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Cooking Without a Net

September 13, 2018

Family. We do a lot for family.

For better or for worse, my kids are voracious readers. That means we end up spending a lot of time at the library. As opposed to most things, our library has continued to get better and better over time. I’m not entirely sure how it’s been able to buck the trend, but kudos to you Guilderland Public Library.

My kids also like watching Netflix. And thanks to a wicked combination of The Great British Bake Off and fake-aunt Amy, Little Miss Fussy is now into baking.

Not only does the library happen to have bakeware that you can check out, but we also discovered recently that they have launched a new monthly cookbook club. This is where a different cookbook is featured each month, and library visitors can sign up to make a recipe and bring it to the library for a communal tasting.

Well, the first book was The Great British Bake Off, and last night was our big reveal. But today’s post has almost nothing to do with any of this.

So there we were, all the the bakers around the table, and we were talking about our relationships with baking. Since I was present primarily as a chaperone for my daughter, I tried to stay on the sidelines as much as possible.

It was harder than you might imagine.

Someone said something that was so striking, I made a note to myself that I had to write a blog post about it. Here we were in a room full of home cooks. And someone confessed that they always cook from a recipe. Even though she had made tomato sauce many many times before, she still consults a trusted list of measurements and techniques each time she comes to the stove.

I found this flabbergasting, and now I want to give home cooks the freedom to just do it.

Here’s an example. Tuesday afternoon was CSA day. But since I had been traveling we had some old vegetables clogging up the fridge. And since coming back from Chicago, one thing I wanted to do was try to eat more healthful meals, jam packed with vegetables.

So what did I do? I threw ‘em all together in a pan. And it was delicious.

Sure, that’s an oversimplification. Really, I peeled and diced the eggplant, and then sautéed it with olive oil and salt in a skillet. Once it started sticking to the stainless steel pan, I threw in a sliced onion and a bit more salt. I knew that the onion would release moisture that would help to deglaze the pan.

In retrospect, I should have done this with the fennel bulb that was also in the fridge, but I wanted to use an old onion that was getting soft on the counter. The fennel will last a little longer.

There were also a few hot peppers, so I chopped them all up and threw ‘em into the pan. And I added a little garlic for good measure. At some point, I wanted to deglaze the pan again with something else. I chose a cube of beef stock.

That was probably a mistake. It added a heaviness to the dish, when what it really needed was some brightness. No big deal, that was easily corrected with some vinegar that I added to taste.

The whole thing was served with some reheated chicken breast, and it was delicious!

Here’s the idea. As a home cook, it’s great to follow recipes. But as you do, try to notice the cooking techniques that the recipes use. Because those techniques that can be used in a variety of different ways for many different preparations.

Little Miss Fussy and I followed the recipe for Paul’s Chocolate Volcanoes to the letter. We even broke out the digital scale to precisely measure grams of caster sugar and the 70% chocolate required to make this dish to his exacting tastes.

But we walked away from this with the knowledge of melting chocolate with butter over simmering water. We learned what happens when you beat eggs with sugar. We got some practice folding chocolate into whipped eggs. And we got to grease pudding molds with butter and coat them with cocoa powder so the cooked “puddings” would turn out.

Cook from trusted recipes. That’s fine. But try to learn from them, and every now and again, try and break free. It’s such a wonderful feeling to cook by instinct. To taste and adjust as you go. To trade measurements for intuition. To judge cooking times based on the look and smell of a dish rather than the ringing of an alarm.

And if you screw it up, it’s usually salvageable. Do yourself a favor and start small, with inexpensive ingredients. There’s no reason to jump right into an off-the-cuff halibut and lobster stew. That would be flirting with disaster.

Just grab a bunch of things that you think might go well together at the farmers market this weekend. It’s a great time for seasonal produce, and typically the foods of the season have a way with going with each other. Like my eggplant, hot peppers, and fennel.

Should you need any encouragement, just let me know. I’ll be right there.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2018 10:01 am

    Agree and disagree. In baking and pastry making, formulas are very precise. Depending on a variety of factors, I will use between 300 and 305 grams of water in my baguette recipe and that 5 g makes an incredible difference.

    Also, it’s fine to bring home a product from the farmer’s market and experiment with it, but often items have recommended cooking preps for a reason. Eggplant is an example. I’m sure you salted it to draw the moisture off and sauteed at high heat, but a tyro who did not take those steps would end up with grease pillows.

  2. Olga Osetinskaya permalink
    September 13, 2018 12:01 pm

    That is why I avoid baking any complicated desserts, I do not like measure ingredients, prefer freedom and follow my instincts, but basic knowledge of cooking is certainly needed to be possessed

  3. albanylandlord permalink
    September 13, 2018 1:20 pm

    Oh Yeah, total recipe guy here.

    One of my (many) issues is I rarely make the same thing twice so I don’t develop the comfort level and intuitiveness to adjust and modify the recipe. I think I have the ability – When I was younger I was the only one who could make decent bread with the bread machine because the recipe told me how to make adjustments to get the right dough consistency. And my grandfather’s Long Island potato salad recipe wasn’t quite right so I have been adjusting it every time I make it (which is about once every 18 months of course…). But I have never developed the confidence or knowledge to put together variations on a trusted recipe or make it without referring to the recipe.

    It’s my wife’s fault too, she makes 90% of the meals so I don’t get enough practice… ;)

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