I've been having a problem with the whole concept of recipes.
How do you read a recipe? I skim it for ingredients, look at a pretty picture of the finished dish and I’m pretty much done. Unless it’s a particularly complicated technique, or a combination of ingredients that I can’t imagine going together, because let’s face it, you usually combine some ingredients and add some form of heat and that's it.
If I actually have to follow a recipe, it tethers me in a way that I don’t enjoy. I check, recheck, double back and question. What kind of onions? A cup of thinly sliced white onions will be a lot more onion than a cup of chunky red onions. Those onions get added to the dish when? It makes me not trust my own instincts or wonder if the recipe author has a thing for lots of onions.
Cooking from a recipe reminds me of my reliance on Google Maps. Seriously, I could be the brand ambassador, I’m addicted to The Bitch. That’s what we call the voice that tells us when to turn right or left. There’s really no reason to be snarky and call her The Bitch because she’s always polite and never cops an attitude like that iPhone snark Siri. But, in our car, or on our bike, she is The Bitch and she usually gets us where we are going.
So why is a recipe like The Bitch? Instead of relying on my own instincts or sense of direction, or learning landmarks, I abdicate control and let her tell me exactly what to do. Recipes do the same thing, you give up control.
Fine. Easy for me to say. I’ve spent years in the kitchen, I’ve trained in professional kitchens. So, yeah. I have it easier. But that doesn’t let you off the hook.
It’s time to banish the recipe as GPS and tune in to the Kung-Fu-Zen-Grasshopper (c)
technique of cooking. It is time for us to cook in the ways of our ancestors, by using our senses. (Yeah..I’m having a moment....indulge me, ok?) It is also time to cook in the modern way, which is so, like, totally, about self-indulgent self-pleasuring by making exactly what you want.
Cook by sight.
If you see smoke, chances are something is burning. When the shrimp turn red, they're done.
Cook by sound. Sizzling means the pan is hot; water boiling over and splashing on the stove top has a special sound that should cause an immediate spike in blood pressure and a high speed jog to the stove. Risotto is the best way to learn to cook by sound, if you hear a sizzle, add broth immediately.
Cook by smell. The pungent raw onion smell giving way to sweetness. Garlic, chili and olive oil will make a gentle sizzle, the smell tells you that everything is going just fine with this dish.
Cook by touch. A rare steak will yield gently when pressed. A raw steak feels like mush. A well done steak is a tragedy and it feels like a piece of wood.
Cook by taste. Stick your (clean) finger in the sauce. Or use a spoon, I don’t care, just taste it. Recognize that early taste before the sauce has time to come together, and remember that it takes some time for the salt to dissolve and for you to taste it. Most of the time you should taste every ingredient.
Cook foods in season. Why do you think processed food is so consistent? The manufacturers spend big bucks and do research to eliminate all the variables of fresh food. Every can of Pringles will taste the same. Every package of DeCecco pasta will taste the same because they source and blend the wheat to be sure it tastes exactly like the last package you bought.
There is no way that a recipe, even one repeatedly tested, can be accurate in your kitchen. Freshness, temperature, variety, even atmospheric conditions are all going to affect your cooking and the finished dish.
I want to taste summer in my tomatoes, autumn in my truffles, winter in my root vegetables.
We still had tomatoes on the vine in our orto when Jeff tore out the stalks to get the bed ready for winter. The late season tomatoes weren’t getting enough sun and tasted like ..well...like store bought tomatoes. The season was over even if the plant didn’t know it.
It takes a certain leap of faith, practice and accumulated knowledge to cook in the Kung Fu-Zen -Grasshopper style, but eventually you’ll be able to Keep Calm & Cook.
And here, either to jog your memory or introduce you for the first time to the 1970‘s Kung Fu TV series with David Carradine.