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May 2, 2009 02:43 PM

Recipe-less Cooking

Just read pitu's post and NYTimes link here: Included was a "partner article" link to an earlier NYTimes article:

APRIL 1, 2009
A Shift to Recipe-less Cooking
Some cookbook authors are moving away from the rigidity of recipes and advocating improvisation in the kitchen

I particularly like the sidebar entitled "Five Tips For Improvising in the Home Kitchen" and the brief info given for Taste, Focus on Techniques, Learn to Make Versatile Bases, Substitute Ingredients, and Don't be Afraid to Make Mistakes.

All I could think when I read that sidebar was "YES!" If more people were just willing to start putting flavors together after getting ideas from food they've eaten in restaurants or read a recipe but don't like a particular ingredient, they'd be less afraid in the kitchen. Some people I know are SO tied to recipes and all the most minute details are always needed.

Granted, I'm just experimenting for myself - I'm not cooking for a family, so expenses are kept much lower for just me if something gets screwed up. But sometimes you've just got to wing it. :-) If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. You know that for next time. But when something hits a home run on a dish you've put together yourself without a recipe? That is always a feeling of "YAY ME!"

For example - I get a flyer magazine from BJ's Wholesale Club as I'm a member. An article about "Season of Celebrations" in their most recent magazine focuses on summertime celebrations and discussed a product from Cedar's - an Edamame Salad. An accompanying picture showed something I'd like to make - edamame, corn, red peppers, and I wasn't sure what else.

So off I went to BJ's and wrote down the ingredients on the side of the package: edamame, corn (I'd use TJ's roasted corn), roasted red peppers (I'd rather use chopped fresh red bell pepper), onion, dried cranberries, oil, vinegar, cilantro, sugar, cayenne, and "spices". I dislike like cilantro, so I'd substitute flat-leaf parsley and as for those "spices", I'll use whatever looks interesting in my herb and spice cabinet. Perhaps Aleppo pepper, fresh-chopped marjoram or savory.

Why buy it when I know I can make it myself? :-)

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  1. Canadian chef Michael Smith, on his "Chef at Home" series (on Food Network Canada, don't know if it's available in the US), makes a point about "cooking with no recipe at all". He'll choose a main, and then start rummaging around in his (amazingly stocked!) pantry for ingredients to add to it. Unless he's baking, when he will measure ingredients, he mostly tosses in a handful of this, a pinch of that, etc.

    BTW, Canadian university students have a drinking game that revolves around his show; every time he says "flavour", you have to do a shot. You're usually snockered after the half hour.

    2 Replies
    1. re: KevinB

      That's pretty much what I do as well, Kevin (not the getting schnockered part <g>). Often, I'm craving an herb flavor (rosemary) or a condiment flavor (mustard; ground sumac, etc.) I then think backwards to get the meat or starch and work that way. Sometimes it's the other way - I pull out pork tenderloin or roasting chicken and then look at my herbs/spices/condiments and figure out a mixture of flavors I know I like. *Most* of the time it works; sometimes it doesn't; I just remember not to mix those ingredients again. :-)

      1. re: KevinB

        His show is obviously scripted though...and he has like every ingredient ever in his house =.=.

      2. I rarely, if ever, use recipes.

        Learn the basic TECHNIQUES of cooking, and you can make anything without a recipe.

        Cook by intuition, not by recipes.

        3 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          I agree that learning the techniques are essential to freeing yourself in the kitchen to be creative and improvise. However, not going to cooking school it took me many, many years of following cookbook recipes before I learned: aha! that's what sauteing is! Or how to braise, etc. What herbs go well with particular foods, etc. As I became a more accomplished cook, I wished (1) I had gone to cooking school to learn technique before recipes, and (2) there were more cookbooks that taught *cooking* rather than merely printing recipes.
          Bittman's How to Cook Everything is pretty good at suggesting alternatives so you're freer to go your own way -- his or a spinoff.

          1. re: NYchowcook

            But isn't that part of the fun, indeed the appeal, of cooking? Learning how to do it on your own will not only allow you to learn the basics, but along the way cultivate your own unique style.

            What is it the say about the journey being more satisfying than the destination?


            1. re: ipsedixit

              Yes, I agree about the journey. But I was diverted along the way by cooking from Gourmet Mag (which I love), following recipes, stressed because yes, in fact I was cooking blind in a sense, years and years before I understood the why.

              I wish I started from techniques and then moved to recipes.

        2. I almost did that with TJ's peanut vinaigrette. When you get around to that one, let me know how it works out! :)