I am a competent, though not confident, cook. Like many of us, my culinary creativity has been strained by not being able to eat out since restaurants closed to comply with lockdown restrictions — my mojo further flagging by having to drum up two meals a day during home-schooling. (There are only so many ways to elevate a grilled cheese sandwich.)
In pursuit of inspiration, I have been treating myself to new cookbooks, a longtime addiction. I’m in good company: Nielsen data show that cookery book sales were up in 2020 (with fitness/diet growing even more, to balance the scales). Without my having taken full measure of what its name implied, No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton, the founding editor of the New York Times Cooking website, landed on my worktop this week. A “no-recipe recipe” evangelist, Sifton promises to transform weeknight cooking by offering ingredients and instructions — but no measurements. An omission that gives this home chef heart palpitations.
I taught myself to cook out of necessity when living in Paris in the early aughts, arriving from New York not knowing how to boil the proverbial egg. As a junior investment banker, dinners had been scarfed from Styrofoam in my cubicle at the Goldman Sachs headquarters at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. Like many in the industry, I didn’t do much cooking in my crumbs of free time. (The demands persist: a recent working conditions report shows analysts at the firm continuing to clock 100-hour weeks.) By “not much” cooking I mean, of course, none. My roommate and I had been living in our East Village apartment for more than a year when a guest tried to boil water for tea: “You guys do know your gas doesn’t work, right?”
Having bequeathed my curated collection of delivery menus to my roommate, I arrived in the Marais to the not-so-open arms of restaurateurs baffled by the concept of take-out dining. At the time, it was considered uncouth to eat even a sandwich on the go. In those days of screechingly slow dial-up internet, I looked to cookbooks and magazines for guidance. The recipes in French food magazines, with instructions like “mount a mayonnaise” or “prepare a puff pastry”, presumed a baseline level of skill I wasn’t even close to. American magazines — procured for extortionate amounts from the WHSmith on Rue de Rivoli — were more encouraging, as they appealed to my Cartesian nature: give me “add a 16th of a teaspoon of salt” over “season to taste” any day. My favourite, Cook’s Illustrated, offered a satisfying scientific rigour, with step-by-step instructions of a specificity that made my French friends howl with laughter.
I moved to Rome a few years later, only to feel inept anew in the face of another culinary culture. As Italians learn how to cook a casa, their food magazines are not so much pedagogical as pornographic, featuring seasonal centrefolds from porcini to puntarelle to pomodorini. I embarked on an apprenticeship in Italian cuisine with a Tuscan chef, Anna Bini — a force of nature in her eighties. Mamma Bini gauged everything ad occhio (by eye); measurement was anathema. “How can I tell you how many tomatoes without seeing the tomato?!” she would snap when I dared query a quantity. You might think this brutal boot camp would have upped my confidence, but it only drove me to cling to my cookbooks more, secretly noting the quantities she was using when her back was turned.
I felt similarly stressed out when approaching Sifton’s “recipes”. Glancing at the table of contents, I could just about get to grips with breakfast (eggs and butter in any quantities tend to fare well). The handful of desserts, dishes like “strawberry sundaes with hot fudge”, looked easy enough (as the alchemy of baking requires precision, most desserts were disqualified). Chorizo nachos, too, seemed surmountable. But throwing around spices willy-nilly for more ambitious mains felt too high-stakes: “Curry Goat with Mango Chutney” asks that you fry “a little” bacon, add “some” ground goat meat and “a bunch” of curry powder.
Writers tend to split between plotters and pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants), with both camps eyeing the other with disbelief. I suspect cooks divide along similar lines. If there were ever a time for me to switch camps and start improvising, it would have been during lockdown, when supermarket shelves emptied and I thought twice about popping in for fresh herbs. But with everything else in flux, and a lot riding on mealtimes, I craved certainty in the kitchen. For me, measuring is meditative, offering an illusion of order and turning off the overtaxed decision-making part of my brain.
Sifton likes jazz metaphors, promising, with practice, more creativity and fun in the kitchen. But who’s to say you can’t riff on recipes with measurements? We all tweak as we cook; my well-loved cookbooks are splattered with sauces and annotated with adjustments. “You don’t need a recipe. Really, you don’t” reads the No-Recipe Recipe tagline. Since those early forays in Paris, I’ve mastered both mayonnaise and puff pastry. It's true that I don’t need recipes most of the time. Still — like sheet music — they’re reassuring to have around. I tip my hat to those who find winging it relaxing, but I’ll keep measuring out my curry with coffee spoons.
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