The world of cookbook and culinary publishing is dependent upon the shared notion that people require guidance toward great, or at least passable, cooking. Most of the guidance comes in the form of easily navigable recipes, containing clear lists of ingredients, measurements, and techniques. If we, as consumers, were to confidently shun the use of recipes, well the publishing world would likely be out on its Asiago. But the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim, and there are no real signs of people easing up on their recipe addiction. That said, there exist a movement of sorts to move beyond the shackles of the recipe and embrace the improvisational, as well as experimental, aspects of cooking.
During a season when people seem to be hopelessly dependent upon the gospel of the recipe, it seems to be brazenly going against the grain to even imagine cooking a meal (let alone a big family meal) without constantly checking your work against the oil splattered page of an open recipe book. But a batch of cookbook authors, some well-known and others not so much, are insisting that we shake our blind faith in the recipe and start cooking with our senses, and a little more confidence. Mark Bittman, made famous by his Minimalist column in The New York Times, has recently embraced something that resembles a looser version of the static recipe in his recent writings for the Times. Michael Ruhlman, author of the anti-recipe book, Ratio, breaks cooking down to its component parts and breaks cooking down to the less romantic notions of ratios and proportions – a system that is intended to work for everything from biscuit dough to vinaigrettes. There is Sally Schneider, author of the appropriately titled The Improvisational Cook, which embraces more of a specified spontaneity pairing select ingredients with pantry essentials, and this will hopefully yield something inspiring and delicious. And then we have Phillip Dundas, author of the fairly explicitly titled Cooking Without Recipes, a book lacking any real recipe and instead providing just advice on utensils (you need fewer than you think), shopping for ingredients (example: only buy jam with 60% fruit), and helpful information about their properties to help you experiment more successfully. Dundas, rejects the cult of the celebrity chef, and is all about putting food first, using the best quality ingredients (as we all know ingredients make the dish), and being responsible for what you create. His mantra is simple: “In your kitchen, there are only rules that you make.”
Despite this new movement to imbue home cooks to trust their instincts and allow the ingredients to shine, more so than the celebrity chefs with the sweet publishing deals, it is really difficult to imagine a true paradigm shift. That said, there are countless cooks out there that never, and I mean never, even glance at a recipe, but still turn out amazingly inspired dishes, whether they were inspired by any of the above titles or not. Your great grandmother likely had a few staple recipes that she would lovingly recreate each time, or tweak to her liking (depending upon availability of ingredients and the luxury of time). So, are you up for the challenge? While most of you are not likely to be throwing out those recipe books for the upcoming holiday season, are you any more likely to cook in a more improvisational manner? If so, what do you think could be gained from such an approach (besides more self confidence)? Can you be tempted away from your dog-eared cookbooks and gravy-splattered recipes?