Tag Archives: recipes

The “I Never Use a Recipe” Recipes

Once my friend Robbin and I resolved to write a cookbook called the “I Never Use a Cookbook” Cookbook. Alas, this never happened, so I thought the least I could do would be to turn it into a blog post. The basic idea was that, except for baking, neither one of us uses actual recipes when cooking. They’re more like theories than recipes, really.

(Baking is different. Baking is a science. You have to have just the right ingredients in just the right proportions to make everything turn out yummy. Why? Physics, I think, plus chemistry. Ask Alton Brown. But anyway, I digress.)

Most recipes contain the words “to taste.” Add salt and pepper “to taste.” Season with red pepper flake “to taste.” Taken to its logical (or illogical) extreme, all cooking is “to taste” and everyone’s taste is different. That means that if a recipe isn’t right for anyone else at the dinner table, it may still be right for you! That’s a win, in my book.

Of course, there are pitfalls in the “to taste” strategy. Once Robbin and I were making rum balls for a party. She was doing the mixing and I was doing the tasting. Every time she gave me a sample, I said only, “Needs more rum.” It went on like that for a while. By the end, we had true rum balls, with only enough chocolate to hold them together. But, boy, were they a hit at the party!

Rummaging in the pantry is another strategy for avoiding recipes. (Never try the ones on the labels of boxes and cans – fair warning!) One of Robbin’s creations that has entered her regular repertoire is “Tomato Tuna Rice Soup.” (I’ll let you guess what the ingredients are.) She knows it’s done when a spoon stands straight up in the bowl. It’s a hearty one-pot meal for a cold winter’s night and contains all the main food groups.

Pasta is another go-to foundation for a non-recipe meal. My husband likes to create pasta dishes with shredded chicken or ground beef, mushrooms, and whatever’s in the freezer. (Green peppers? Throw them in! Diced onions? In they go! Broccoli? Why not?) Top with any kind of cheese you happen to have. (Parmesan? Great! Co-jack? Sure! Cheddar? Go for it!) Spaghetti? Ziti? Rotini? Elbow macaroni? Doesn’t matter!

Casseroles are yet another occasion for which recipes merely get in the way. Here’s the theory: some kind of meat, some kind of noodles, some kind of vegetables, some kind of sauce. For us, the ultimate expression of this is mac-n-cheese-n-tuna-n-peas, but endless combinations are possible. (I had to convince my husband that some kind of sauce or gravy was necessary, but once he had the hang of that, he was good to go.) Sometimes he even skips the noodles, puts mashed potatoes on top and voilà – some kind of shepherd’s pie!

Using up leftovers is a wellspring of creativity, and one of the most creative ways to do that is to make a frittata. Again, the ingredients are virtually irrelevant, once you’ve got the egg and milk. Diced ham and cheddar cheese. Bacon and mushroom. Peppers and sausage. Some combination of the above, or whatever’s left in the fridge. Call it “Week in Review.” Add garlic, pepper, onion, paprika, chili pepper, or Mrs. Dash “to taste.” Serve with toast. Or bagels. Or English muffins. Or scones. With butter. Or cream cheese. Or jam. Or applesauce. You get the idea.

It’s true that not all your non-recipes may turn out to be hits in their first iteration. But since you’re not using a recipe, that means that every dish is a work in progress. In addition to never using a recipe, my husband and I rarely make a dish exactly the same twice in a row. It’s experimental cooking at its finest.

 

 

Weird Food Faves and Fails

I admire adventurous cooks. Especially ones who make something out of what’s already in the house instead of going to the store for a double rack or ribs, which requires taking out a meat loan. If it’s in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, it’s fair game. Unless it’s game in the pantry, in which case you have bigger problems than what to eat.

People who cook this way inspired me and my husband to start cooking again after a long spell of frozen, pre-cooked Useless People Meals™. Tom and Leslie had a dish called “Experimental Chicken,” which, as you can probably guess, never came out the same way twice. It did, however, have a consistent theory – chicken, salt, pepper, garlic, and some kind of sauce. Any kind of sauce. Chili. Thai. Mexican. Indian. Martian. (They are both science fiction fans.)

My husband and I were inspired. Our dishes were not just experiments; at times they seemed straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. The trend was encouraged by the fact that my husband likes the one-of-a-kind and slight-irregulars tables at the stores where he shops. He’ll bring home a “unique” ingredient and then try to build a dish around it.

For example, he recently brought home spaghetti sauce in two flavors: regular and chipotle. The only problem was, the sauces weren’t tomato-based. They used pumpkin as the main ingredient. And he decided to try them out not with regular spaghetti, but with spaghetti squash.

Now, I’m not a big fan of spaghetti squash, which I find watery and tasteless. And the pumpkin sauces looked, shall we say, dubious. I instantly knew why they had appeared on the “Manager’s Special” table. But there they were, so in the interest of science and encourage culinary courage, I agreed to try it.

Given the bland nature of spaghetti squash, I picked the pumpkin-chipotle sauce to go with it. We figured out how to solve the wet-noodle problem thanks to Google, which has replaced cookbooks in our kitchen. And Dan decided to add some bite-sized chunks of leftover pork chop because he feels that every meal should contain meat, unless he has to kill it himself.

The first forkful was not inspiring. It was definitely pumpkiny, with a brief finish of chipotle on the back of the tongue. The more we ate of it, the less odd it seemed to get. The result was what I like to call a “Work in Progress” – something that’s survivable but needs either tweaking or a major overhaul before it enters our regular repertoire. I still hope the manager never finds that sauce “special” again, though.

Another one-of-a-kind item that appeared in the grocery bag was apple-bourbon salsa. It struck me as an awful combination for salsa, though I do enjoy peach or mango salsa. But, valiantly, I dipped in a chip and made a discovery. “This is horrible salsa,” I said. It reminded me of all those weird new alcoholic drinks like cranapple schnapps and birthday cake tequila and whatever that liqueur is that comes in a bottle that looks like Oil of Olay.

“But,” I added, “it tastes like pretty good barbecue sauce.” We tried it out on a handy pork loin that had survived in our freezer, and declared it delicious. Now I wish we could find another jar of it.

Our best culinary invention came when my husband, disappointed by a frozen cheeseburger mac that contained only ground meat, macaroni, and cheese, declared, “We can do better than this!”

Our new, improved version included those basics, plus garlic, diced onion, diced tomatoes with green chiles, and diced dill pickles. And way too much cheese – our theory is that everything should come with way too much cheese. Occasionally we add mushrooms or bacon if some happens to be around.

But the ingredient that really makes the dish – and makes it taste like a real cheeseburger – is a drizzle of ketchup over the top. As over the top (sorry, not sorry) as that may sound, it brings the whole dish together. Even I, ketchup lover that I am, had my doubts, but once I tried it I loved it and we have never made this one-skillet meal without it since.

Unfortunately, not every experimental dish goes that well. A man I once knew had a “signature dish” that he regularly made. It started innocently enough, with ground beef and rice in a stew pot. Then it started to get weird. Knorr instant split-pea soup was the next ingredient. After that all cooked together to a porridge-y consistency, at the last moment before serving, he added pineapple chunks “for the contrast in flavor, texture, and temperature.”

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He made huge batches of it and kept adding things as the days went by. The most, uh, memorable addition was leftover Chinese food. The actual “recipe” has not survived, and neither did the relationship.

The porridge may not have actually ended the romance, but it’s surely no accident that I ended up with a man who at least understands the concept of flavor profiles, even if he does shop from the quick-sale table.

A Marriage Made in the Kitchen

I think it all started with the naked Julia Child impressions. We were newly married and everything was fun. We weren’t entirely naked while cooking, of course – aprons were a requirement and oven mitts (worn wherever) were allowed. There were other rules, too – no deep-frying, for example, for obvious reasons. Using plummy, authoritative voices we would do a fictitious play-by-play of dinner preparation: “Place the turkey in the oven for 350 minutes at 120 degrees. Oopsie! [take slug of wine].”

Flour, eggs and Love

Of course, at that stage it wasn’t really a turkey. We were the newly married poor and subsisted on mac-n-cheese, frozen burritos, and anything else that cost $.27 or less. Cooking was simple, fun, and entertaining. Not that we could afford to entertain. All of our friends should be grateful for that.

We didn’t get serious about cooking until years later, when friends of ours came up with a recipe they called “Experimental Chicken.” It was wonderful, and was wonderfully different every time they cooked it. “By God,” I said, “if Tom and Leslie can cook, so can we!”

At the time, we weren’t foodies. Either they didn’t exist yet, or hadn’t made their presence known to the likes of us. Our early attempts at cooking were really “modifying” existing products. We’d take Hamburger Helper “Beef Stroganoff,” substitute stew meat for hamburger, and use real sour cream instead of the packaged powder that was supposed to morph somehow into a sauce. It may not have been actual cooking, but it was an improvement over the boxed version. We also improved mac-n-cheese by adding tuna and peas to it. Protein and veggies! What a great idea!

Then we branched out into original one-pot meals. (We still prefer one-pot meals. Both of us hate to do dishes.) “Cowboy beans” was one of our specialties: ground beef, pork-n-beans, and cheese. Call it minimalist cooking if you want to be kind. As we became more adventurous we began to add ingredients like refried beans, tomatoes, chiles, green peppers, onions, and assorted spices, then serve them with tortillas and salsa for do-it-yourself burritos. We never went back to the $.27 frozen ones.

At last the Food Network came into our lives. Stuck at the time in severe depression, I watched the shows endlessly for the calm voices and helpful tips. I finally learned the term “flavor profiles.” Our cooking life was revitalized. I became the chef and my husband was the sous-chef.

We seldom used recipes. The experimental nature of the original chicken inspiration had stuck with us. We belonged to the look-in-the-fridge-and-pantry-and-go from-there school. “Cut that chicken into bite-sized pieces,” I would say. “No, my bite-sized, not yours. Now pass me the paprika, please. The smoky paprika. Now, everyone into the pool! Mixy-mixy!” We developed our food repertoire to include a killer ratatouille (see wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and something that resembled a quiche.

Then came a bigger change – my back wouldn’t allow me to stand at the stove and the tremor in my hands made me dangerous with a knife. So Dan took over as head chef, and I became the food consultant. His first attempts were a little sad. “A casserole needs some moisture in it – milk, stock, or something – to hold it together, especially if there’s rice or noodles involved,” I would gently suggest.

Gradually Dan came into his own. I only had to answer questions about whether I wanted my fish baked or broiled, or whether sage or lemon pepper was needed. Once I explained them, he instantly caught on to shepherd’s pie and frittata. They’re now his signature dishes, so lovely that we could post pictures on the Internet if we were into food porn, and tastier than many a restaurant meal.

I still fondly remember those days of naked Julia Child impressions, though I have no particular desire to recreate them. But since then, our cooking partnership has evolved just as our marriage has – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, with laughter and spice, and a willingness to let each other take the lead at different times. All in all, a tasty recipe for two.

 

This post first appeared on BlogHer, on March 26, 2016.