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A new task builds a better mind

It’s dark.

It’s quiet.

She speaks.

“I’ve realized there’s something I want to do before I die.”

”What’s that?”

“Differential equations.”

I’ve often thought about what I might do before I no longer have the opportunity. Differential equations is not on the list, and the first five entries on the list are not fit for this column.

I respond as best I can.

“Wha?”

“I was reading an article the other day …”

Oh, no.

“And the author wrote that one of the best things we can do to activate our brains as we age, to keep our brains healthy, is to learn something new.”

“Differential equations?”

“I want to learn algebra and I want to do mathematics. I had a terrible time with algebra in high school. I flunked algebra and I figure if I learn algebra and calculus now, it will keep my mind alert.”

“Algebra? Calculus. That’s it?”

“Well, actually, the article included a number of things we can do as a couple that will accomplish the same end. And I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you”

Oh, no.

“For example, we can learn the samba. They say it’s one of the most difficult partner dances. We could take lessons and …”

“I bet you can find all sorts of algebra texts online. Cheap. Let me help. In fact, now that I am fully awake, I can go down to the office, fire up the computer and …”

”I think it would be great to take samba lessons, don’t you?”

I silently assess the prospect. Samba lessons. Firearms. First-degree murder charges pressed against one of us. In couple dance forms, one person has to lead. Neither of us is a follower. Case closed.

“Plus,” she says, “I think we would have a great time learning any kind of dance together, with the special advantage of improving our brains.”

“Hmmm.”

“Even something like square dancing. I could get one of those outfits, we can buy you a western shirt and …”

“I am completely sold on this math idea of yours. It’s brilliant. You learn algebra and calculus, do differential equations, and I will come up with a mental task designed to amp up my brain health.”

What would that be?

Someone already thought of the iPhone. Someone already invented the unicycle.

Space flight and a job as an astronaut has always appealed to me but, with the last of the Shuttle launches on the horizon, my hopes of flying one of those magnificent birds to the international space station have been dashed.

I’ve always wanted to learn Esperanto. Think of the advantages! The international language!

Concert violinist? No, it involves too much practice and my fingers are too short.

Polo? Nope, I don’t get on well with horses.

Lepidoptery? Not a chance: I’d have to go outside.

I will develop new recipes.

This isn’t exactly a novel activity for me; I work on recipes all the time. But, with my ferocious case of ADD, I forget ninety percent of what I “create” within a matter of minutes, so anything considered a second time is, essentially, new.

The concept is an interesting one, isn’t it, because one must ask if there is any such thing as a truly “new” recipe? In this, recipes are a lot like an art — say, painting. A painter might discover a new material, a new ground, etc., but what is left to add to the concept “painting” and, thus, to any token of that type?

Not much.

A painter is what E.H. Gombrich called a “bricoleur,” and, as such, tinkers with junk (materials, styles, etc.) he or she has amassed in their personal experience of paintings and ideas about painting.

Same with the creative soul in the kitchen. The cook is a bricoleur, collecting methods, ingredients, concepts involving the interplay between methods, technology and ingredients.

When you examine recipes they are, at their most basic, methods. Ingredients come later, don’t they? Technique precedes ingredients. Technique is the foundation on which flavor, texture, etc. are built. That’s the prime notion pushing the wave of “new” cuisines that have gained so much attention over the past 20 years. Creative cooks produce all manner of exotic results, and what they are doing, in most cases, is tinkering and applying previously unrelated technology (primarily new gadgets and quasi-sci methods), to ingredients that are, in most cases familiar, with the result that the familiar is transformed into something alien, exciting. Occasionally a new ingredient creeps into the mix and, for sure, unusual combinations find a place in the process, but are the “recipes” really “new?”

Perhaps some of the high tech star chefs can make this claim; after all, these bricoleurs have access to the best junk. But in the home kitchen, “new” will most often entail fairly common techniques, and a new toy or two, applied to a previously unexperienced combination of flavors, textures and temperatures, or modifications of existing combos, perhaps involving the application of a different technique to a standard blend of ingredients.

This is what I will do. Coming up with something “new” in the kitchen, on a regular basis, might delay dementia. If I invent enough “new” recipes, I might be able to remember where I put the car keys.

And, interestingly enough, I might be able to engage this creative process by subtracting options rather than adding them. To pursue the idea of the bricoleur, I might find success by tinkering with fewer items, by forsaking some of my junk.

On doctor’s orders, I am supposed to cut way back on my intake of animal fat; I am to rid my diet of red meat and dairy products. Add to the list of verboten foods anything white (in particular white flour and white sugar) and my kitchen horizon has contracted

What am I to do?

Invent new combos with the ingredients that remain. And there are plenty.

I can still eat chicken and fish on occasion. I can roam free in the produce department gathering all the fruits and vegetables I need, steering clear of white potatoes. I can enjoy whole grain baked goods. Olive oil is on the go list (as is a tiny amount of butter). All the herbs and spices are available for duty, as are eggs and nuts. Brown rice, yes. White rice, no. Tofu and offshoots? Sad to say … yes.

All of my fave condiments are available, from sriracha to mirin to kecap manis. Chiles of all kinds and colors are perfectly acceptable. Salsas are ever at the ready.

I attempt to convince Kathy that lard, while white, is permissible as a flavoring agent and, since it is white, it is not, technically, red meat.

No go.

I can’t imagine green chile without its porky pals, but I will give it a try.

This will be the first recipe I modify.

I’ll use chicken. I know there are legions of folks who swear by chicken green chile, but in my experience there is no substitute for the pork and lard. There is no way the dish can achieve the depth of flavor, the mouthfeel, without these ingredients. But, I can give it a try. It’ll do my brain some good to struggle against the prospect of inevitable failure..

Olive oil in hot pan, over medium high heat. Chicken, cut into 1-inch hunks and seasoned with salt and pepper goes into the oil and is lightly browned. I think dark meat will work best, given the need for all the flavor I can get, A mix of thigh and breast meat would do, as well. When the chicken is browned, out it comes. Into the fat (with extra olive oil added if necessary, go a couple cloves of minced and mashed garlic. The garlic should get golden, but not brown. The pan is deglazed with four cups of chicken stock and seasoned with oregano and ground cumin. In goes about a half to three-quarter’s pound of roasted, chopped green chile. Here, I will detour from the regular recipe again and add a teaspoon of ground red chile from my favorite source in Espanola. I’ll cook the daylights out of this liquid, reducing it by about a third, adding a bit of chicken base to the mix if necessary. Back in goes the chicken, the heat is turned to medium low and the blend simmers for a while.

Ordinarily, the chile would have been thickened with a roux after the flesh is browned, but white flour is not permitted. Therefore, a cornstarch slurry is the only answer. In it goes, the chile is thickened, the seasoning adjusted and it is ready to eat.

Here, the process takes a nasty turn.

As in no white flour tortillas. And no cheese.

There are beans available, however, (any kind in a generous amount is permitted) and seasoned pintos or black beans will be wrapped in a warm, whole wheat flour tortilla (perish the thought) with the chile sloshed atop the burrito.

Some guacamole will pair happily as a side.

I’ll make do..

And, who knows, with my enhanced brain power, and enough experimentation, I might write a cookbook.

In Esperanto.

Adiaux geamiko.

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