Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Improvisational Dilemma

Every once in a while, I'll pull down a few of my favorite cookbooks and spend an hour (or three) paging through them and compiling lists of recipes I'd once wanted to make but had let slip through the cracks. It usually leads to an epic shopping list, filling the holes in my pantry with specialized ingredients that I don't think to buy on a regular basis. I have a great time flipping through the pages, and it feels like having a conversation about food with a close friend who is also a great cook, but there's a problem - I never really go through with making the recipes. Unless I'm cooking for a special dinner or baking, these cookbook perusals are more entertainment than actual planning.

While, in theory, I love the idea of following a set of directions, measuring spices and using things I wouldn't normally use in such large amounts--like heavy whipping cream and pancetta, because "it's in the recipe, so I have to use it..."--my cooking habits are pretty much determined by the amount and variety of produce I get at the farmers' market each week, and they border on the boring. Every once in a while I'll glance at my "Epic Shopping List," but for the most part I know I need to use up all of that lettuce, or make something with the kohlrabi, or make the most of those gorgeous eggs that should really be eaten soon after I buy them, or oh my goodness what am I going to do with all of this zucchini... And you don't know how many times I'll be thinking about going shopping when a little voice inside my head says "No! You've got lentils and rice! What else do you need?"

So I end up improvising, essentially creating a mash-up of all the amazing vegetables I have around, making a bit of something tasty when I'm hungry, usually a salad or a saute... and totally forgetting all of my plans to make that detailed recipe I'd swooned over a few days prior.

I know I can probably do a mix of both - mix in the produce I have with the recipes I'm in love with, but, I don't know... I know how to punch out a solid meal without thinking too much about it, and it's really the process of chopping and bumbling around a kitchen throwing in random things into pans that makes me really love to cook. It might not be measured, and it certainly doesn't usually lead to photogenic plates of food worthy of most food blogs (my little sister teases that I make a lot of mush), but it's my own way of interpreting all of those hours of cookbook reading, blog surfing, and food magazine scouring. While I admit I'm a bit jealous of those bloggers that are able to make super complicated layer cakes and boeuf bourguignon and the perfect garam masala, all of those taste combinations have been seared into my mind, and the voices of the cooks and chefs I've read are silently working whenever I open my fridge or wander the aisles of the farmers' market. Plus, I don't need a recipe to know what to do with a fresh summer tomato.


  1. When we have our house in Portland can we have Julia Child night where we watch an episode of one of her shows (I have The Way to Cook on DVD) and make something fancy pantsy a la Julia while speaking in silly Julia voices? I know what the first night will be... the Poultry episode and maybe Special Roast Duck? "Do not be afraid of the duck!"

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful writing and gorgeous zebra tomato photo. I like the new format!

  3. Casey - Yesssssss. Honestly, another big reason why I don't do the fancy stuff is that I'm not big on leftovers and I'm usually cooking for one. I made curry last week and got so sick of it after a few days of eating it for lunch. With stirfrys and hashes and eggs, or anything I improvise, I can easily make one serving as soon as I get hungry.

    Although I did just turn leftover bean salad into hummus, which I'm pretty proud of, actually.

  4. And, dude, I really want duck now. Thanks a lot.

  5. I too love bookmarking great recipes, but if they end up looking too complicated I usually just do it my own way. Sometimes that is just easiest!