Monday, January 7, 2013

on experimenting in the kitchen

I think many people are afraid to experiment when they cook. Several times now I've been standing in the kitchen when my mom was in the middle of making or planning a meal and she realized she was out of an ingredient. Just use garlic scapes instead, I might say. Or: I doubt it matters if you leave that out. Or even: Wing it (on Christmas Day, when twenty-one people are expected for dinner...).

I seldom follow a recipe to the T. When making a yeasted or sourdough bread I follow the instructions as though they were a magical incantation that I must recite perfectly. Otherwise, if I don't have enough cumin all is not lost; I'll substitute curry powder and maybe throw in a little cinnamon. No mushrooms? Well, we do have eggplant. The consistency is about the same and it's going in the food processor anyway.

And then there was banana bread this past week. I started with this recipe, which I've made on several occasions. Then I went into our cave-of-a-baking-cupboard and discovered there was no whole wheat flour. (I refused to bake with white.) However there was barley...which is technically a whole grain, I figured. So I substituted that. Then we had no vanilla. Oh well. It got left out entirely and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg thrown in its place. Forty minutes later the bread came out, not as pretty as Sarah Britton's, but just as delicious as every other time I've made this bread.

And to think I could have been stopped in my tracks because I couldn't conform to the recipe, forced to make something else or nothing at all.

When people say they "can't cook" I have to refrain from rolling my eyes. Can you read at or above grade level and do you have all your five senses intack? Yes? Then you can cook. It isn't about perfection, it isn't about replicating something you saw on the glossy pages of a cooking magazine. It is about your taste buds, your sense of smell, your eyes, your ears, and the feeling of something on your tongue and in your belly. In most cases, recipes are guidelines.

In her TEDx talk Tamar Adler speaks about this beautifully: How to be a clever chef. How to look at cooking differently.

And if you think you can't cook, I suggest you read Ms. Adler's book: An Everlasting Meal. 

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