In which you are admonished to pay some, but not too much attention.
When you begin cooking, should you begin cooking, you might think it is best, even imperative, to adhere to amounts dictated by recipes. One cup sugar. A half cup olive oil. A quarter teaspoon thyme. Two eggs. Like that. Alternatively you may be too-quickly enlightened, having watched Julia Child at too early an age, and think too carelessly that any amount of anything will be just fine.
Truth, as usual, appears to linger somewhere in between, with occasional visits to each extreme. Some knowledge, some good portion of awareness and evolving wisdom will guide you well. It is not too hard to notice that eggs come in many sizes, that herbs and spices are inconsistently intense, and that sweetness is a matter of taste. Even if you do stick strictly to dictated amounts, the variation in the final product can be significant. How large a step is it then to take some control over the variations? To know what more or less thyme will do to a dish and decide for yourself if it needs more or less or none or something else entirely. To know whether you prefer the effect of more egg or less egg, and determine on your own, given the size of eggs on hand, how many to use. The recipe is a good place to start. More or less two eggs. Two medium eggs. Maybe two small eggs, if you prefer less egg, or just one large egg. Or three small eggs, or even three medium or two large eggs, if you want the cakiness of more egg. You, you you you, decide. You are the cook.
You see, cooking is no more precise than any other endeavor in the material world. Olive and other oils have great variety of flavor, and if the oil is being used for flavor the quality and intensity might be considered. If the oil is being used as a medium, one’s preference for oiliness is of interest.2 The right degree of sweetness of a sauce or a cookie is very much a matter of taste. American cookbooks tend to make both desserts and savory dishes sweeter than necessary for deliciousness. Sugar, fat and salt are the most direct way to stimulate the sense of taste and are overused for that reason.3
If you could see me, you would see a woman shaking her head and rolling her eyes, frustrated as can be at the wide-spread practice of obsessive measuring and adherence to recipes. Food is so variable it seems silly to suggest let alone dictate amounts for anything besides baked stuff or candies. Even then, recipes can usually be adjusted to taste without harm. More frequently, one has only obscure or untrustworthy directions to begin with, bare clues about where to start and with what. The recipe for bruschetta pilfered from the menu of a local trattoria lets on that roma tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil are present. How much? Who knows. If the recipe came from a book, you might be equally adrift. You are captive to how strong your garlic is and how much you feel like peeling and chopping up. You must decide how much green basil you want to see amongst the red, even if the recipe was specific about how many leaves to use. How can you not notice that leaves come in many sizes? You may want to start the whole process by looking to see how many tomatoes you bought and how big they are. Maybe there should be a bit of salt and pepper and sugar in the mixture since there almost always is, and adding them certainly works, but sometimes you forget the salt or the pepper or the sugar and it is fine as well. You would never forget the garlic, of course, but if you did, or if the garlic used was not pungent enough, you would know soon enough because it wouldn’t be wonderful.4 You wouldn’t want to eat any. Your guests would still be talking instead of eating and laughing at their efforts to keep the bits of tomato on the toasts. You would turn around and it would still be there. Would a recipe have helped? Wouldn’t it be better to have instructions to look at to insure that nothing important is forgotten? Yes, but no. Because the garlic might still be weak, the tomatoes not sweet enough, or the recipe itself flawed in the context of your own tastes and the habits of your friends. The bruschetta would be all wrong and the only solace you would have is to blame the failure on someone else. “The book said to do it that way. It’s not my fault it didn’t work.” Yes, well. Forgive everyone for not caring too much, and go about making it better.
Of course “making it better” will require you to be able to determine what is wrong with it. Can you decide if it needs salt or garlic or sugar or more basil or more oil? Do you know a little bit about what each ingredient contributes so you can resolve that common lament: It needs something. How very important it is to have some idea of what various foods do in conjunction with other foods so when you use more or use less you have some good idea what will happen. Important both so that you do not make some horrible mistake and render inedible perfectly good food, but also so that you can experiment and explore and create ever more delicious somethings with confidence. No good at all being cavalier about amounts before your time. Things can turn ugly in the blink of an eye, and you might end up forever afraid of making anything that has not been previously tested in a professional kitchen and given the stamp of approval by a NYC cookbook publisher.
Be wary as you become wise. Wisdom in some areas means you must be humble and know there are other and myriad areas where it would not be right to improvise just yet. Perhaps you have a good grasp on garlic and an array of herbs popular in Italy. Play as you like with them. But when you decide one day to try making a southeast Asian vegetable dish, even if it happens to include basil which it might, use a recipe and use it carefully. You cannot leap wildly and exuberantly about until you have checked that you have ground to stand on and leap from and that dangerous precipices are a little ways off. It’s no good bouncing about hoping you will by chance land on some solid ground. Neither physics nor cooking nor courtship work that way. Who knows how they work, but they don’t work like that. You always need something to leap from.5
That is why you need to have a rudimentary grasp of amounts. Now, how.
Somehow you will acquire knowledge about amounts of ingredients and you will be able to raise your eyebrows with the finest chefs when a recipe calls for an unorthodox amount of some ingredient or another.6 Mind you, such heresy is exactly the sort of stuff famous chefs are made of. But their successful rejection of traditional rules for cooking rises from their understanding of them. The more intimately they understand the existing dogma, the more profound and revelatory will be their refutation. For you, a beginning of understanding will allow you to begin inventing and straying on your own. Increasing understanding will increase your inventiveness and expand the radius of your wanderings. To start, know that a cup of salt is never right, unless you are cooking for more than 300, or if the salt is being used in some process and then discarded or rinsed off well before serving whatever it is. A cup of sugar is often right, but not if the recipe is to be served prior to dessert. Later you may learn that a cup of capers is almost never right, parmesan goes in at the last moment, and lemon should not be combined with milk, but that with care it can be mingled with cream. Still further along, discover that ginger can be used in extremely small amounts or in prodigious amounts, and that both effects are glorious and lead to soft sighs and purrs that begin below the belly.7
Begin to gather this sort of knowledge by browsing through cookbooks. Notice the amounts associated with different ingredients and what role the various ingredients seem to have in the recipe. Note whether a particular ingredient is a large part of the recipe, or a grace note. Notice when it is used and how it is prepared before being combined with the other ingredients. Read instructions for preparation. Read anything having to do with cooking and food. You will absorb more than you notice. Even lists of ingredients on prepared foods will give you knowledge.8
Then when you are feeling adventurous, or particularly safe and secure, follow a few recipes—recipes from real cookbooks. Any recipes will do. As long as you are at it, you may as well find recipes which involve some of the special things you particularly want to know about. The less stuff in a recipe, the easier it will be to see how one single ingredient affects it. Too few things, though, and you will not be able to see how different elements affect each other. Seven to twelve ingredients, perhaps. Make brownies with less egg and then with more egg. Make a pasta sauce with less garlic and then with more. Put in double the amount of an herb or spice than is called for. Leave it out entirely, adding it at the last moment if it turns out to be indispensable. Exchange one ingredient for another you think will be an interesting alternative. Decide if you like what happens. Banish your ego and be willing to accept that an experiment failed. Find recipes that combine ingredients in ways you have not before tried. Discover that garlic and ginger go beautifully together. Notice how mustard can be used as an ingredient rather than a condiment. Find nutmeg in all sorts of sauces and soups. Grated on top when not mixed into the dish itself. Figure out how to cook with beans. With chili peppers. Indeed, knowledge and understanding of amounts is inextricable from knowledge and understanding of the ingredients themselves. Know about beans and about chili peppers, what they are like, their flavor and texture, and then you will know better how much of them you want to add to the risotto or soup or salad or pasta you are making.
Or find a recipe for something you are already familiar with, and which you like quite a bit since you will be having it on several occasions. A dressing for a salad. Soup. A casserole, a frittata, an omelet, a torte. Not a soufflé nor a mousse. Not flaming anything. Nothing which seems like it must be done Just So. You might not want to use a favorite recipe from a friend if you tend to have high expectations of yourself. You will surely not make it as well on your first try as they do any day of the week, and you risk becoming quickly frustrated and bricking off the kitchen in a fit of pique. No sense at all in giving yourself opportunity to compare your developing skills to those of other, more experienced cooks and possibly lose heart. For that matter, no sense in learning how to make something you can just as easily get someone else to make for you. Sure you are using the recipe primarily to learn about amounts—as well as to become acquainted with ingredients and have the opportunity to practice cooking technique—but the hard truth is whatever you experiment with at this time will become the cornerstone of your repertoire of things you know how to make. If you have borrowed a favorite recipe from a friend, and then proceed to make some version of it for every dinner party for the next decade, you stand a good chance of offending and an even better chance of being considered unimaginative and thoughtless.
However you do it, as long as you do it politely and legally, find a recipe or several for things you would like to make. Before you begin to play with your food, make whatever it is you have chosen exactly according to the recipe you have found. Or as exactly as you can in your particular kitchen. If there are difficult to find ingredients you are missing or tools required which you do not possess and are in no hurry to add to your collection, pause. Call someone who knows how to cook and ask them if artichoke hearts are really all that important in this particular soup recipe. I cannot think of a single ingredient that might not be indispensable in one recipe, while frivolous and perhaps even better left out of another. Even salt has moments when it is not needed.9 Consider amounts with the intent to arrive at a spot where not having measuring spoons and cups in the kitchen won’t bother you. As you make the chosen recipe, notice how much of the different ingredients you are using. When you taste the final product, think about what went into it and how it might be different if you had used more or less of something, or left it out altogether. Taste the stuff at different stages, before some ingredients have been added to learn more on that count. Taste your ingredients. Imagine how the addition of another herb, or some nuts or raisins, or a different vegetable or some cream might effect the dish. Ask others what they think and be the beneficiary of much hard experience. You will hear tales of woe and of triumph; there will be much laughter and storytelling, confessions and contradictions.10 You will eventually find yourself not caring very deeply what any recipe has to say about how much garlic and crushed red pepper you should use. You will know yourself to be the final judge of that. If the recipe is by a cook whom you trust and admire, you may want to give weight to their thoughts on the matter. In all cases you decide what you want to do, and then you do it. Even if it is following a recipe to the letter.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that when you approach cooking as courtship it doesn’t matter what others have done before you or might choose to do after you. All that matters is that what you do at any moment be sincere, pure in its intent, and without expectation for return. Your beloved, or whomever is fortunate enough to find themselves at your table, will have no grounds for comparing you to anyone or anything else in the whole world, thoughtlessly happy as they are with whatever is in front of them.
Perhaps you are reluctant to learn. You shake your head and say, “Cooking as courtship I can see. I accept the idea that feeding someone well might make them feel a little or a lot more warmly toward me personally. But this stuff about using recipes as mere suggestion is going too far. People more clever than myself have thought this all out, determined the amounts, and I am not going to waste my time learning how to be flexible in the kitchen. I am sure I will feed my darlings much better if I just follow the recipes in the books. That way I can serve them a wider variety of impressive things, without having to think too much about it, and that must be good. Variety. Right?”
Oh, yes. Right. Variety is very good. In fact, your darling might begin to consider a wider variety of entertainments if you take this approach to feeding them. Consider A: Your guest informs you as you are beginning to cook up a delicious something they are allergic to or can’t stand or otherwise prefer not to ingest a certain element of the thing you are about to make.11 Consider B: Neither of you is exactly dressed to go to the store, but a particular sort of something is desired by the other. Something which you would be happy to make if only you had ... But you don’t. Consider C: Another good friend borrowed your cookbook yesterday. Consider, although it is difficult and sad to do so, how many times one body walks away from another simply because life was too dull, too regimented, too predictable. They find a love who is inspired by them, who inspires in them creativity and boldness, with whom they can play and reveal themselves. Not that the first love couldn’t have thrown aside ideas and preconceptions and allegiance to lifestyle and come out to play themselves, but if they don’t, they haven’t.
You had better know how to make something and how to make it with more or less or none or a slightly different version of any particular ingredient. That’s what I think. “Where’s the respect for the art of the author of the cookbook?” you ask. Oh, for heaven’s sake, someone is hungry, perhaps for something, and the more quickly and deliciously and humorously you feed them, and all the better with something which is exactly what they wanted except better and surprising and scrumptious on its own, the more quickly they will retire back to the chaise or the lounge or wherever it is you would have them. Don’t undermine yourself with purist ideas about the merit of any particular recipe. Don’t be fussing and trying to measure out amounts primly and precisely when you might be exhibiting spontaneity, dexterity and sureness of movement and intention. A relaxed nature. Even should goofiness or ineptitude be your persona of choice—an act which works extremely well for a small percentage of people—you still need to get better than edible food in front of another with some haste and with little apparent effort. Otherwise they will not understand why you are not just ordering delivery, will regret you were not clever enough to have leftovers in the fridge. Trying too hard. People are extremely sensitive to it, don’t like it, draw away from it, wish you wouldn’t, so don’t. Or at least don’t appear to. Even more important perhaps is that you do not ever allow yourself to feel you are trying too hard. If you do, or if you sense that you are losing the allegiance of your audience as they instinctively desert someone doomed to failure or check out before they are forced into feeling grateful, stop immediately and say, “This is too complicated to pay attention to with you over there. How about some toast?”
Then, of course, it must be added: Use the measuring instruments if you wish, follow instructions exactly, but follow them as friends instead of jailers and relax. In general it just doesn’t matter. Cooking for the most part is a far less precise science than most cookbooks would suggest. Relative amounts are what is most important, if anything is, therefore it is fine to use whatever cup you have on hand as long as you use the same sort of cup for all the ingredients. Insistence that you must use one-fourth of a teaspoon rather than a whole teaspoon of marjoram is in violent opposition to the whole idea of cooking as courtship. Certainly that 3/4 teaspoon will change the way the dish tastes and for people who are picky and precise and full of ideas about how things should taste that might be a very big deal indeed. But perhaps the author chose an exact amount only so that the reader would feel secure. In most cases, changing the amount of an ingredient will simply change the way something tastes, not necessarily for the better nor for the worse. Which is all to say, please let your use of cookbooks be referential rather than reverential.
Having said that, chemistry instructions should not be toyed with unless you become quite an advanced cook and need to spend more effort disguising your proficiency than creating fabulous foods. Chemistry instructions are pretty easy to notice because they involve all the things that are essentially flavorless. Oils, water, flour, salt, eggs, baking soda and baking powder. Some things have both flavor and chemistry value. Vinegar and lemon and alcohols, for example. Instructions on the order of mixing things together and the amount of time and sort of heat for cooking should also be heeded.
As it happens, there is lots of room for flexibility even in these chemistry experiments—obviously since plenty of people cook beautifully with nearly no resources—but it does take a bit of experimentation under the watchful gaze of a mentor, present or in print, before you can move freely about inside the restrictions of the physical world. Bake obediently until you can disregard instructions intelligently.12
Follow recipes to the letter if you like, but consider that you might eventually, sooner rather than later, adjust them to your taste and to the ingredients available. Altering them if only to be certain that your culinary expression of affection is not word for word that of another. Or because you notice that regardless of how safe it may make you feel and certain of success, if you persist in following instructions your nose will have been very unfortunately in a book and you won’t have heard a word of conversation for possibly hours. Which sadly means you will be an hour behind in both subject and momentum when you do finally get dinner on the table and address yourself to the minds and souls at hand. Good strategy, if you like to sleep alone. Better, I should think, to depend upon recipes you are comfortable with, have already transcended in terms of exact amounts and participating ingredients,13 and which you know people like, or at least have good reason to think they will. Know what you are doing. Do what you want. Hold within yourself knowledge of what has gone before and acceptance that you do not know what will come next. A constant balance between the two, neither resting solidly on former successes, neither flailing about with no substance within grasp.
A final suggestion: Do your experimenting on your own time or with people who already love you so much that no amount of praiseworthy food would increase their affection, and no amount of delivered pizza will hurt it.14
1 There was early criticism of the near absence of exact amounts in the recipes in this book. In response I discreetly shrieked that these are my recipes, recipes for foods I actually cook for family and for friends and for loves and it hardly seems wise to let others know exactly how I make them. Where would that leave me? With a repertoire of recipes my intimates can find at the table of any literate person with sufficient sense to buy this book. You’re lucky I include complete lists of ingredients. The recipes in this book are offered only to illustrate a manner of cooking, a philosophy for feeding others in which it is unlikely that the exact same amounts would ever be used twice to create the same recipe. This approach has plenty of historical precedence. Besides, truth be told I don’t know the exact amounts.
2 One excellent cook, in addition to many friends, simply halves the oil and doubles the garlic suggested in any recipe. That’s a good rule, if you love garlic and have not been trained to need great amounts of fat to feel something is delicious. A middle ground between the excesses of regular recipes and the excesses of fat-free cooking.
3 Kind of like using a vibrator all of the time.
4 Unless of course the basil and tomatoes were of such luscious ripeness that their mingling in aromatic oil from the olive were sufficient all by itself. A hint or no garlic at all being very very fine in this case. You see, you see? The possibilities are endless. You cannot go wrong unless you don’t care, don’t notice when what you offer is not good, neglect to acquire good ingredients, refuse to learn to taste and appreciate texture and flavor, forget to notice if your guests are enjoying themselves. Bad qualities all around, I’d say, steering well clear of your bed.
5 By the way, you aren’t going to find it in this book. This is only about leaping form. Try The Way to Cook, The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Greens Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, Escoffier, books by Pepin. Or ask a smart, kind, sympathetic, non-snooty friend who cooks to recommend a book from which you might leap. Or take a cooking class. Or work for a few months in a restaurant. Or get deeply involved with someone who loves to cook and knows how.
6 I do not mean in judgment or disdain. Eyebrows can go up in simple recognition that something is not as it usually is. A gesture that suggests no condemnation, but rather increased interest and heightened attentiveness as the predictable has been forsaken.
7 Why don’t you add your own footnote here.
8 I confess I once elucidated most of a recipe for Caesar dressing from the backs of several bottles at the gourmet grocery. It was a busy day leading up to the festivities of the Book Burning and Exchange; friends appearing out of nowhere and others disappearing as mysteriously. All day with eyes open, but still no recipe presented itself. We all knew there was something special about Caesar dressing, but couldn’t remember what it was. No vinegar, it turns out. Lemon juice and olive oil; plus garlic, egg, anchovy, and parmesan, of course. Ground pepper to finish. And large, rustic croutons. A little fresh thyme, if you like. Make it properly and people will eat it right out of the bowl with their hands and not even notice.
9 Cordelia would never have believed it, but then I do not believe pre-historic Gaul had many sources of parmesan cheese or anchovy paste, or even many lemons for that matter, or garlic. Lear, though, he knew. A man before his time. “Loves me like salt, does she? I see through her little ruse. Tomorrow she will favor orange zest and then where will my kingdom be?”
10 IF it is a crowd who cooks, be it casually or professionally; a crowd not bent on appearing impressive; friends who do not fear foolishness in themselves nor deride it in others.
11 Mind you, you needn’t listen too carefully to any of their ideas about what should be in the meal unless they are prefaced with medical authority of some sort, e.g. “Goat cheese makes me sick,” or the authority of an on-off switch, e.g. “If it is very spicy-hot, I won’t be able to eat it.” And you should listen very carefully to polite displays of deep revulsion, e.g. “Are you going to cook this eggplant?” It is self-assured, controlling comments like “Go easy on the ginger. I’m not wild about it,” which you can ignore utterly, simply nodding in their direction as though you heard them. That is a food prejudice, and indeed if you have any evidence they have unknowingly eaten things with lots of ginger in it, you can ignore them without feeling the smallest bit evil. Besides, like it’s even possible to have too much ginger.
12 Another Susan takes all my thoughts about amounts and casts them out with a single chocolate chip cookie. Single? I should rather say many several, they were so delicious I lost count. Asking for the recipe, she tells me a long story about trying the recipe in the Stars cookbook and finding that the cookies were not at all like the those served in the restaurant. (Mind you this is a woman who can tell when a favorite bakery has changed flour suppliers.) Addressing her dismay to the restaurant, the baker finally confesses she had converted the amounts from weight to volume measurements to accommodate home cooks who rarely have scales. Hmmm. It’s true though. Ingredients change volume with humidity and other variables. So Susan and the baker work together and figure out what the weight measurements are for a small batch. Some specific number of grams of this, some specific number of grams of that. Perfect. Susan orders chocolate pieces from a cafe in Seattle to make the cookies still more wonderful.
13 We haven’t discussed this yet, and perhaps for good reason. There are two sorts of stabilities, mathematically speaking. One is the equivalent of pin balanced on its point on top of the point of another pin. The other is illustrated by a marble at the bottom of a bowl. Both are stable, but the first cannot stand even the slightest push from the stable point while the second can be pushed around quite dramatically and even violently before the marble finally slips over the edge of the bowl. Some recipes are like the first: They work just fine if conditions are perfect and you do everything exactly right. Other recipes, all the recipes in this book, for example, are stable in the second manner: You can fool with them almost endlessly, as long as you don’t do anything foolish like turn the bowl over. The first sort cannot be transcended. The second sort may be best that way. Having said that, it’s interesting to look at an original recipe years later to see how far you’ve wandered, and to consider different routes from center.
14 That will take too much time, you complain? Well. Did you make love beautifully the first time? Even within several years of picking up the sport? Of course not, but a healthy amount of good humor and an honest desire to learn, an enthusiasm and willingness even, pleaded your cause and probably everyone waited patiently for you to become tolerable and then even longer for you to become competent. Try try and try again, they say, although I don’t think this is what they were talking about. And it is remarkable how many rustic meals, honestly prepared, people will gladly accept if the conversation and wine are good and the food isn’t getting worse. Remarkable how few previously frozen, recently microwaved meals you can serve before people begin to decline invitations to dine at all. Unless, of course, company and conversation are of legendary proportions.