Condiments: Are they a sign of a cook?
I recently paid a visit to a very dear friend that lives on the other side of town. She loves to cook, or so she says, but there is never any food in her house when I'm there. She has an extremely limited spice rack, and her pantry and refrigerator have nothing beyond the basic condiments. So, I began to wonder exactly what she does cook. I have so many condiments...several types of oils, sauces, vinegars, honey, mustards, spices,etc. so much that I often have to clear out the old to bring in the new.
So, it got me to wonder - what is the sign of a cook?
I think that's a very interesting topic. We have done a few house exchanges in the last year, going into strangers' homes and I do think I make some judgments about them based on what's in the pantry and fridge. The one who had about ten different hot sauces has since become a good friend :) It could be based on worse, couldn't it?
re: c oliver
Me, I have such a limited space, I keep what I eat. I go to the store every few days and buy just what I am making and keep some cans, some condiments and some frozen chicken breasts or meat. No room for anything else.
And some people are great cooks, but usually cook on weekends when they have time and they buy ingredients. My fridge right now is empty.
Condiments are good, I use a variety, and my fridge has a lot, and other than the veggie drawer which does has fresh veggies from the market today, not much else. With a crazy work schedule , I try to buy things I use for the next few days. I would love to buy food a week in advance, and I used to ... now a days, I just don't have room.
She may be the weekend baker, or the sunday cook. That can be very common.
As someone with bulging cabinets, fridge and freezer, I tend to agree with you. But to be fair, you can love to cook without being an adventurous cook -- maybe she just likes to cook simple foods. Or maybe she mostly bakes.
I think more telling than the lack of condiments is fact that there's "never any food in her house" -- most people who love to cook do it frequently, and thus usually have more food in the house than they can eat.
re: Ruth Lafler
Ruth - you are so right! My neighbors and friends love me since I'm always pushing the excess off on them. And me freezer could tide me over until . . . well you know. Every so often, I have to stop cooking and just clean out the frig and freezer by eating - alas. It's good I have a very, very small kitchen or I'd start jamming and canning!
As for condiments, I have too many (4 olive oils, 8 other oils, 8 vinegars, 4 mustards, preserves, only 3 hot sauces, spices etc) but I really, really use them.
Cookbooks are another giveaway although not always a guarantee. An aunt of a friend's has and entire room (many 1,000's) dedicated to cookbooks that she reads nightly - but she never cooks.
So yes, I'd judge a 'cook' by my own 'set of glasses' and wonder if she was a cook or only dreamed to be one.
We have a lot of condiments, but don't use them very much, so they stay with us indefinitely (including at least a dozen varieties of store-bought and home made hot sauces and preserves).
I had friends who were great cooks with a refrigerator full of condiments, but rarely food (purchased on an as needed basis). I also had friends with a similar repetoire of condiments but who really couldn't cook very well but loved food (they married people who could cook, fortunately!).
My husband claimed that he always had nothing BUT condiments, never actual food. Loved condiments, buying them, hoarding them...but never used them (until we started dating and I'd make something with the leftovers--another new thing to him--and some of his hoard).
The friends with no food (or condiments) whatsoever usually had take out or cereal for dinner. Many times, they didn't have much in terms of cooking/dining/drink/silverware either.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that condiment varietals are the sign of a good cook; for freshness purposes, some people use the bulk section to buy on an as-needed basis.
I daily use olive oil, fresh garlic, peppers (fresh and black), balsamic and now cider vinagre. With a jar of Maille, I'd probably be set for awhile.
I try not to buy a lot of those things because they're expensive & I can't use them up before they start losing freshness. I have at most three vinegars on hand; just one kind of olive oil (and very little of other oils). If I want a different kind of mustard, I usually just make it - honey, herbs, fish sauce, hot pepper, vinegar, Dijonaise, whatever. Likewise sauces and marinades - I don't tend to buy prefab mixes, since I make my own. I have no spice *rack* at all... most of my spices are in baggies or recycled glass jars since I buy organic wholesale.
All the same, you saw her place and I didn't - I bet you're onto something. At least we can be sure that if she cooks, it's not the same way you do, which is great - you complement each other!
My grandmother was an amazingly good (Hungarian) cook, and I always marvel at how she did it without the sophisticated battery of pots, skillets, knives, and ingredients I have at my disposal. For daily cooking she had some Pyrex cooking pots, one or two serrated knives, a Revereware skillet - and one Le Creuset casserole that I inherited :).
So, no, I don't agree. I think technique and knowing your ingredients is more important. Oma's daily cooking used mainly onions, salt, pepper (not even freshly ground, as I recall), garlic, and paprika that she got directly from a private source in Hungary, and she did wonders with it. I think technique like knowing how to caramelize onions to perfection, or sweating vegetables to get max flavor out of them when starting a broth, or stirring kasha in an egg to dry out the grains so they will stay separate when cooked, or knowing how to sear meat to seal in flavor while cooking - these are signs of a cook, more than an international array of condiments on your shelves.
Another sign of a cook - curiosity. Someone with the soul of a cook will always find a kindred soul at any gathering, no matter how very different that person may be in every other way, and they will happily talk about the process, ingredients, utensils, tools, technique, seasonings, etc., while all other noise will fade into the background. My 92-year old aunt, bless her heart, will still enthusiastically discuss with me every single salad served at a luncheon, how the veggies or fruits were cubed or sliced, how the dressing was blended, etc., while my mother looks at us as if we're nuts. Some folks cook because they have to, some folks do it because they love it - and the ones that love it will always remain curious and willing to talk about it.
You literally wrote almost exactly what I was thinking. As I was reading the replies above yours, I began to think about my Oma (Hungarian and German), and the wonderful meals she put on from her spare kitchen. There would literally be five different vegetable dishes, a meat course, dumplings, etc. etc., yet she did so with old banged up pots and a kitchen stocked largely with just basics like flour, sugar, onions, butter, eggs, salt, pepper, paprika. I remember her calling us kids into the kitchen when it came time to roll the dumplings. And she loved to show us how to beat a batter, let it rest, rebeat it, etc., until the texture was just right.
As a side note, I'll add that my Oma's aunt was a well-known cook in the northern New Jersey area in the early 20th century. She had come to the US when she was twelve, and was soon after hired by the wealthy families of NJ to cook at special dinners b/c she could cook Hungarian food so well.
Thanks for reminding me of those wonderful times in Oma's kitchen and the great meals that followed.