Back in the Pleistocene Era, when I first started writing about food, I used to say it all the time. Most nights, dinner doesn’t start with a cook and a book. It starts with a cook and whatever’s in the refrigerator. Maybe supplemented with what’s ripe in the garden, and something that can be defrosted in time.
Dinner doesn’t start with a cook and a book
Anyone who’s ever picked up a saucepan with intent can open the fridge, the pantry, and the freezer, and come up with something for dinner. And I know I’m not the only one who does it pretty much every night.
Which brings me to my uneasy relationship with recipes.
On the one hand, I appreciate them. Very much. And one of the great things about the Internet is that it’s made more of them available, searchable, and ratable. I sometimes use the recipes as written (more or less), but I mostly mine them for ideas. If I’ve got a couple of ingredients I want to use up, I’ll look and see what other people have done to use up those particular ingredients, and take it from there.
Sometimes, though, I just assemble what has to be used up and start cooking. Would this roasted eggplant go with those mushrooms and that can of tomatoes, in a braise with these chicken thighs? Why on earth not?
I’ve got enough experience meal-making that I seldom make anything unequivocally bad (we won’t discuss last fall’s eel concoction). Some of my dishes are so-so, most are in the pretty-good range. Now and then, though, something is downright excellent.
And that’s where the problem comes in.
I could give you the recipe, but I’m not at all sure that would make the world a better place.
For starters, it won’t be exact. I don’t measure, and my post-prandial recreation will necessarily be approximate. Even if it were precise, though, I’m not at all sure it would be useful.
It’s usually the little things that elevate a meal from pretty good to downright excellent. It’s the way this particular wine complements that particular stock. It’s the pork loin that comes off the grill at exactly the right moment. It’s the bluefish that’s just smoky enough, and the tomatoes that have just the brightness to play off it.
When one of those downright-excellent meals does come out of my kitchen, I think Kevin eats it with particular enjoyment because he knows he will never taste it again. No matter how much care I take in writing down ingredients and steps, I know I will never recreate that precise flavor again.
And if I can’t, how can I help you to? And if my recipes don’t capture that something that elevates food beyond the ordinary, what’s the point of writing them down? There are a million recipes for fish stew, for lamb ragout, for clam sauce. Do we really need another one?
There are recipes that do capture that something. If you’re developing recipes in a rigorous way, measuring carefully and using specific ingredients for reproducible results (which I occasionally do), you have a better chance at it. But the kind of precision you get at, say, The French Laundry, generally isn’t practicable when you’re writing for home cooks. I think we’ve all made the same recipe more than once, only to be delighted with it the first time, and disappointed the second.
The other night, there was some smoked bluefish I’d defrosted, and a couple of onions on their last legs. Cream? Check. Peas? Check. Oh, and there’s a container of lobster stock in the freezer. Voila, pasta sauce. And it was truly outstanding. I’ve made similar sauces before, and I’ll make them again, but the bluefish will be a little different. The stock will be a little different.
I can’t give you precise directions to make it any more than someone could have given them to me – it was a serendipitous combination of what I happened to have. I can’t, in good conscience, encourage you to go out and procure smoked bluefish and lobster stock in order to make this recipe because your smoked bluefish and your lobster stock might not hit the sweet spot the way mine did. I can tell you that smoked fish and stock make a fine base for a pasta sauce, but if you’ve ever picked up a saucepan with intent, you know that already.
I have a sense that most people who visit me here cook. Not only that, you garden, or fish, or hunt, or gather and so you face the same dinnertime challenge I do: How do I pull this together into a meal? Talk to me. What helps you cook better? How do you use recipes? Do you stand in front of the fridge every night and figure out how to roll the dice? That’s what I do. How do you think we could all do it better?