Crapshoot cookery

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?

20 people are having a conversation about “Crapshoot cookery

  1. Since you’ve pretty much captured exactly how I cook, my answers probably aren’t going to be of any help to you. But hell, you asked. Think I’m going to pass up an invitation to talk food and cooking? Yeah, right.

    What helps you cook better?
    Professional culinary training followed by two decades of cooking from scratch most days of the week. I know the professional training sounds impressive, and the fundamentals are invaluable, but honestly it’s only a foundation. I’m a much better cook now, having forgotten at least 50% of what I learned at culinary school. It’s years and years of practice that have made me the cook I am. Mind you, I’m not claiming to be a master. What I forgot is the details, definitions of French sauces and the proper names of garnishes, exact methodology for salmon mouse and pate en croute, etc. What stayed with me (knife skills, all the basic cooking principles, confidence), are what have allowed me to do all the practice.

    How do you use recipes?
    Exactly as you described when it comes to cooking. I’m more of a martinet when it comes to baking recipes. It sounds like I may be a little more interested developing my own recipes than you are. I take notes on some things, and try to work towards better versions of them.

    Do you stand in front of the fridge every night and figure out how to roll the dice?
    Pretty much, though there’s the chest freezer, garden, pantry and root cellar to consider in the proper seasons too. That’s homesteading.

    How do you think we could all do it better?
    In my opinion, food quality boils down to two things – the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the cook. You and your readers are likely already working on maximizing the quality of the ingredients, so no suggestions there. Skill in cooking is basically a function of practice with the intention of always doing it just a bit better than before. I know a few people who consistently cook from scratch but who just don’t seem to care about how the food turns out or grasp the possibility that their skills (and thus, their food) could improve. Utterly incomprehensible to me, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. You’re clearly not one of those people. So, yeah: high quality food, and lots of practice. Sorry I don’t have any better answers.

    • Kate — And here I was, hoping for easy answers. My frustration is born of a sense that my recipes have a sameness, they don’t capture what’s really good about my food, and that my skills have plateaued. Although I’ve learned to work with lots of new ingredients – clams, different fish, wild game – I bring the same techniques to them. I need to branch out and, as you point out, practice.

      • Tamar, I hear you on the plateauing skills thing. I don’t so much see that with my cooking, but I’ve seen it with foreign language for sure. It’s a hard thing to push past a comfortable plateau – harder than reaching the plateau in the first place, imo. I think it can’t hurt to set a particularly ambitious goal for yourself from time to time. Pick an impressive cookbook from a fancy restaurant and see what you might want to cook. I’m personally too lazy to do this though. Maybe it has to do with having done a lot of that fancy cooking in the past. Now I’m very content with simple but really tasty stuff. I made a version of Hank’s nettle spaetzle last night. I know for Hank the spaetzle was merely one side dish to some gorgeous and impressively sauced cut from a hunted animal. For us it was the entire dinner – with a glass of cheap wine of course. That’s how we roll these days.

  2. I use recipes for stuff I’ve never made before, but I don’t always follow them to the letter. I do follow them to the letter if I’ve never made them before and never eaten the dish before (I hate cooking in a vacuum, but when you’re trying to recreate someone’s German childhood for him, sometimes you cook in a vacuum). But generally I’m a dump cook. Probably because I’m lazy. I am too damned lazy to open a cookbook. But you know what? I have a bunch of them! I have a circa 1977 Joy of Cooking that my older sister gave me when I moved away from home that is coming apart, and is so full of penned-in adjustments and my mother’s cheesecake recipe on page 666, and Mrs. Lewis’s Chocolate Gateau penned in on another page. I’ve determine that if the house were burning down and I could only grab a couple of things one would be my late father’s handkerchief, which I keep in my bedside table for just that reason, and the other would be my dilapidated copy of The Joy of Cooking, which I hardly ever crack anymore.

    My mother told me that after their visit here, my older sister told her that my cooking has improved. I think that’s largely due to living in Oregon- the food here is soooo much better than Florida. Jesus. No comparison, really. Plus- they’re vegetarian, so it was easy to wow them- most of their meals came out of the backyard, so freshness was no issue. And I’m comfortable in my own kitchen. I like to cook. My knife work has really improved a lot (I have Jacques Pepin to thank for that, but I’ll never b e the machine that he is). I have to agree with Kate that it’s largely quality ingredients and lots of practice. But I think that there’s one more thing that does it, and that’s caring. I don’t want to sound trite, but I cook well because I want to cook well, probably because I want to eat well. My problem is that I don’t think I’m creative enough. I read what other people have made for dinner and I think, oh man that sounds good. I don’t mean that I don’t make stuff up, because I do- I too, stand in front of the fridge or the pantry, or in the garden, and think how am I going to make this good? I just don’t get out on the edge there like some people do. I think it’s because I’m afraid that if I fuck it up, I’m still gonna hafta eat it.

    But yeah- I don’t cook with a net. And I leave the fussy, needs a recipe stuff to Steve, which is right up his alley because, being half-German, he’s all precision. So he bakes and he brews.

    Hell. Sometimes, a lot of times, I don’t even get out measuring equipment. I make great pancakes and tortillas and I’ll never be able to give anyone the recipe because I dump everything into my hand and when it looks right, it goes in the bowl. I’m a dump cook.

    • I don’t envy you the tast of trying to re-create dishes you’ve never had! I would imagine that video instruction would be useful for that — something the Internet has aplenty.

      I dump, too, but not for anything baked (like Kate, I measure). Our friend Dave was here a few weeks back, and he made biscuits by feel, and I was very impressed. Pasta sauce, yes. Biscuits, no.

      I think you put your finger on it — I’m afraid I’m not creative enough. My repertoire is good, but it’s limited. Maybe it’s time both of us started taking some risks.

  3. Hoosierbuck says:

    I am totally out of my league around here in the cooking department. We are so very basic. We have venison. We have our basic garden-tomatoes, squash, zucchini, hot and bell peppers, cucumbers. We have salmon and some other fish. We have spuds and pasta and rice. Add cheese, onions, tortillas, bread, pork, chicken, fresh bought broccoli and some frozen veggies to get us through the winter, and that’s about it. Pick a combo and go. Very little imagination, no training and three small kids to get fed and to bed after work.
    We make out a menu before going to the store and buy what we need to complement what we have and complete the menu. Most of the time it tastes good, it’s always healthy and there is plenty of it. Last night was some frozen mixed vegetables from Market Day, and I made mashed potatoes and broiled a venison backstrap with a dry rub and lime marinade. It was a good dinner. Maybe someday I will actually learn how to cook for some higher purpose than mere sustenance. I sure do like the sound of some of the ideas that you folks cook up. Right now, being sustained is pretty good, and I am OK with that.

    • HB – Doesn’t sound to me like you have anything to apologize for. If you think vegetables and potatoes with a broiled, dry-rubbed venison backstrap is “mere sustenance,” your standards are very, very high. I’ll sit at your table any night.

      • Hoosierbuck says:

        Tamar, you are too kind, and always invited (if you find yourself passing through Indiana on I-80, 90, or 94 we are a hop and a skip away!) I guess what I was getting at is…put some fresh veggies in for the frozen and that is as good as it gets around here. Not bad, but not exciting, either. I like the risk taking idea. I’m going to go there.

        • HB – It’s always dangerous to invite me over for venison. Chances are good that I’ll eventually show up.

          As for risk taking, you and me both.

  4. I have been known to shoot from the hip. Often. I’m no gourmet, but some of my best meals get invented that way. My wife Catherine — who cooks more than I do — appreciates my adventurousness, but doesn’t go that route as often.

    With actual recipes, I tend to take great liberties. Shallots? Got onions. Cilantro? Catherine hates it, so I’ll skip it or use parsley. Half the time, I end up with something substantially different from what the recipe writer intended.

    But I know when not to mess around. When I find a good chocolate recipe, I don’t tinker.

    • I’m beginning to see a thread here. I need to go out on a limb.

      Right now, it’s Sunday morning. Tonight, I’m going to try something new.

  5. Your blog is the only one I read, Tamar. Thank you. Its such a treat to read funny, smart writing by some one else in New England who is doing many of the same experiments we are. Except for hunting- we aren’t there yet! Your method for cooking sounds right on. If I feel stumped by the fridge, I’ll push myself to make a meal around one central ingredient that sounds appealing: spinach from our low tunnel, tomato sauce from the freezer or a gnarly squash from the asian grocery on my walk home. Thanks again for writing something that I consistently love reading. Take care.

    • Erika — I must say, you’re welcome here any time! Thanks for your kind words. (And I do love a good gnarly squash.)

  6. Before I was married, and still lived with my folks, we cooked. OFTEN. Most of what I learned came from my dad, who was a cook in the Marines (not what he wanted to be). Dad was the kind of guy who got in trouble for making the chili too hot and using spices the higher ups had never heard of. Every Sunday we would find a recipe and make it. Sometimes exactly as it read (and always commenting later on what we would change), sometimes not and also talk about what we would change. My husband has been a challenge to cook for. He has traveled to 26 countries and tried things in the off beat places the other enlisted boys wouldn’t go.

    I got frustrated hearing “That wasn’t as good as the first time you made it.” So I started to write things down either on a recipe I was following, or immediately after dinner with something on the fly that came out good. If it was worth keeping I filed it away. If it wasn’t, the trash can was next to the kitchen counter. So far so good.

    I do work with what is in season, and often cook with what is on hand in the manner you do. Research. 5 minutes on the computer saves me 15 going through the fridge, pantry, and freezer.

    Baking is my Achilles heel. I have to follow a recipe *exactly* the first time, every time. I will adjust later. BUT a pie crust recipe I found is one I will never ever change. Its funny I love to bake, but I don’t know enough about it to just make something up. With the exception of cobbler

    Cooking is something that comes to me easily. I have given classes to a group of my Sister in laws buddies and they were mostly curious about spices. I told them to get out what they had and smell it. Figure out what goes good with what. And so far that has taken them off on their own.

    Still, to make something my Dad will request, or something my husband asks for before he comes home from his 48 hour shift: That is what makes it worth it for me.

    • Your approach sounds similar to mine. I actually like it when Kevin asks for something in particular, because that makes me branch out.

      And, yes, baking is different. Cooking is craft, but baking is chemistry.

  7. I used to get frustrated with my first husband who would find a recipe in a book, go to the supermarket and buy all the ingredients to the letter, no substitutions, and make a meal. I’m not complaining – it was usually a really nice meal – but then for the rest of the week, I had to find ways of combining any of his leftover ingredients with everything else going ripe or going over in the fridge.

    I think it takes a lot of skill needed to cook with what’s available, knowing what fits and what might fit but could be risky. If anything turned out completely inedible, there’s always the dogs or the chickens who are less fussy than me (though not by much…). Anyway, God gave us bacon to rescue even the worst meals.

    I do have an on-going battle with my chocolate chip cookie recipe. I use the same one every time, but sometimes the cookies are crisp and the sugar granules make the texture perfect. Other times they come out soggy. What gives??

  8. In my first book (which I wrote with my mother), we gave a name to that process of using leftover meals, leftover ingredients, and stuff lying around in different permutations from day to day — pantry momentum, we called it. When you cook every day (and maybe particularly if you do go out and buy ingredients for a particular dish every now and then), you have a fridge full of possibilities.

    I would just like more of those possibilities to be interesting and delicious.

    As for the cookies, damned if I know. Humidity? Ask Kate. She might know.

  9. I used to cook mostly by experimentation, consulting recipes only occasionally. I liked most of the results, but I occasionally felt like I had got into a rut as well. Using whatever is in season helped with that – looking forward to the first asparagus, then eating so many of them you don’t actually want any more until next year…
    In the last year I’ve found myself living with my boyfriend, having more time (no job) and doing more cooking, and have started actively seeking recipes online. I tend to follow them (mostly, not to the letter) the first time, then if I like them they can be incorporated into my arsenal for tweaking and re-use.

    By the way Tamar – I think it’s cool you co-authored a book with your mum (and are still on talking terms), and that was *not* the Pleistocene era, it’s not really that long ago!

  10. I find that I become obsessed with ingredients… a great meal with some fava beans led me to use them all winter in whatever way possible. though I’ve had smoked bluefish at your house countless times, one particular pasta dish caused me to recreate that dish 10 different ways once off Cape. Lets not even discuss the chocolate stout ice cream. At the moment, its harissa….

    When I have these foodie obsessions, I tend to scour cookbooks and the net for recipes involving them, and those are a jumping off point. I tend to use the recipes more for cooking methods than for ingredients. (how long should you roast a loin, regardless of what’s on it?).

    Otherwise, its largely drawn from what looks good or is available. This week the farmers market had purple cauliflower and lime green romanesco cauliflower and I knew those had to be a dish together.

    I’m mildly obsessed with salads and the ability to throw different textures, tastes, shapes and colors together.

  11. Great article! With you all the way on the frustrations of replicating that perfect dish. Was it the moon in correct angle to the evening star? Or perhaps just my lucky day? All I know is my best meals come from my gut (or the back of my head as I like to call it) and they are even better when i start off trying to make a meal for people to love, rather than for them to love me!

    I am intrigued though at this bluefish…I don’t think we get it here

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