Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cooking Up Life's Truths

Now that I’ve finished my six-week culinary course, I am apparently certified to cook. 

I’m not sure what that means exactly but I just know that I’ll be receiving a certificate that I have completed the basic skills of cooking. 

And because I think it sounds rather official and quite important, I'm going to be dropping that little tidbit into casual conversation just as often as I can.

For our last class my cooking cohorts and I designed the menu {with a little guidance from the chefs} to give us an opportunity to make dishes we didn’t cover during the course. 

We made pork tenderloin stuffed with rosemary and Gorgonzola cheese, mashed sweet potatoes with amaretto caramelized onions, a fig and goat cheese salad with toasted coconut and citrus vinaigrette and an apple tart for dessert. {Just writing that makes me feel very chef-ish.}

My cooking colleagues chatted about the dishes they've already tried at home and their varying degrees of success. I admitted that I haven’t attempted to make even one dish from the almost 50 recipes we made in class. 

When they asked why I was taking cooking classes when I wasn't actually doing any cooking, I hastily added that I certainly did plan to cook. 

Very soon. 

I announced that I was amassing all the knowledge I possibly could from all of the classes before actually embarking on the adventure of cooking in my own kitchen.

My fellow student, Dave in his droll British manner said, “It’ll be a big moment for you then?”

I certainly hope so. 

It got me thinking about some of my other big moments during my class that blended life and cooking. And I’m letting them simmer and bubble over into my heart.

I flattened my fears. When the chefs asked me to roll the first mound of dough through the pasta-making-machine, I couldn’t believe I had to go first. I much prefer to hang back and get an idea of what’s required before giving it a try. 

But instead I found myself the reluctant pasta trendsetter. I hand-cranked the dough through the pasta-roller, time after time, making it thinner and thinner without creating holes. 

I thought about courage as I made sure the pasta dough was thin enough to cut into noodle shapes. Although I'm not equating cooking with true heroic actions, I needed a little courage to cook.

I'd rather watch cooking shows on TV and keep a lid on my self-conscious tendencies, but I'm glad I did the brave thing that made me nervous and uncomfortable. 

When I feel stretched too thin to handle discouraging circumstances or life’s uncertainties, God urges me to hold tight to his promises despite the doubts that threaten to poke holes in my faith. 

And that’s when God reminds me that he’s shaping me. To trust him for what's in the future that I can’t quite see yet. 

I folded up my expectations. When the chef asked me to fold chocolate into batter for our molten chocolate cakes, I thought that finally this was my time to shine. 

I’ve baked hundreds of times and thought I had the batter-folding skill perfected. But instead the chef corrected my technique, telling me to spoon the batter differently from how I’ve always done it. 

When I get too comfortable in my life and want to coast, God nudges me to look at my life and future a little differently. He wants to take me deeper than my limited viewpoint can offer and see my life from his perspective. 

So I’m shelving my expectations and instead I’m waiting with anticipation for what only God can orchestrate.

I shredded my insecurities. A pastry chef who hadn’t instructed any of our other classes helped us make the apple tart during our last session. Since she was unaware of my inferior knife skills, she asked me to slice the apples and arrange them in the tart pan. 

As usual, I worked slowly and carefully and halfway through she looked at me and said, “Why aren’t you done yet?” 

Then she smiled. 

I’m beginning to think chefs have a unique way of motivating their students. {And it includes a dash of mockery and a dollop of belittlement.} 

I ask the same question of God sometimes. Why isn't the refining season done yet? But God isn’t finished smoothing my rough edges and removing what can hinder and obstruct my relationships, friendships and my faith. Refining has a purpose.

These difficult days ask me to persevere because it can produce the sterling qualities I want in my character.

And that's eventually what leads to exquisite, delightful, divine hope. 

I’m a little sad that my cooking classes are over. Because I think I actually had some fun cooking. Just like the chef told me during my first class. (You can read about it here.)

I learned how to make fettuccine noodles come to life from a disk of dough. 

I learned how to take fresh tomatoes, garlic and some seasonings and in 20 minutes have a flavorful sauce for pasta. 

I learned how to grill chicken, dredge fish and sear steak. 

I learned how to whip vanilla beans, sugar and eggs into delicious homemade ice cream.

But mostly I realized I could skim off my natural tendencies of feeling awkward and self-conscious and keep my emotions from ruining the experiences right in front of me. 

Now that I’ve completed the basic skills course, I’m eligible to register for the intermediate course. But the chefs told us that it’s already full, so I’ll have to wait for the next session.

In the meantime, I think I’m going to buy a chef’s knife and chop some onions while I wait. 
Chef Craig and I celebrate my cooking course completion with some fun with rolling pins.

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place with Coffee for your Heart. Will you join me there for more encouragement?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Running Through Rainstorms Toward Hope

After living in Florida for years, I should know better than to get caught without an umbrella by a summer afternoon thunderstorm. By the time I made it home, my clothes were sopping wet and I knew the only attire that would have survived the storm was a swimsuit.

When I set out on a walk in my neighborhood there was only one stray cloud in the sky that didn't look all that threatening.

But too far from home or a neighboring porch, it started to rain and I ducked under the nearest tree for cover {no lightning, I checked}. 

At first I thought my little tree-shelter would keep me relatively dry while I waited for the rain to let up. 

But it poured harder and soon I was so drenched that I just decided to run for home. 

Sometimes I find myself running for cover from the storms in my life that threaten to submerge my God-sized dreams.

I want to safeguard these plans and purposes God whispers to my heart so I try to keep them tightly wrapped to protect them. But I slowly realized that it's not my dreams I'm protecting, it's actually my heart.

I used to think that I just wouldn’t bother dreaming so I could keep from being disappointed. 

But it only made my heart tough and cold and flinty. And I was disappointed anyway. 

So over time, I decided to crack open the door of my heart.  

Disappointments still arrived but I realized I could survive them because God met me there in the midst of them.

I started to see that whenever I took a step closer to one of my God-sized dreams, I would talk myself out of the celebration my heart felt. 

I wanted to prepare myself for disappointment, failure or rejection so I could let those around me know it before they pointed it out to me. I never wanted to be surprised.

But then I changed my thinking. I thought about God. I thought about God being here in person and handing me a gift.

I thought about me telling God that I knew this gift would probably break and fall apart, get lost along the way or be tossed on the trash heap someday. 

I thought about me telling God that I would be disappointed when the gift was gone so I wouldn't even bother using, enjoying or appreciating it. 

I thought about me handing back to God the gift I had so wanted and he had graciously given me.

And I thought about how it would grieve the heart of the one who gave the gift to me.

Maybe you’re holding an umbrella over your hopes for the future but they’re still drenched and dripping. 

Maybe you’re running through the rain, raindrops pelting your face, dripping into your eyes so you can’t even see the road ahead.

Maybe your dreams have been trampled in the mud, left swimming in a puddle, and you’re wondering if you should fish them out or just let them float away.

Take heart. 

Pull on your rain boots. 
Hold the umbrella high. 
Splash through the puddles.
Keep running toward hope.

As I slogged home through the rain, I noticed the bird I’d passed earlier. I had snapped a photo of the gray heron, wading in the pond, while it was still sunny out. 

But now the bird was still standing in the same spot, oblivious to the rain because the rain was bringing just what he was hoping for. His dream dinner of fish, frogs and insects.

When I reached my front door, I set out my shoes to dry and wished I had paid better attention to the skies before I set out on my walk. 

But I was kind of glad I got caught in the rain because I was inspired by the steadfastness of the bird.

After the storms batter and barrage my dreams, and I persevere through the squally days, I see radiant, dazzling, breathtaking, astonishing hope in front of me, breaking through the clouds. 

And I just know there's hope up ahead for you too.

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for Your Heart. Join me there for more encouragement!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Discovering the Secret Recipe of Life

Both of my grandmothers were good cooks. Because they cooked from memory and left little written instruction, much of what they created seems like a secret recipe to me.

They held jobs in corporate kitchens, long before it was in vogue for women to work. 

I grew up eating delicious meals made by my maternal grandmother, who worked in the kitchens of Westinghouse creating salads.

But my dad's mother died long before I was born so I've heard of her cooking expertise only through family stories.

My grandmother is second from left, standing with her Nabisco baking friends in the 1920s.

She honed her skills working as part of the baking crew in the kitchens of a Nabisco factory in Pittsburgh during the early 1920s. 

According to family legend, she made a scrumptious lemon pie. 

I'd like to think that both of my grandmothers would be pleased that I'm taking a cooking course.

My maternal grandmother in the 1920s, who worked at Westinghouse.

Halfway through my cooking classes, I've already learned far more than I thought I would. 

I wasn't sure what to expect since the course description was kind of vague saying only that we'd learn basic knife skills and various ways to prepare meat. 

But I felt as if I were in real culinary school when we learned about the "mother sauces" of cooking {the foundation of all other sauces} and how to whip up {literally} our own dressings.

Making theses recipes reminds me of my grandmothers.

Of the tomato sauces my Italian grandmother must have made, and the homemade dressings my other grandmother used for her salads. 

I'm excited to learn these cooking secrets.

My classmates and I don't really have much of a choice about the tasks we do. The chef chooses us. He says it's completely random, but I'm not so sure.

He points to a pile of lemons on the counter and hands me a citrus juicer. “Here’s your job,” he said. “Squeeze these lemons for our dressings tonight.”

I imagine he handpicked me for this job since I didn’t have to use anything sharp or dangerous. Even now in the middle of the course, I'm still in awe of the knife.

But he rolls two more lemons my way and asks me to cut them in half.

“Just in half?” It seems there's a particular way to cut everything so I want to be sure.

Of course, he says. I slice them in two. 

“Everyone! Look here," he announces. "Valerie just cut a lemon in half. Kudos to her!”

My classmates cheer for me as my lemon juice is poured into the bowls.

As we mix oil and vinegar into a vinaigrette dressing, we watch it separate after a few minutes.

We slowly whisk egg yolks into our mayonnaise mixture with some oil. 

The chef says it's this slow process that's the secret to make the ingredients stay together in condiments.

I happen to think most of God’s work in my life is a slow process.

I want the work that changes me to be lasting instead of a stop-gap measure that recedes on the wave of the next challenge.

I ask God to be changed then I quickly lose heart when the opportunities arrive that could bring the very changes I want.

Experiences that ask me to persevere and be patient.

Friendships that require my thoughtfulness and trustworthiness.

Adventures that call for me to be brave and determined.

Difficulties that demand a calmness I don't feel and peace I can't understand.

These experiences season my life.

And I realize that over time and in just the right measures, something profound has happened.

In the midst of my uncomfortable circumstances and the insecure experiences that I'd like to rush through, comes a steady stream poured out.

Of grace and faith and love and hope and peace.

God pours it all out and it sinks to the very bottom of my heart.

This is what stays. This is what is permanent. 

This just may be the secret recipe for a life filled with joy and gratefulness.

I know the grandmother I grew up with would have loved talking to me for hours about the recipes I'm learning to make.

I'd like to think the grandmother I never got to know would have shared all her favorite recipes with me too.

I think they would have cheered me on in my clumsy attempts at cooking.

And maybe they might have told me that the flavor of my experiences only seasons my life to make it all the richer. 

I think this just might be the secret to a life lived with purpose and meaning. A life spent knowing God and encouraging those around us, because it's through pouring ourselves out that we are filled with all that God has for us. 

Isn't that the secret recipe we're all looking for?

I'm linking up with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart. Will you stop over and read more encouragement?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Meat of the Matter: Overcoming Fear

Since I am the first to arrive at my cooking class I ask the chefs if we’ll be tackling meat tonight. I've occasionally cooked chicken but not any other kind of meat. My prime motivation for taking this culinary course was overcoming my fear of meat.  

Touching it and cooking it. 

The chefs say no, we’re learning sauces tonight. But wait, one of them says, we will be cooking rib-eye steaks and some fish and shrimp to go with our sauces.

I’m confused. “Isn’t that meat?” I ask. 

They shrug. “We won’t really be cooking meat until week five,” they say.

I tell the chefs that I went home and I cried about my failure to use a knife after the first class. 

They laugh. 

The truth was I was so disheartened after my first cooking class that I didn’t want to go back. But I’m not a quitter. {And I won't lie, the fact that I’ve already paid for all the classes might have motivated me a little too.}  

My only assignment all evening is to chop an onion. But I can’t remember how to get started and say, “Peel it first right?”

“Well, of course!” the chef comes over to me. He painstakingly goes over the instructions again.

I jerkily cut into the middle of it and he stops me. “Glide the knife,” he reminds me. “You are not gliding like a smooth airplane approaching the airport. You are crash-landing into the onion.”

He finishes it off for me and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Until the chefs pull out a tray of the thickest rib-eye steaks I’d ever seen.

“Come on down, Valerie!” the chef calls to me. “You’re going to touch some meat tonight.”

Even though this was exactly what I wanted to do, I am feeling horribly panicked. And wishing I were anywhere but here in this kitchen standing beside a tray of raw meat.

He instructs me to first season the meat. I clump a handful of pepper on one of the steaks.

“Remember how to sprinkle the salt and pepper from up above?” he asks.

“Don’t worry,” my classmate Julie jumps to my rescue. “I’ll eat that one.”

I gratefully tell her she is my new best friend. 

I drop the steaks into the hot pan but I’m afraid of my hand getting splattered. As I drop them from somewhere around eyebrow-height, they sizzle and splash. The chef scolds me to keep them closer to the pan, and my feelings are a little singed too. 

“You won’t get burned if you'd drop them like I showed you,” he says.

I find myself accepting his critique instead of withering and withdrawing. Besides, I have four more steaks to put in the hot pan.

The chef makes a joke as he oversees my attempts to season the meat.

This course is teaching me much more than cooking. God has been drawing my attention to areas in my life to address lately. He’s nudging me, correcting me and offering me help.

To fight my insecure feelings of not knowing what I’m doing and thinking I don’t belong. 

To overcome the fear of feeling nervous and looking incompetent that keeps me from trying something new. 

To conquer my misguided impressions of what I imagine others are thinking about me when they may not even be true.

God is more interested in me taking a risk with him than worrying about what I think I lack to show me he has so much more for me than I could imagine. He wants me to trust him to grow in new places in my life so I’ll stretch my faith too. 

And God is showing me that my fellow cooking students who seemed so intimidating to me and already knew how to cook are not so unapproachable. 

I trade knives with my station neighbor Liz so she can try the ceramic knife that gave me so much trouble in the first class {which she didn't like either}.

I hand my camera to Martha to snap a photo of me cooking, and she nicely tells me she hopes I'm pleased with the photos.

I laugh as Jerry teases me about learning to cook.

I commiserate with Sarah who the chefs ask to cook steaks with me but she refuses since she only eats chicken. 

I discover that Dave just moved here from England and wants to learn some American dishes to cook.

My cooking cohorts are feeling more like friends by the minute. And it's a good thing too. 

Because the chefs inform us that we’ll be creating our own menu and cooking it entirely ourselves for our final class to earn our certificates.

Our jaws drop. We’re shocked. It wasn’t listed on the course description. I’m terrified at the thought.

Handle a knife? Check. Touch and cook meat? Check. Cook a full-course meal? Knees quivering. Palms sweating.

I guess it’s just one more fear for me to conquer.

The finished meal -- my meat made the plate!

I'm linking up with my friends at Faith Along the Way and Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart. Won't you join me there?