and the dish is ruined. A good pesto is feisty, but it is also a perfect balance of the richness of olive oil and nuts with the zing of garlic and the bright, forthrightness of the basil.
Like I said, balance is a tricky thing and not easy to achieve. It takes experience which means being willing to come up against failures and learn from them. It requires us to be focused and to pay close attention and to learn how to trust our senses and our palates, and it needs a certain boldness as well. We lift the tasting spoon to our mouth and a voice in our head says 'more salt' or 'lemon' or 'perfect'. Do we have the courage to listen to that voice? Can we trust it?
By cooking every day we learn these skills and if we learn them well, they will pour out into our lives and inform every aspect. We don't often hear about living a balanced life but balance is often exactly what we need for health and happiness. Let your time in the kitchen teach you about balance and the inner emotional structure needed to find it. Wether you're trying to make a good soup or deciding to take a new job, remember to look closely, consider the balance and then with great joy and confidence tip in the direction it needs to go.
(Image: Dana Velden)