In which you find or invent some several things worth making and which you can make very well.
If you are going to cook, you need to cook something, and the set of instructions for cooking that thing, even if they exist only in your head, is a recipe. It might merely be your technique for slicing a pear and putting in a bowl which is somehow right, softly coaxing others to eat a pear which they would have otherwise passed by, thereby allowing them to delight in pear-deliciousness and your company at the same time and perhaps make an association of happiness and the source of it between the two. It might rather be a complicated series of ingredients and procedures for making a spiced tea which are written carefully on a piece of paper which you keep in a particular part of a particular drawer so you will be able to refer to it when you make the tea and not be forced to guess and remember and possibly fail to make the drink you desire. It might be a loose combination of ingredients and no particular procedure, but which when followed however inexactly leads to an irresistible and comfortable pasta or salad or soup or roasted thing or whatever. It might be a book full of things, all of which you enjoy cooking, the whole book being for you a recipe for cooking in general.
As you can imagine, these recipes do not descend from on high at the moment of your birth and attach themselves to you, even though you may eventually inherit one or several from your parents. No, you must discover and develop and otherwise hunt down and domesticate them to your own purposes. You must nurture them and care for them and keep them healthy so they will last many years and grow, perhaps fitfully, along with you. Many will enter your life for awhile and then wander off, the two of you having grown irreconcilably in separate directions.1 You might on occasion look closely and critically at your stable of preferred recipes and check to see that none are unhappy with you, that none are undermining your hopes and dreams for yourself by frightening away your friends, showing up and appearing to be a perfectly fine thing for dinner, but underneath the warm exterior poisoning people against you.
You need to root out and make your own those few recipes for things you like well enough to revisit again and again, and which are not so fussy and precise that you actually need skills or concentration to make them.2 They need to be on good terms with your friends and family, and should not betray preferences nor restrictions nor provoke allergic reactions. Naturally, your kitchen and tools should be able to accommodate these recipes, although you might very well have favorites which you only enjoy making when you have access to the garden or professional stove or company of some certain friend. They should be less rather than more labor intensive; you should neither notice nor care about the effort.3 Your chosen recipes should not destroy your health, but since you are hardly going to be cooking everyday and subsisting on your own chefery, neither do they have to be relentlessly healthy and correct for daily bread.4 Also, if you are going to have only a small number of recipes at your immediate disposal, it is very nice for them to be recipes which are amenable to variation. Chocolate soufflé, for example, would not come under the heading “Amenable to Variation”. Salads, pastas, soups, sandwiches, marinades, muffins, enchiladas and risottos do.
How do you find your recipes? According to me, there are several ways and all of them incorporate a small amount of trial and error. Willingness to fail, and humility and humor because you will, are invaluable in the hunt for your house specialties.
Notice when you are served something you really like, and then at a convenient moment ask politely and sincerely for the recipe. Friends and other hosts are usually generous, willing at least to point toward the cookbook in which the original recipe is located. Be forewarned, however, that they often withhold, as they have every right to do, spontaneous or premeditated alterations on the original instructions.5
A variation on this way of acquiring recipes is to watch carefully while someone who knows how to cook is making something you like very much and to ask questions about what they are doing. Eventually you will come to understand the underlying structure of the dish and be able to recreate it in your own fashion with only the barest inkling of ingredients and method—which is all a recipe ever is anyway, however fanatically you may choose to follow it. Watch and copy. Notice what is being combined with what else and in what general amounts. Ask questions. Over time this course of observation will give you a foundation of knowledge which will enable you to behave sensibly around other groups of ingredients as well.6 If you seem in over your head, if your attempt to remember the temperature of the oven seems to be displacing information about how or how much oil was used earlier in the process, you can always retreat and ask for the recipe in writing.
Again, most people will be flattered by the request and will be happy to hand over the recipe in some scant or elaborate form. But there are people who will be flustered by the request, who will respond in a less than generous way. Let them be. They might not really know the recipe, are flying by the seat of their pants, and fear horribly they will be revealed in their charade. Or they might have been sworn to secrecy by the great-grandmother who passed this family recipe into their care moments before passing away. Or they might be among those people who lie spontaneously when asked even such unthreatening questions as where they purchased an article of clothing, considering their knowledge to be part of their wealth and believing that if shared its value is diminished. Alternatively, your friend may be literally unable to respond to a request for something because they are in the process of entertaining a bunch of people. Have some sense of timing.
Have some sense of discretion as well. If you beg, borrow or steal a recipe from someone, make it your own. You might alter the amounts of some ingredients, add or subtract mushrooms or some other expendable item, choose some very different form of presentation, anything which makes it yours and not theirs. If the recipe is directly from a cookbook, then you needn’t worry. Hundreds of people in hundreds of kitchens are creating the exact same delicacy down to the garnish and the author is raking in royalties. On the other hand, if you recreate a friend’s signature dish and then serve it at every opportunity, you should not be surprised if you seem not to see much of that friend any more.
Look through cookbooks for recipes which list ingredients you like, or seek out recipes for things you remember enjoying, and then try those recipes on for size. This method of hunting up recipes requires a substantial amount of patience. You often have to try a recipe a couple of times before you get it to work, and then another time or two to make it suit your tastes. Even then it may not work out for circumstantial reasons: your oven isn’t sufficiently dependable, the grocery stops stocking some of the ingredients, the mess from preparation is too horrible, things like that. But if you keep your eyes open and are willing to eat toast for dinner now and again, it works. Later on you don’t have to credit anyone for your virtuosity, nor risk becoming bitter because a friend of yours effortlessly serves up a particular something you have failed to conquer.
The trickiest part about learning from books is the touchy-feely part. Many recipes depend upon some cooking knowledge, and some familiarity with the nature of food. They are not simply a set of instructions that anyone who can read can follow, as many people claim. Recipes are riddled with directions like “beaten eggs”, but there is no way for you to know you must beat the eggs with a fork or a whisk until they turn lemon yellow and drizzle off the utensil in a smooth ribbon or the cake won’t really do what a cake is supposed to do. There is no one in your kitchen saying “THIS is what the dough should feel like before you roll it out.” No. You have to figure it out for yourself, and there is pretty much no chance you will get it right the first time. For that matter, you don’t want to get it right the first time. Then you will have learned nothing about the process. Best to get it terribly wrong, then call one of your cook friends and tell them the whole pathetic story. They will be happy to point out the several ways in which you may have erred. Needless to say, their comments could help you learn about things that didn’t actually go wrong but might have at a later date if they hadn’t drawn your attention to their importance. You learn in double time and still, with all this help, can claim the recipes as your own.
Getting a good grasp on a recipe which depends upon your knowing what the food should be like at various points in the process will take several attempts within a very small number of days so you can remember from one try to the next what you did and what you changed and how that affected the final product. Once you have mastered a basic recipe, and know where you must be careful and where you can relax, you might with confidence vary it for effect or to accommodate seasonal and regional foods and the contents of your refrigerator.
Browse cookbooks without motive and reject anything requiring special tools or appliances or having more than about ten ingredients until you are a very comfortable cook. Do not be ambitious. Even if by some miracle you successfully execute a delicate and complicated dish, you will probably not have had much fun, will be ragged from the strain of unfamiliar concentration, and won’t be inclined to play in the kitchen again anytime soon. Push yourself but gently and without large leaps which might leave you suddenly lost in the middle of nowhere. Consider this process akin to pursuing a self-designed and directed work-out regimen. The important things are to keep showing up at the gym or on the field or wherever and to not succumb to enthusiasm which could lead to injury or even to extreme and debilitating soreness which would preclude the continued pursuit of strength and flexibility. Same here. Moderation. Persistence. Modesty and humility. The ability to admire others who are further along than you are in their development as an athlete or as a cook. To ask for advice and to accept counsel that was unasked for but appropriate anyway. To politely screen inappropriate counsel.
If you are impatient, seek out and commission a trainer.
Keep your eye out for likely recipes in restaurants. A difficult path because you get even less designation of amounts than I am willing to give in this book. Clever because chefs in restaurants are endlessly imaginative and there is next to no chance that anyone else will make such a thing in a private home and so you do not risk serving an inferior or at best matching version of something already wrought with previous intimate associations.
How can you get such recipes? Sometimes you can beg the chef for it. Sometimes you can convince a cooking magazine to wrangle the recipe from the restaurant and publish it several months down the road when the ingredients are no longer freshly available. Or you can hone your genius for ingredient identification and try to recreate the dish at home with skills you barely possess and a vague idea of what might be in the recipe. I tried that once. A better approach is to describe the dish to a friend who knows how to cook really well, and ask them what they think is in it. Or take them to the restaurant and let them figure it out in person. Or call the next day and ask what was in the dish under the pretext of trying to discover what might have been responsible for an allergic reaction you suffered after leaving the restaurant. Chefs always fall for that one. You don’t get precise amounts, but you can get precise ingredients and general amounts. Then you can combine this knowledge of ingredients with knowledge about how to make things which you have gleaned from cookbooks and from cooking friends, and weave together something resembling what you so enjoyed at the restaurant. Your best direction from here is to improve it to your own tastes and using your own imagination rather than trying ever harder to mimic exactly what the professional chef created with ingredients and tools which are oft times not even available to you, and being necessarily and so foolishly disappointed.
However you do it, find something you like to make and which people like to eat7 and which is not too elaborate.8 Maybe three or four things. Know them so intimately that you could make them in your sleep. You may have to. Learn them so well that even if you do not have any of the ingredients on hand, you can create a reasonable facsimile of the dish. Spontaneity. Flexibility. Creativity. Competence. Humor. Excellent qualities in a cook,9 and especially important when you fail miserably and are dialing for take-out. Temper or any evidence of a bruised ego is extremely inappropriate. Impress your companion with your humor, your sanity, and your good taste in delivery food.
about the recipes in this book: they are homogeneous and dull. Interesting only because everyone is so surprised to find me cooking anything at all. Delicious only because everyone is drunk or famished or otherwise distracted by the time they sit down to the table. Documented here solely because they are the only things I know how to make, and so all that is available for me to demonstrate how you might go about feeding your friends and would-be loved ones without all the trouble of actually becoming an excellent cook. I wouldn’t bother trying to emulate any of these recipes, were I you. The tastes you crave, the flavors you favor cannot be the same as mine because you were not raised in my mother’s house. You did not discover garlic in Massachusetts, far from any fresh vegetables. Your roommate was not from India. You did not linger for years in Sharon’s kitchen and garden. You did not have two plum trees in your yard when you were small. Your best love did not teach you how to make peanut butter cookies. You did not work at the Flea Street Cafe. You didn’t get to spend weeks being fed by Jennifer. You did not live in France and England and Spain and learn about those peculiar approaches to food. You are not so finicky about what you eat in the first place. Maybe you like mushrooms and olives.
You will find your own recipes, will find your own flavors you like to use. The important thing is to choose foods others like as well. No point in cooking things no one else wants to eat. That will not charm a soul. Be comfortable with some few recipes so you can make them without attending to a recipe book. It is extremely difficult to pay attention to a guest if your nose is in a book and you are concerned you will miss a step and ruin a dinner which is supposed to seduce. They might wander off, finally eating and enjoying the delicious meal you labored over in the midst of a flirtation with someone else entirely.
If your cooking style requires your complete attention, you should do it by yourself before anyone arrives. Much better to know recipes you can make while chatting with others, or at least while listening to them and enjoying the conversation. That way no one feels as though you have slaved away for them and that they now owe you something in return for your great effort, if only the courtesy of feigning enjoyment. You want them to feel as though it were absolutely no trouble for you to offer them this delicious meal, all trouble and travail rendered enjoyable, or at least untroubling, because it was done with them in mind. And if they don’t like summer squash, for heaven’s sake you didn’t know and are terribly sorry and they shouldn’t trouble themselves about it. If you feel your face fall as a guest politely explains that they can’t stand the watermelon you drove ten miles in horrible heat to pick up, you are being vile. The only thought you should have when someone doesn’t want something you have offered is, “What else do I have in the house which might be a nice dessert for them since they won’t enjoy the watermelon?” Any other response will make them feel terrible for being themselves. If they end up in your arms after such a display on your part, you had best wonder what they want from you to have so quickly forgiven or forgotten such dreadful proof of character.
Whatever you choose to cook and serve is what others will be eating. Find recipes that will make everyone happy, tossing your delight to the side first. It’s your kitchen. You can always find something to eat. The others, they are at your mercy.
1 For example, very few people are the experts at making macaroni and cheese from a box they were in their early twenties.
2 Of course you may have extraordinary culinary skills and excellent concentration, but there are moments when you do not care to call on them for cooking, or when it might be inappropriate and undermining of higher goals to do so. I have seen more than one amour be more put off than seduced by a great display of effort and skill, for a variety of reasons. See footnote 8.
3 Naturally this is different for everyone. I blanche at the thought of roasting and peeling the same Anaheim pepper which continents of people roast and peel without thinking the first thing. Funny, but I can’t think of a single chore I happily do but millions of others think is too much effort. Cooking at all, maybe. Documenting my every tiny opinion, certainly. Sweet of you to read along.
4 Which conveniently explains and excuses most of the recipes found in this book. Mind you, you might find it easier to eat well by feeding yourself than by any other means. Which explains the rest of the recipes in this book.
5 One friend, who has remained a good friend in spite of this, insists to this day her recipe for muffins comes from the side of the 100% Bran box. “Maybe I use more butter than they suggest,” she offers when I call to tell her that once again my attempt to make muffins from this recipe has failed. Abroad and far from any bran at all, I tried other muffin recipes until I found one in The Joy of Cooking that I could play with without ruining. To each their own muffin. Mine never involve bran. Why should they? I can always go to her house or to the bakery for that sort of thing.
6 When very young I made tapioca pudding, assiduously following the recipe on the back of the box. Unfortunately I misread the box and put in a quarter cup of salt instead of sugar. So now I know that a quarter cup of salt is inappropriate for something that is to serve six people. I always recommend learning from other people’s mistakes.
7 For example, there is probably no need to get really good at making okra tortas.
8 Sure you can have extremely elaborate dishes which you enjoy making, and can make at a moment’s notice. But overly elaborate meals, like too-expensive gifts, make people nervous. And I ask you, Who is going to clean up the mess after the execution of an extravagant concoction? Some people are virtually incapable of becoming all quivery and romantic if there are dishes in the sink. I don’t need to tell you how precious momentum can be lost during even 10 minutes of clean-up time. It’s as bad as the drive back from a restaurant. On the other hand, if you can make doing the dishes as provocative as slow-dancing by firelight, bravo.
9 Or a colleague or a friend or a parent or a child or a lover or a spouse or just about anybody.