Kitchen Wise

By Christian Martin
Photography by Toni Tipton Martin 

According to my mom, I was clanging pots and pans and asking to cook since I was two years old. She says that I was glued to Alton Brown and Iron Chef the way my little brother was to SpongeBob SquarePants. I thought Brown was funny and knowledgeable, and I began to understand things like amuse bouche, mise en place, how to make three different meals at a time and the science and history behind them all.

My love of cooking probably came from my mom—a writer and cookbook author. Over the years she’s concocted new recipes and exposed our family to all sorts of really weird ingredients, and we have always been her willing guinea pigs. But, there came a day when, instead of being Pinky, I wanted to be the Brain.

While visiting my grandmother in Los Angeles, my mother finally gave me full reign to use kitchen knives—I was 11 years old and it would be the first time I would cook alone. I decided to take full advantage of my new freedom and dominion by heading straight for my grandmother’s garden. Tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, strawberries and herbs were everywhere, and her avocado, apricot, plum, peach, orange, lemon and grapefruit trees were heavy with fruit. I picked whatever vegetables were ripe to make an omelet—since breakfast was my favorite meal of the day, it seemed only natural that I start there. I didn’t follow a recipe; I just yelled downstairs periodically to my mother for a little coaching:

“How much onion do you use? How many peppers?”

After that I was hooked. My mother and I planted our own herb garden, and for my omelets at home, I experimented with herbs just to see what they would taste like. I started with everything we had—fresh mint, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary (note: mint + eggs = yuck). Soon I felt confident enough to branch out and began to make French toast, pancakes and, unfortunately for my dad, waffles.

I’d helped my father make waffles every Sunday morning after church for as long as I could remember. He always claimed to be the waffle king, sitting upon a throne of fluffy egg whites, holding a scepter of Bisquick and commanding that I retrieve the vanilla and milk. I just wanted to get my hands on the ingredients, and once I did, I became the mad scientist of the kitchen—applying permutations and computations to our waffles and pancakes, just like Alton Brown.

I experimented by substituting organic whole wheat flour for unbleached all-purpose, making my own sour milk and throwing in a few pecans that I’d chopped and toasted. When we ran out of organic whole wheat flour, I tried whole wheat pastry flour and then white wheat flour. I noticed that the white wheat flour made my pancakes doughier, and that the whole wheat made them denser with an earthy taste. The taste and texture of the pancakes I made from whole wheat pastry flour were somewhere in between, earthy but soft.

My mom suggested that I do some research to learn about the different types of flour I was using. From the King Arthur Flour website, I learned that organic whole wheat flour is fiber- and nutrient-rich, high in protein and produced from hard, red spring wheat, and that organic whole wheat pastry flour—also known as graham flour—is milled from low-protein soft wheat. I also discovered that white whole wheat flour is milled from a blend of hard white winter and spring wheats, so it “tastes milder than traditional whole wheat flour but incorporates the three key components of whole grains: bran (packed with fiber), endosperm (full of protein) and germ (rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber).” It suddenly occurred to me just how much I was learning simply from making my own creations.

Now that I’m older, I cook for myself because it helps me gain independence, and I’ll be able to take care of myself later, like when I am in college, and also because it’s still fun. I love when all of the aromas waft into the air and linger in the house. I enjoy mixing different flavors and seeing how they taste together—it’s therapeutic. But most of all, I guess I like to cook for myself because it makes me feel clever.