To me, cooking is a combination of art and science. You have to know some of the science -- if not why things happen, at least what things will probably happen -- when you combine ingredients and perhaps apply heat. Without the science, your cakes won't rise, your yeast will die and your roast will burn.
The art comes in when you start modifying recipes and inventing your own. Substituting rosemary for basil won't make your roast chicken burst into flames, but it will change the flavor. Whether the change is for the good depends on how much you happen to like rosemary in combination with the other ingredients in the dish, and later, on the same plate.
Art also comes into play with the presentation of a dish. Seriously, does anyone think red leaf lettuce tastes any different than green leaf lettuce? But it makes a salad look more interesting.
Even if you think you don't care about presentation, in the fancy-restaurant-stacking-and-garnishing sense, you probably do react differently to the "beige meal" of grilled chicken and mashed potatoes than you would to a meal that has some color and texture variations.
Yes, you can get carried away with presentation. To me, garnishes should serve to add flavor as well as color. And garnishes should be just that -- small touches. As I've commented in some restaurants that have gotten carried away with the garnish, "parsley is not meant to be a green vegetable."
Some people get most artistic when it comes to desserts. They'll frost a cake, add powdered sugar and sprinkles, draw designs on cookies or otherwise embellish dessert so that guests ooh and ahhh over the final component of the meal.
As much as I'm fond of desserts, it seems that much of my kitchen artistry is spent on bread. I adore home made bread, and I'm fond of adding interesting ingredients. Sometimes the loaves will be round, sometimes they will be baked in a bread pan. Slashing the loaves into an interesting pattern does more than allow the bread to expand without cracking, it adds a dimension of interest.
Other times, the bread loaves become sculptures. And frankly, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Bread can be quirky, and rising dough can be inconsistent. What goes into the oven looking like a happy bunny can come out looking like a misshapen gargoyle. It has happened to me.
The good news is that a sculpted loaf of bread that doesn't quite turn out as planned can be sliced and served and it tastes just as good. The better news is that when the loaf comes out as planned, guests will think you are a genius and an artist. Right before the knives come out and the art is slathered with butter and devoured.
The last component of cookistry comes from what an acquaintance once said about his friends, "One cooks like a scientist and the other cooks like a witch." What he meant was that one followed recipes with precision, while the other was more likely to toss in a hand full of this and a pinch of that. Both were good cooks, he said, but in different ways. The scientist could recreate the same meals over and over, while the witch could create new dishes out of nothing.
So, along with artistry and chemistry, I think that my cooking has just a bit of that sorcery in it as well. Sometimes my experiments in the kitchen are not so much art as they are a haphazard tossing of ingredients that sometimes garner results that even I am surprised at.
Over time, the best thing about my ever-evolving haphazard, scientific, artistic and whimsical cooking experiments is that often I can recreate dishes that I've had before, even if I don't have a whiff of a recipe. I may not take the same route as the original cook, but with enough fiddling, quite often I can come up with the same result. And those results are magical.
For me, cooking is fun. I enjoy the zen of chopping and slicing, I bask in the aroma of baking bread, and I thrill at the comments from people who sample my successes. For me, cooking is more of a hobby than it is something I do because we have to eat. But unlike other creative and crafty hobbies, when I gift someone with a loaf of homemade bread or a plate of cookies, it's unlikely that my gift will get re-gifted next year. And no matter how adorable a loaf of bread may be, I'm not tempted to put it on a shelf and display it. So there's always room for the next creative project that comes out of the kitchen.
Cookistry. It might be art, but it's fleeting art. It should be science, but it's fun science. It could be magic, but it's good magic.
And sometimes you just have to play with your food.
Welcome to Cookistry.