I am an impatient cook. I would much rather be enjoying my dinner than preparing it, and so my kitchen often resembles the inside of a nearly empty salad bowl, with bits of lettuce and carrot and stray droplets of dressing strewn about here and there. This is the result of my haphazard knife technique (which I’m working on) that tends to launch choppings of my vegetable victims far from the cutting board where they belong.
My friend Zhenya is the polar opposite of me in this respect, and therefore makes a great teacher. Zhenya caresses his ingredients. He hand-washes each leaf of lettuce separately and dries them carefully with a soft towel. He lines up sprigs of dill in a perfect row so he can whisk the stems off cleanly (and keep them on the cupboard). Once he even notched a baking potato that we were planning to stuff with vegetables and sour cream so that it looked like the bottom half of a shark’s gaping maw.
Most of us don’t have time to massage our vegetables every night before dinner, but acquainting your hands with the texture, weight, and give of raw (and sometimes cooked) ingredients will help you learn to judge freshness, ripeness, and doneness as much by touch as by appearance. Just as it often happens with people, getting up close and personal with your produce can also lead you to discover and appreciate certain inherent qualities that you may never have noticed before. These are qualities you’ll want to bring out in a finished dish.
The portobello mushroom illustrates this principle perfectly. It may look stumpy and unappetizing at first, but try closing your eyes and tenderly rinsing one under a gentle stream of cool water. The smooth, fleshy curve of the cap, its subtle give into your fingertips, the soft crevasses of the gills underneath: fungus has never felt so sexy.
Pat the cap dry with the same care you’d show a wet baby, dice it evenly, and sautee the cubes over low heat until tender in enough butter to make them glisten. Grind a few twists of black pepper over the top and sprinkle in a pinch of coarse salt to finish. I often enjoy this as a quick snack straight out of the pan, but it is also delicious spread on slices of crusty baguette or tossed with pasta and finely chopped herbs.