It's never too late to fail at cooking

Lackluster takeout and paltry frozen dinners drove her back to the kitchen after a 20-year hiatus.

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Recently, a friend came over for dinner. Since the occasion of my cooking is about as common as a lunar eclipse, my friend was curious. "So, are you more like Rachael or Julia?" she inquired, referring to Rachael Ray of "30 Minute Meals" fame and Julia Child, the American master of French cuisine.

"Neither," I laughed.

The truth is, I started cooking again last winter after a hiatus of nearly 20 years. Of course I ate during that time. Good local takeout and numerous restaurants conspired to keep me happily out of the kitchen.

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Then this unforeseen reversal. It started with a hunch and a few grievances. Several of my favorite restaurant dishes – Sichuan green beans, for one – seemed needlessly lacquered up, oiled beyond reason. Surely their virtues would brighten without all that oil.

Or I'd be eating a frozen chicken-and-pasta dinner, impressed with the flavoring but annoyed by the skimpy portion. The list of ingredients looked suspiciously long and unpronounceable, aimed largely, it seemed, at preserving what little was there.

These and other episodes drove me back to the kitchen. Call it a case of late-onset cooking, for it came suddenly, without warning, and shows no signs of letting up.

Unlike Rachael and Julia, who arrive with their arsenals of books, recipes, and knowledge, I come to the kitchen with a modest résumé. My weapons of choice are a few good instincts and a willingness to fail.

In the matter of failing, let me be frank. For my purposes, cookbooks offer ideas and possibilities, not formulas that I'm meant to follow. Besides, many recipes tend to be too ornate, calling for more fuss than is needed. If four ingredients can do the work of 10, I'll gladly scrap the remaining six. Which is to say that my cooking style, if it may be called that, is equal parts guesswork, science project, and serendipity.

It was a bad guess and an unfortunate day when I took on fresh crabmeat. Whatever I originally had in mind escapes me now as I recall that night. I sautéed the crabmeat and watched the color go from light cream to tan to murky beige. As the texture turned limp, so, too, did my interest.

No doubt, a real cook would have countered with a triage plan – some brilliant herbs, chunks of mango, something wholly unexpected. But the scruffy beigeness of the entire enterprise stopped me cold. I decided to cut my losses and let it go. The best that could be said of the crabmeat is that it was edible – sort of.

Other experiments have proved more fruitful. One day I sliced a pear into eight or so disks and pan-fried them in a sesame-ginger marinade. Somehow sliced pear, lightly charred with sesame, takes on the flavor of maple syrup. For those of us with a sweet tooth, this is heavenly.

Somewhere between these extremes, I've found my stride in the kitchen. I've liberated Sichuan green beans from so much oil and embellished the chicken and pasta in both flavor and portion. My culinary improvisations have led to surprises that are worth repeating and others that bear retelling for their sheer folly. Perhaps if I paid more attention to Rachael or Julia, my cooking would be more reliable. As it stands, I enjoy the occasional serving of suspense along with my meals.

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