Saturday, April 16, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: The Thinking

Tomorrow I am teaching a class on recipe-free cooking for the Boston Skillshare.

Before I get to the class content, I wanted to post some thoughts on cooking without recipes and why, in my mind, at least, recipe-free cooking is linked with CSA cooking.

First of all: I like recipes. I read recipes. I work as a cookbook editor. I have a shelf full of cookbooks and a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, and I am still constantly searching the Internet for more recipes.

When I need a particular recipe, a guaranteed showstopper for a special dinner guest, or to make something that requires a particular alchemy I don't understand (ahem, mayonnaise), I use the Internet or my cookbooks and follow the directions precisely. The other 99 percent of the time, when I've had a long day at work and potluck guests are coming in an hour and I couldn't care less about the right way to julienne carrots because everyone's hungry and I just need to get food on the table now, well, that's when I want to be recipe-free.

Cooking without recipes indulges my anti-authoritarian streak. It lets me cook with the food I already have or was on sale at the store or attractive at the farmer's market. It lets me adapt recipes at whim to deal with diners' dietary restrictions or the amount of time I have. It's also fun.

I believe that the right amount of any ingredient is the amount that you have, the correct seasonings are the ones that taste good to you, and the necessary cooking time is the number of minutes you have left until your guests arrive.

My skillshare will cover a couple of the basic formulas I use for recipe-free cooking. (I rely on formulas so much that my former roomates think I only know how to make one dish, which they call "Vegetables in a Pan.")

The other thing I do a lot of (and where the formulas ultimately come from) is comparing a lot of recipes. When I decide to make something, I read through eight or ten or a million recipes online, rejecting ones that call for expensive ingredients that I don't have, dealbreaker techniques (I never, ever bake anything in a water bath), or dubious editing. I look at reader comments that suggest modifications (add less sugar! double the chocolate! substitute half and half!), and combine elements of several recipes into something that roughly resembles what I wanted to make.

My approach is not good science, is not good statistics, and is a lot like “if Mom says no, ask Dad.” If I don’t have buttermilk and Julia Child says I need it, I ask Mark Bittman. If Mark Bittman says I need it, I ask Allrecipes, I ask random food bloggers, I ask eHow, and I just keep asking until someone says it’s okay to omit it.

And what does this all have to do with CSA cooking?

One qualm people have when signing up for a CSA is that they'll get lots of unfamiliar vegetables that they don't know how to cook (or too much of the same vegetable that they don't like to eat). I have a lot of fun researching unfamiliar vegetables and figuring out ways to cook them (see, um, this entire blog), but that's not a kind of cooking I want to do every day. Sometimes I just want to open the fridge, see what's there, and start making dinner.

CSA vegetables are a natural place to start with improvisatory cooking. They're usually the highest-quality ingredients you could hope to have to work with, and generally, the less you do with beautiful fresh vegetables, the better off you are. (Farm-fresh tomato? Cut it into wedges. Maybe add salt.)

Unlike with making baked goods, there's no precise chemistry to most vegetable cooking. If you skip an ingredient or get your timing or temperature wrong, there's no inch-high bread or wasted box of butter or fallen cake to out you. (I always pretend that what I end up with is exactly what I intended to make.)

Unlike with cooking meat, you're unlikely to make anyone violently ill if you get it wrong. The worst that will happen it that someone will say "no, thanks" to your unusual creation, and people so habitually say "no, thanks" to unfamiliar vegetables that you don't even have to take it personally.

And vegetable dishes are generally more or less edible at just about every step of the cooking process, which means you can taste, taste, taste, taste, and taste again. Unlike with cooking meat, you can -- and should -- taste at every step of the cooking process. You don't have to rely on times or amounts in recipes, because you can taste until the food's done just how you like it and slowly add seasonings until it tastes delicious to you. When is it done? When it tastes like dinner.


  1. Clearly the days of "veggies in a pan" are far behind you. Now the student has become the master...

    Wish I was there to take the class!

  2. Are you kidding? All I make is veggies in a pan. (Well, for my class, we did veggies in a pot and and veggies in a food processor.)

  3. Hmm, I wonder if I have any vegetables that are indigestible or toxic unless very carefully prepared... :-)