We really like cookbooks. I like to read them for ideas. DH likes to actually use them (I use them too, but generally with more modifications). We both love to try new different things, which means that now we’re back from Paradise with more limited food options if we want new and different without first driving for two hours, we’re going to have to make it ourselves.
DH put a few more cookbooks on his wishlist and I noticed one of the books people buy when they buy that cookbook wasn’t really a cookbook at all, but a book about how to cook without a cookbook. (I would link to it here, but I can’t remember what it was called!)
Cooking without a cookbook is how I was taught. Most of our groceries were based on whatever was on sale, which means my parents were very good at cooking based on what we had rather than going out to buy things based on what they planned to cook.
We’ve sort of reversed that now that A. we have enough money that it doesn’t matter if an ingredient is expensive when not on sale (though I still use walnuts in place of pinenuts in pesto– I still have limits) and B. DH has taken over the bulk of the cooking.
We haven’t been for a full grocery run for a couple of weeks. We had a couple of dinner parties for which we over-bought and then got overwhelmed with the CSA and then ended up not making things on our menu plan because we got busy. I hate wasting food, so instead of our usual weekly menu planning I basically told DH just to get a few necessities and we would eat down our freezer and the fridge.
One of the things we needed to deal with was a head of broccoli. We’d put a broccoli chicken casserole (from The Old Fashioned Cookbook) on the menu list, but it had been there for a couple of weeks and DH just wasn’t into it. So I suggested maybe we could use up the pie crusts leftover from our last party (we’d made mini-quiches) to make a chicken broccoli potpie instead. He was much more enthusiastic about the idea than he’d been about casserole and suggested we make it that night.
I found him in the kitchen with two pots and a pan on the stove, the grater and a measuring cup out along with the milk, and a big hunk of cheese. There was chicken sauteeing in the pan and chopped broccoli on a cutting board. After some questioning he pointed to a broccoli cheese pie recipe he’d found on the internet. The big pot was slowly boiling water to blanch the broccoli. The little pot was for making cheese sauce. The grater was for the cheese. We discussed the cheese which had not been part of my mental picture and decided we’d try it. At that point DC2 demanded Daddy’s presence in another room and I took over.
I put the pots and grater and measuring cup away. I finished cooking the chicken. I added the broccoli, stirred, and put a lid on. Every few minutes I opened up the lid to stir again. After the broccoli was just a little undercooked, I poured in a handful of flour and stirred it all around. Then I decided that wasn’t enough flour because not every floret or chicken piece had been coated, so I added some more. And stirred and toasted a bit. Then I poured in some milk and stirred until it became a gravy. Not all of the flour had dissolved yet, so I added some more milk and stirred some more. Then I diced a few pieces of cheddar (first I tried slicing and breaking them into chunks, but the chunks were too big, so I diced the next few) and threw them in one slice at a time and stirred until they melted. When the gravy looked cheesy enough I stopped adding cheese. I turned off the stove, stirred a bit more, and stuck on a lid (note: we have an electric stove– if we’d had gas, then I would have turned it down to a simmer).
Pot pie is one of my standard recipes that I make without a recipe. It always starts with a meat or mushrooms (if there’s raw carrots or onions I throw them in before the meat, otherwise raw veggies go after… frozen or cooked veggies go in after the roux), then I put in flour (and maybe spices) with the meat and toast to make a roux. I then add water or milk or soup stock depending on the kind of roux I’m making. Then cooked/frozen veggies. Then it’s ready to be thrown into a prepared pie crust and baked. The only thing I need a recipe for is remembering how long to bake the thing.
I’ve got lots of other standard basic recipes. Quiche, stirfry, spaghetti, chili, “soup” (I really hate “soup”, since that’s where my father always put all of the leftover odds and ends whether they went together or not– so these days we always make soups from a recipe), grilled cheese sandwiches with stuff, empanadas, tacos, baked chicken, fried porkchops, all sorts of fish things, fruit crumble, fruit pie, even granola (thanks miser mom!).
I don’t measure things, I just have a sense of about how much to add and I can tell when it’s not enough. I don’t know how long things take (except the oven part), but I have a sense of when they’re about ready.
Lately we’ve been mostly using recipes. I’ll still substitute based on what we have or what we need to use up. But it’s still kind of fun to just make something based on what we have available.
Before the internet made it easy to find exotic recipes, I used to play around to replicate what I’d eaten at restaurants. Or to fit some craving I was having. We don’t really do that anymore. Instead we’ll find the highest rated recipe on the food network and use that instead. There’s less randomness. On the whole, it’s probably better, in the same way that the Garmin and Yelp have improved our eating out experiences, but we have lost a bit of the serendipity that comes from getting lost and finding something off the beaten path.
Another thing I noticed was that I cook in order to minimize the number of dishes used and the time spent in the kitchen. DH will sometimes do a mise en place. Generally I’ll do my chopping in a way that minimizes the number of cutting boards used (keeping in mind that after a board has touched raw meat it must be washed before using again) and takes advantage of waiting time to chop the next ingredient. This is partly because I get bored waiting in the kitchen, but mostly because growing up I was the one who was going to have to wash all those dishes by hand. Most of my meals take one or at most two pots.
How do you do most of your cooking? Do you use recipes for most things? Do you use a recipe as a base idea and then modify it? Do you have a repertoire of memorized baseline meals that can be modified? Do you like trying out new recipes? Do you buy based on what you want to make or do you make based on what you have on hand? And… do you think your answers to the previous questions are related to when you learned to cook?