Thursday, May 6, 2010

On the recipe

I love recipes.

Yeah, I'm man enough to admit it, right up in front of all of you gathered here today.  Okay, okay, I know I've talked before about how difficult it can be for me to follow a recipe to the letter, but whenever I cook I do pretty much invariably have something in front of me.  See, I love everything about recipes.  The precise seemingly logical measurements, the linear directions, the sense that, like a map, if you follow their lines precisely, you will always get where you intend to go.  This is really satisfying, and it speaks to the age we live in, too.  You probably know this but if you study any art long enough you'll hear reiterations of the idea that everything has been done, everything thought, everything said and heard.  We humans have been here on Earth doing stuff long enough that we don't really have anything new to offer, just the same old things, hopefully combined in some new way that, immediately after you do it, becomes just one more thing that's also not new.  So when it comes to cooking, it's not much of a stretch to say that everything you're thinking of throwing together in a pan, someone else has made it first.  And if you look deep enough on google, they've probably blogged about it too.

Think too hard on the implications of this concept and it'll drive you absolutely mad, but once it wiggles its way inside you you kind of have to learn to live with it.  Me, I like to imagine that this concept of reiteration is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, that it's comforting to be living in the shadow of history, and recipes for me just reinforce this.  When I cook from a recipe, I'm just consciously reiterating a previous meal, attaching myself to a newer form of someone else's experience with a dish, when I then blog about the recipe, I'm constructing the underlying associations that society depends on.  I am not saying that this is my motivation all the time, but sometimes, sure, I'm doing it to do it so that it will be redone.

As you might imagine from this, I cook from recipes quite a bit.  But more and more I find that my developing sense of how things work in the kitchen leads me away from whatever recipe my laptop screen is open to and toward the cupboard, or the fridge.  I guess, despite all my tangled beliefs about the power of the recipe, all my reliance on the formula, I'm finally learning to cook.  I'm sure that there are a million names for this realization, for this act of breaking through the recipe, but the one that keeps running through my head tonight is this: I'm cooking freehand. 

Tonight, as Dana ailed on the couch tending a fever as sudden and furious as a sunspot, I had the idea that I'd make her a soup.  It was only after I'd diced the aromatics and started digging veggies from the crisper that I realized I was going about this differently than usual.  I hadn't hit up tastespotting, hadn't dug through the food-stained catalog of printed out recipes we keep in a binder near the stove, hadn't even really referenced the recipes I've followed so many times I have them by heart.  I just wanted soup so I put together soup.  I tasted broth, and I frowned at vegetables like normal but I was doing something much more interesting than usual.

Ultimately, the soup turned out all right, good for what it was but still a little unbalanced with flavors, and perhaps that is one of the things that turns me off of cooking freehand, the sense that if something doesn't turn out quite right, it's not the fault of the recipe, it's my fault.  There's no scapegoat.

Anyway, the soup's not the important thing (though it was very pretty) it was just a dish that got me thinking.  So now I'm curious: what's the breakdown on this issue like in the general population?

So this is a quick sort of poll, a post that needs responses from you.

When you cook, do you dig out recipes and follow their instructions or do you cook freehand, gripping like mad to experience and--if you're a science-minded cook-- the ratios of what goes with what?  Okay, why?


Mrs. Buck said...

For the most part I stick to recipes - 100% for baking, and probably the majority of the time for other cooking. But I do have a few staples that I can just whip up based on what I have in the kitchen, and what I know substitutes well. My husband used to make fun of me because I could only cook with a recipe - but I think that's where a lot of people start - and being able to wing it comes with experience. That's my 2 cents.

The Hayward House said...

If I am making something for the first time, I follow the recipe exactly, particularly for baking-- There is more science involved there with the ingredients. Cooking--mostly have the recipe for the idea but then wing it and use what is available. You get good a feel for some of it after a while. Last night I made chevre gnocchis - no recipe - with sauteed asparagus. It was pure perfection.

Dana said...

Oh my God, chevre gnocchi sounds amazing. Was it regular potato gnocchi with chevre and asparagus on top, or was the chevre mixed into the potato pasta?

justin said...

@Mrs. Buck: I think you're right, adherence to the recipe is where a lot--I might even say most--people start, and learning to cook stems pretty naturally from that. My mom taught me to cook a bit when I was a kid but really all of the comparatively meager skills I claim in the kitchen come from books and internet resources. Essentially, I owe it all to the recipe. Thanks for reading and helping satisfy my curiosity!

Michele: I've been really interested in this idea of the ratio that Ruhlman talks about in his book I linked(which I have not yet read, for some reason), especially where it comes to baking. Somehow, I can follow recipes when I cook but when I'm reading off ingredients with a baked good I want to scream. I think the difference is that I generally have a pretty good idea of what does what in cooking (and bread making more and more often now), but my relative ignorance with baking ingredients drives me kind of batty. Maybe it's not ratios I'm looking for at all, it's science. I should probably watch more Good Eats.

Yesica N. Cook said...

Used to feel totally inadequate because I cling to recipes, then noticed that my mum always had the recipe book in front of her, even for something she'd made (literally) a thousand times. So perhaps it's just genetic, like tongue-rolling - you're a recipe person or you're not???

The Hayward House said...

The chevre REPLACED the potato. The asparagus was sauteed in oil, with little butter to brown. Then I tossed the cooked gnocchis were tossed in the pan with the asparagus. You could crumble more cheese on top to make it look prettier.

Aaron said...

When it comes to freestyling I'll use google to make sure my overall idea is sound and then I'll go ahead. Just yesterday I was making Leek and Asparagus soup and was wondering if it would be a good idea to add the half a bulb of fennel I had left over from a salad. A quick check to google later and I was sauteing it up with the leeks.

As for Ratio, I don't have the book yet but I have the app for my phone and love it. The best part is it's a foundation for whatever you want to cook. For example, as long as you have 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour you have a cookie. The rest is up to you.