Monday, June 16, 2008

Down With The Dictatorship Of The Recipe

I used to be a horrible cook. Much to the chagrin of my parents' attempt to teach me to cook real food, I was notorious for burning even boxed brownies and having crunchy Kraft mac and cheese for my lunch. Because of my very rebellious and inpatient personality, I always found the structure of recipes to be oppressive with very narrow parameters, always telling me what to do and ordering me around! So when I moved out of the house at 17 and tried making food for myself, I thought, screw this! Frozen pizza, canned soup, and cereal were my three food groups.

When I started dating Ira, he was vegan, so he had become skilled at cooking for himself due to the rarity of good vegan fast food. Every night he would make himself a delicious stir fry or rice and beans. As I began to help him out, he would explain to me what he was doing and why. He never used a recipe for any of the simple meals he prepared because he understood the underlying principles of how the dish worked. Where a recipe tells you what to do, most never explain why. So as Ira explained very basic rules like cooking harder vegetables first and what basic ingredients are necessary for a sauce, I began to see that one doesn't need to follow a recipe down to the dot to have the food turn out yummy!

As I got more confident in my cooking abilities, I moved on to cooking on my own. Trying more and more techniques and attempting more difficult food items, I was able to understand how different dishes are constructed. By using a recipe merely as a guideline and not as strict rules, I no longer felt trapped, and I allowed myself the freedom to explore and be creative. Now when preparing a dish I have never cooked before, I peruse a recipe to see what the general technique is, and then I use my own creativity decide in what ways I plan to follow or deviate from it.

A lot of people are afraid of deviating from a recipe, but I always encourage it. I don't believe you can screw anything up too much. You can generally fix anything which you feel hasn't turned out. If a soup tastes bland, you can jazz it up with some seasoning, or add some coconut milk to make it creamy. I constantly test whatever I am making to see if it needs something more. Sometimes I add crazy things to recipes to spice them up and I take the flavors in a completely different direction. I like to stay spontaneous. Because of this, I generally never make anything exactly the same way twice. Maybe it doesn't always turn out great, but trial and error is the best way to learn!

Sometimes a thing you are working on doesn't turn out so well, and you have to scramble at the last minute to make it work. Perhaps you can't change the dish, but you can change your intentions with it. Maybe you planned on making a roulade wrap with greens but the greens aren't holding your delicious ricotta filling. Your guests are waiting! Its time to quickly cook some pasta and say, "This is no longer a Roulade! It is now a delicious ricotta pasta with greens!"

The rule stating you should make something once before serving to guests I DO NOT abide by. Guests should have a part in the spontaneity of cooking by mood because it is more fun and helps to make them feel included! I don't feel this way because everything I cook always turns out exactly the way I want it. I have to scramble all the time. If things don't turn out at all, it at least usually makes a good story.

I love telling about the vegan dinner party I was asked to host many years ago. I enjoy the challenge of vegan cooking because you have to work around so many obstacles. The party was planned for a summer weeknight, and I had just been given a bunch of organic almonds (in the shell) from my Aunt Dottie, who works at whole foods. I thought I might try a chilled almond soup recipe I had seen.

I spent hours shelling and blanching the skin off those bastard nuts. I read over the recipe and began to prepare the soup by pureeing the nuts with some almond milk and water. At this point, I was supposed to add only one clove of raw garlic, but I thought to myself "everyone likes garlic, and it is so good for you, might as well add three or four". So I did. MISTAKE!!!!!!!! Raw garlic has such a STRONG flavor. The "soup" tasted like garlic water with some nut chunks. GROSS! Ok, I thought, how can I fix this. I figured I could add something sweet to counterpoint the intense garlic. So I added some apple juice. No Dice! Tasted like garlic water with apple juice and nut chunks. Ok, what could I do from here...

My Aunt Dottie had just taken me to Tru, a fancy five star restaurant in Chicago, to celebrate my graduation from College and my 22nd birthday. We had been given, between courses, a garlic sorbet served to cleanse the palette. It was delicious! OK, Garlic Apple Almond sorbet it is. So I stuck food processor bowl and all in the freezer. With sorbets, you need to keep mixing them as they freeze so the crystals don't become to big. I woke up in the middle of the night and mixed that sorbet as well as mixing it before work the next morning. When I got home from work, with about an hour until my guests arrived, I tasted the sorbet and ugh! It tasted like frozen garlic water with apple juice and nut chunks. Was I gonna quit after all that god damn work?? NO! So I decided to add some vanilla and a little more sugar, mixed that baby up and put it back in the freezer.

Needless to say, we went without a soup course that night. I don't even remember what I served for the entre. But guess what I pulled out and served for desert? I served each person a very small dollop of garlic apple vanilla sorbet with almond chunks! The only one who ate it was my friend Andy, and the only reason he did was to show everyone he will eat anything. Thanks, Andy! I served this only as a joke of course, and immediately pulled out the real desert of vegan apple pie with tofutti. As I said, I can't remember the entre, but do I remember the sorbet! My friends and I still joke about it.

So not everything I have made has been a success, but its been fun! I'm no professional. I have no formal training, I just like to be creative in the kitchen. Despite this horrible sorbet I served my friends, they all consider me to be an excellent cook, or at least they tell me they do. So lets not get too mucked down with rules and regulations. Lets throw caution to the wind and reinvent cooking for ourselves!


Miss Rhea said...

ok! this is awesome! it looks great- you're an engaging writer- i'll be back.

Shayna said...

Oh man, you're funny. I saw all those words and thought, "NO WAY" but I ready almost all of them! Heck yes, dude.

katherine said...

I forgot about those days when you and I were at the same skill level with cooking -- adding milk to the cheese powder to make mac'n'cheese.

Now you are making pies from scratch and turning soup into sorbet, while my skill level has increased only slightly. I now use Greek yogurt instead of milk, which gives the powdered cheese a bold, tangy flavor. How's that for deviating from the recipe?

Ira said...

Thx for the shout-out!

missile said...

i love it that i actually got to experience the garlic-apple-nut chunk sorbet and i never tire of hearing the story! it was a great night to meet you for the first time! you got skillz, lady.

Natalie said...

Malissa directed me to your blog, I look forward to having another thin to do besides work at work!