Cooking to me, like sports to many others, provides convenient life metaphors.  One that comes readily to mind is the metaphor of balance.  Daily life in contemporary America is, in my view, an ever-challenging balancing act.  Being bombarded as most of us are every waking moment by myriad demands on our time, energy and attention, it’s easy to feel that keeping our footing is a major accomplishment.  And climbing back up on the balance beam after we’ve fallen off is a triumph.

 

Ask any careful, thoughtful chef what she or he strives for in their finished dishes, and their answer will likely be “balance.”  Successful, satisfying meals have it, a kind of Goldilocks golden mean:  not “too” anything.  Not too hot nor too cold, not too salty nor too sweet, not too soft nor too crunchy, not too spicy yet never bland.  The goal is always that elusive, subjective thing called “just right.”

 

To achieve this, the professional chef — and the smart home cook as well — must stop and consider before serving up their creations.  “Taste for seasoning” should be the tag line on every savory recipe.  For professionals it’s an unwritten code of conduct. This step, like every important step in life, takes care and thought, judgment and experience.  It requires a fresh, questioning, critical mindset:  What does this dish lack?  What will give it just the right balance?  What will make it “sing”?  A pinch of salt?  A squeeze of fresh lemon?  A tad more minced garlic, maybe?

 

Akin to balance in the cooking-as-life-metaphor story for me is also the idea of proportion.  Especially in baking, the right proportions of the right ingredients, measured carefully and incorporated with skill, make all the difference in the ultimate outcome.  Isn’t that what we strive for in life, too?

 

The last time I was in New York, drawn as always like a magnet to my favorite big ol’ Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 86th, I bought a bunch of books (yes, real books

 with real pages that really turn!), one of which was Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.  This book captivated me because it seemed to confirm one of my long-held personal theories:  Much of cooking, when you boil it all down, so to speak, is formulaic.  And once we know the basic formulas — proportions, or ratios — we’re pretty much free.  Free, that is, of our slavish dependence on recipes.

 

“When you know a culinary ratio,” Ruhlman says, “it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.”

 

Without giving it all away (I urge you to buy the book; it’s only $16, paperback), here are just some of Ruhlman’s handy ratios. Keep in mind that these ratios are based on weight, rather than volume:

 

·        Pie Dough = 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water

·        Crepes = 1 part liquid : 1 part egg : ½ part flour

·        Stock = 3 parts water : 2 parts bones

·        Vinaigrette = 3 parts oil : 1 part vinegar [and I would add:  1/3 part Dijon mustard]

·        Chocolate Sauce = 1 part chocolate : 1 part cream

 

“The fact is,” says Ruhlman, “there are hundreds of thousands of recipes out

there, but few of them help you to be a better cook in any substantial way.  In fact, they may hurt you as a cook by keeping you chained to recipes.  Getting your hands on a ratio is like being given a key to unlock those chains.”

 

It’s both empowering and liberating, I tell my Culinary Arts students here at UNM-Taos, to know the fundamental principles, proportions, and techniques of cooking.  Knowledge is power – in cooking, as in life.