Cooking Beyond Recipes
In grad school, I shared an apartment with two aspiring librarians. Rosemary often cooked for us and would go to the store to buy dried oregano if a recipe called for ¼ teaspoon and we didn’t have it on the shelf. One lovely Midwestern morning, I went to the farmer’s market and came home with zucchini, onion, eggplant, bell pepper and tomato, chopped them up and stewed them into ratatouille. At dinner, Cathy expressed her appreciation and asked for the recipe. With disapproval in her voice, Rosemary responded, “There wasn’t one. I watched her make it.” I tell this story often, because it says so much about different approaches to cooking.
When I was married, my husband would sometimes ask that I make a particular meal again—and of course I couldn’t reproduce exactly whatever I’d improvised two weeks ago. So there are some advantages to the “go buy the ¼ teaspoon of oregano” school of thought.
I treat recipes as references, sources of ideas and inspiration. I follow recipes more closely when I bake, since the chemistry of baking requires certain proportions of key ingredients. I often read several recipes to make something new or outside my usual repertory. (Checking various cookbooks recently, I discovered that my grandmother’s recipe for short cake is classic.) Occasionally I will draft a recipe from my sources, note what I actually do and keep that recipe so I can reproduce it if I like the result. A friend once gifted me with some cookbooks as she cleaned out her library, and I still enjoy reading the notes she made as she modified recipes.