Do those words bring back memories from your childhood, either good or bad? I can remember times when I was afraid to do something and my friends would say I dare you! Sometimes the fear came from me knowing I was going to do something I really should not be doing and I needed to walk away from the dare. Other times, however, the dare made me push through some fear that was internal and do something I could not have envisioned me doing before.
What brought me back to this place of thinking about being a child was actually a quote from Takuan Soho who wrote, “Zen is to have the heart and soul of a little child.” It seems to me that I do my most creative cooking when I am at that place in the kitchen when I have the heart and soul of a little child. Most children, yes I know there are exceptions, tend to approach all activities with a sense of fun and playfulness. They just want to have fun. I can’t tell you how many “barbecues” we had in my backyard or “tea parties” we had with the “fine china” as I gathered with my “friends” and shared stories over “a cup of tea” and “finger sandwiches.” Even as I write this, I am thinking about the popcorn commercial where the little girl is sharing her popcorn with her father and brother at her tea party. Those were the days.
As a child, I also had no sense of limitations. There was nothing I could not do, even when my parents told me I could not do them. At least for me, there was something almost daring about my parents telling me I could not do something. It was almost as if when they said no, you just wanted to do it even more. Growing up in a Jewish home, I remember my mother telling us all the time we could not eat pork or any pork product. So there was no ham, bacon, sausage, pork belly, spareribs etc. so at home, I was the obedient one and did not eat any of it, primarily because there was none in the house and if we went out to eat with my parents, it was not something you even considered ordering. You were not even sure you were going to like it. but then there was that day while I was in high school and one of my friends, who was not Jewish, dared me to eat a piece of Italian sausage. Not only did he dare me, he triple dared me. so you know I could not back away from a triple dare and for the first time in my life, pork crossed my lips and opened me up to a whole new world of culinary delights. It was as if I had discovered a completely new game.
My approach to cooking now is like that. There are no limitations as to what ingredients you can put or not put together. Ok, so I know there are those that say you should never combine cheese and seafood, but they obviously have not had a fish sandwich at McDonald’s or a tuna melt or lobster mac and cheese. So often, we do our most creative cooking when we go back to that space where everything was about having fun and embraced that sense of playfulness and adventure. Or when we can hear that voice inside that says, “I dare you to serve grilled romaine with venison,” like Claire Robinson did on Chopped All Stars. I dare you! One of my college roommates used to dip Doritos in chocolate frosting.
It is this sense of throwing away the rulebook, you know the one in your head, that gave me the freedom to experiment and have fun with combining things that sound so good in my head. It is what dared me to make a dried cranberry and goat cheese salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Or what dared me to make a salad with mandarin oranges and chopped red onions. Or what dared me to take puff pastry and stuff it with brie, caramelized onions, and wild mushrooms.
So what would you create if you threw away the rulebook and just played in the kitchen? I dare you to take two ingredients you could never envision together and have fun. Who knows what you might create. Where would we be if nobody had ever dared to combine carrots and cake? Or put oatmeal and raisins together to make a cookie? So have fun, be playful, and throw away your culinary rulebook – I dare you! I double dare you!