SALISBURY — Brian Pfaff was just 10 years old when he became interested in cooking.
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He was watching his grandmother make pancakes the size of a silver dollar on an electric skillet.
“They were thin and light and I could eat like 20 of them,” he said. “She taught me how to make them, and that was the first thing I cooked by myself.”
After that, Pfaff began experimenting on his own.
“One night I would say that I was going to make dinner and just kind of throw something together,” he said. “It was horrible, but everybody eating it would say ‘Oh it’s great, it’s delicious.’
“They would sneak off to the kitchen and come back with an empty plate.”
But a few bad meals never discouraged him.
“You gotta be adventurous, I think,” Pfaff said. “You’ve got to be willing to try new things and not worry too much if it doesn’t go well, because you’ll always be able to cook again. It’s not like the Last Supper.
“If you mess this one up, you can make the same thing the next night. Just do something different.”
I’ve never thought about it quite like that. As someone who has ruined many meals, this is advice I should live by.
After spending a couple of hours with Pfaff on Friday, I feel more confident in my own kitchen.
When I first arrived at his Henderson Street home, he explained he was going to pretend I didn’t know anything about cooking. I told him there was no need to pretend because that’s not far from the truth.
He broke down every aspect of how to make Panamanian rice, from cooking the rice to cutting the vegetables.
Panamanian rice has only seven ingredients. Pfaff describes it as simple and savory, and I have to agree.
“It’s a very easy recipe,” he said.
Pfaff’s wife, Jenni, made the dish for him shortly after they got together.
“I was like ‘Man, this is good,’” he said. “Then I watched her make it and I started making it after that.
“We take turns making it now. Mine is a little more spicy than hers.”
Jenni’s college roommate, Renee, taught her how to make it while they were in school at UNC-Charlotte. Renee learned how to make the rice from her grandmother.
“The original recipe calls for bacon, but I don’t like it as much with bacon,” Pfaff said. “We’ve adapted the recipe to use sausage.”
The day Pfaff and I made the rice, we used about half a pack of spicy ground sausage, but the family typically makes it with a vegetarian sausage.
“Normally, we use Morning Star,” Pfaff said. “We’ve made it that way for a long time just to kind of healthy it up.”
All four of Pfaff’s children eat the rice.
“We call it yummy rice because we can’t stop eating it,” he said. “It’s just so good.”
We started out by cooking the rice. Seems simple enough, right?
I admit I’ve failed at cooking rice on several occasions. Sometimes it’s too soggy and other times it’s a tad crunchy.
“I’ve going to give you the most awesome advice you’ve ever had,” he said. “Follow the directions.”
Confession, I don’t always do this. No wonder I can’t cook.
We used jasmine rice, which Pfaff says cooks far more quickly than other types. I measured out three cups of water and poured it into a stainless steel pan.
“We’re going to put the lid on because that will bring the water a boil faster,” Pfaff said.
Instead of standing there waiting for the water to boil, we started chopping vegetables. Pfaff gave me a small knife, and he used the larger, sharper one.
It’s a good thing because I chopped off a portion of my fingernail while dicing up celery. A bigger knife might have landed on my finger.
He showed me a few cutting tricks.
He stacked two stalks of celery on top of each other and sliced them down the middle before cutting them into small bits.
The onion was a even easier. We cut that in half, then sliced it lengthwise and widthwise for the perfect sized slices.
I added the rice to the boiling water and put the lid back on. Pfaff set a timer for 15 minutes before we began grating the carrots.
When the timer went off, I moved the rice to a cool burner.
“If you let it sit on the burner it will keep cooking and it will stick on the bottom of the pan,” Pfaff said.
The combination of celery, onion and carrot is called mirepoix, which is often used in French cooking.
“It has specific smell when you cook it,” Pfaff said.
Pfaff learned about mirepoix in culinary school.
“I wanted to be a chef and I went to school for that,” he said. “I didn’t finish, but I learned my way around the kitchen pretty well during that process.”
When our mirepoix was ready, Pfaff added some rosemary-infused olive oil, which he made himself, to a wok.
“I’m really messy when I cook with rice, so the bigger the pan the better,” he said.
We then dropped in some spicy ground sausage.
After that was brown, we added the mirepoix and let it cook for a while before dumping in the rice.
Next, Pfaff sprinkled on ground cumin.
“You can’t add too much,” he said.
We used our noses to tell us when there was enough. As soon as we smelled it, Pfaff stopped shaking.
Next, he added some ground black pepper.
After a few tosses with a spatula, the rice was ready to eat.
We enjoyed the rice at Pfaff’s dining room table. The subtle flavors blended to create a bold-tasting dish.
During lunch, I learned more about Pfaff’s other love — carpentry. It turns out he’s done quite a bit of work on his home, which was built in the 1920s.
Right now, he’s in the process of creating a library off the kitchen.
Pfaff does projects on a freelance basis, but he works primarily as an estate manager in Charlotte.
“I’m basically a butler,” he said.
What a fascinating job. Pfaff cooks about once a week for his job. But he finds the real joy in cooking at home, when he’s making a meal for family and friends.
“I have this overwhelming desire to please others, and sometimes that’s not healthy,” he said. “In the cooking sense, though, I think it’s a key component to getting enjoyment out of it.”
Pfaff said rice and pasta are staples in his kitchen.
“They assume whatever flavor or additive you put into it,” he said. “So if you make pasta and put tomato, basil and Parmesan cheese into it, then it becomes tomato, basil and Parmesan cheese pasta.
“It’s the same way with rice, like we did today.”
Pfaff said he’s become good at using what he already has in his cupboard and fridge to create a meal.
“It’s like art,” he said. “You just kind of throw things together and taste it while you’re cooking it.
“Let go, have fun,” he said. Contact lifestyle editor Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.