There are rules to cooking, but you can't follow them. Foremost among them is: Nothing ever goes according to plan. Understanding this rule is not precisely fruitful. Planning for plans to go awry is futile hubris. The best you can hope for is flexibility of some sort; to stick to the plan is generally worse than making a new one. The original plan, however, isn't so easily left behind.
On my way home today I had an impulse, brought on by the sweet-spoken words of a "Chopped" contestant from Texas: "nothing's better than potatoes fried in duck fat." I doubted I would easily find duck, and if I did, I doubted I would want to pay for it. Duck, in my plan, became chicken. I would find either chicken drumsticks or chicken wings, melt the fat from their skins, and fry potatoes in that grease. At the store, however, the only chicken parts for sale with skin attached were drumsticks in huge, 5lb packages. (Having already that day visited The Food Co-op, where chicken parts of all kinds come in small packages, I went to Safeway--too embarrassed at the prospect of returning to the Co-op.) Instead I bought a pork shoulder steak. It appeared well-endowed with fat.
At home, I chopped potatoes and half a yellow zucchini. I salted the pork steak and seared it on both sides, thinking that the latter would lead to an effusion of grease, but the pan remained dry. What was the best temperature for melting fat? I wondered. It was at this point I had to give up my dream of potatoes soaked in hot animal fat. A few tablespoons of olive oil went in, along with the potatoes and a splash of water. Covered with the heat low, it became a braise. Some fresh thyme leaves, salt, and black pepper were sprinkled.
After about ten minutes the zucchini was in. Not long after, the meat was out--it was already done, and--sliced into--it was good. I wanted to eat the whole thing before any of the vegetables were done. I held back, wanting still to have a semblance of what I had imagined: everything together on a plate. To the imagined dish I still clung. I removed the lid, trying to boil off all the liquid and thereby return the potatoes and zucchini to frying. It was taking a long time, but it was working. Everything was browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan. The zucchini became soft and that was my cue, in my impatience, to eat.
The flavor was marvelous. Well, sort of. The pork had an unidentifiable, sickly taint, but the potatoes and zucchini were coated in something delicious. The zucchini was overcooked, mushy, and falling apart--while half the potatoes were undercooked and still unpleasantly hard. Biting into my first unexpectedly raw chunk of potato, I thought again of potatoes perfectly crisped and cooked through in duck fat. (Which is not something I've ever eaten, mind you.) This mess of textures in front of me wasn't what I had in mind, but in its shortcomings the ideal kept resurfacing. A bite of potato blocked by unyielding flesh is perhaps better than a bite perfectly cooked.
There is this moment of eerie stereoscopy. Yes, the plate before me is there, and I eat it, but the other plate, the one I imagined, is there too, its golden potatoes generously shiny. The mind refuses to acknowledge what is before it, and goes off chasing a ghost. Which isn't to say it's less real. I couldn't tell you what the real dish I cooked tastes like any more than I could the dish I saw on television.