Thursday, October 1, 2009

On Cooking: Permanence vs. Adaptability

I haven't been cooking a lot this week. We went back to Allyn's for my version of comfort food -- fries and beer (and a veggie patty too), and made yet another frittata and the lasagna I shared in a photo post. Last night we grabbed Potbelly sandwiches and headed down to the ballpark; tonight I'm throwing chili into the Crock Pot and running some errands. This is the kind of cooking rut I was hoping to avoid, but I think a slump is bound to happen and I'll be cooking again this weekend.

So, I'm taking this opportunity to write about how we cook. I'm not yet really committed to any particular way, and maybe it would be best for me to actually choose a method and really make it work for myself.

Typically, I don't follow a recipe precisely. In my Brazilian Black Bean Soup, I used a whole can of coconut milk. What would I do with the rest if I only used a cup? This means, of course, that I didn't actually make the wonderful soup carefully crafted by the wonderful chef at Horizons. So, I said I made it, but based on the facts, I'd have to admit that I made something like it -- not the soup itself.

Like many others out there, I saw the movie Julie & Julia, and I read My Life in France. I can completely understand why Julia Child wasn't too keen on Julie Powell's goal to cook through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Two things impressed me in reading Julia Child: first, that cooking was something for servants and chefs and most "regular" people had no interest in it (contrast that with today's FoodTV, etc.); second, that cooking is a science and a cookbook should have exact measurements and instructions. Ideally, that makes sense, and I think most agree that this precision is necessary in baking, for instance. However, realistically, I don't measure most things. I cook sometimes without a recipe. When I made my frittata, I didn't even set a timer, I just checked on it until it was done. Occasionally, this fails me. I'll end up with a salty pot pie if I don't taste it along the way, or I'll overfill my pan or wok when I use too many vegetables.

Even so, I still find the guidance of a recipe helpful. I don't even know whether I aspire to have the ability to put together delicious dishes on the fly like on Top Chef. And even just keeping track of the recipes I try is part of why I started to blog. I've never made recipe cards like my grandmother did, and I'm not really a fan of cookbooks, either. They're bulky, they're an investment, and I don't like the (inevitable) spine creasing, or worse -- food splattering. I'm still looking for the one I like best, and I have a few I cook from occasionally.

A photograph of my grandmother's Party Squash recipe. If I can scrounge up some decent summer squash, I want to make this again this summer. I'll have to look for some chetter cheese, too.

My main alternative, so far, has been to get recipes from the web. I love Allrecipes, I find helpful things on, and sometimes I just do a Google search for information. I'm on the lookout for a good vegetarian blog, and nothing has really struck my fancy yet, although I've found many, many good vegan blogs.

The way a person cooks could probably be (and quite possibly has been) grossly overgeneralized into some kind of a personality quiz. Beyond what your cooking style says about you, there are real implications to the various ways of finding and tracking recipes.

Do you find security in the permanence of a classic cookbook? Tried-and-true, just like momma made it.

Do you prefer the convenience of searching the web for a recipe that suits your needs or ingredients? Try doing a web search for your ingredients and find out what you can make. Even if you're not trying to toss together a meal with what's in your pantry, the comments on web recipes are really helpful in improving the original dish.

Do you like the adaptability of handwritten recipes you add notes to, or even putting notes in your cookbooks? My mom always gave a star rating to recipes she'd tried and also put in notes to help improve its performance in the kitchen next time.

How about the inspiration you'll find in a blog or magazine -- especially one accompanied by a gorgeous photo* -- and the feeling that you really must try this recipe soon?

*Possible future post on food porn. I don't like it, but I may keep my complaints away from this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting questions.

    I love looking through a real cookbook - much like I love flipping through magazines. (I will find and make recipes from both sources.)

    When I need inspiration quickly, I usually turn to online. That site features member-submitted recipes and I usually make the ones that are rated highest.

    Regardless of where I find a recipe (your blog, for example), I usually add to it or alter it to fit my own tastes. I sub turkey or chicken for beef (or soy crumbles), I reduce the amount of cheese, I change the spices, I add extra veggies.

    I am still not totally comfortable creating my own recipes off-the-cuff, though. I hope that, by cooking more, I will gain more experience with what works and what doesn't and can start to improvise more.