Friday, April 3, 2009

Burn Your Cookbooks

The Anti Recipe Movement is Coming!

This was a new one on me. I was having my morning coffee, which I consume while checking email, wire services and blogs, when I came across a post on the Boston localvores site. It’s a great resource for those of us in the Boston area for sourcing out locally produced, minimally processed foodstuffs. Which I am all for. I appreciate their commitment and support their effort to spread information regarding our local suppliers. Many of these small producers and suppliers need our support in order to keep their businesses viable.

What caught my eye was their most recent post, causing a “What the @#%&" to escape my lips. It was these two phrases “Mark my words, the anti-recipe movement is coming.” and “Recipes are a kind of conformity and fear.” I understand the gist of the post, people are too dependent on following set recipes, which can stifle creativity and create a need to run to the store for a missing ingredient, rather than rely on what’s in the pantry.

“Recipes, especially for savory things, should simply be a quick description/how-to.” I can agree with that statement, in certain instances. Here is a good example where it does not apply. Not that Lark cookery is still popular, but you see what I mean.

When I was a fledging restaurant cook, in an establishment that served classical haute cuisine, we used books such as Herings Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery,The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery and Ma Gastronomie. They had quick descriptions, like the ones above. Simple if you had spent thousands of hours learning technique. These were books written by chefs, for chefs. The authors assumed that you knew technique, or you wouldn’t be cooking from tomes as complicated as these to begin with.

Marc Matsumoto’s excellent blog, “No Recipes” (he does have recipes) is technique driven. His philosophy on cooking is that it’s 50% technique, 40% inspiration and 10% ingredients. He believes that if you’re armed with some basic techniques and a little inspiration, you can make a tasty meal from even the most derelict pantry.

Technique is important but recipes are indispensable for most home cooks. A new book from Michael Ruhlman, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking is a good example. You may know how to make a roux with butter and flour. And you may know that if you add that to hot milk, and boil it, you get a B├ęchamel sauce. How much flour, to how much butter, to how much milk? Cook for how long? Go ahead, take a guess. Do you like wallpaper paste?

What about the need for recipes in order to achieve authenticity? A few nights ago I made a traditional Thai dish, Jungle Curry with Prawns.
It had 16 ingredients, all in exact measurements. It was the first time I made this, and I wanted to get the flavors as authentic as possible. There are quite a few Thai dishes that I have mastered, but I always follow the recipe the first few times so I get the flavor profile down. Then I can improvise and improve.

Yes, people should be more creative. People should experiment. Maybe for some, cooking strictly from the recipe does have something to do with fear and security. But, should we take away sheet music from musicians and patterns from clothing designers? Following the recipe verbatim can appear dogmatic, promoting a movement against recipes is dogmatic too, and highly absurd.


Tangled Noodle said...

I am a recipe-reader and it's doubtful I can wean myself completely. However, I am somewhat reformed - in the past, I simply did as the recipe instructed. Now, I pay better attention to how the ingredients and techniques actually work together. It means that, on occasion, I feel confident enough to just toss something together. I may not be a better cook because of it but I'm certainly having much more fun cooking!

Mark said...

I don't use recipes that much cooking for myself unless it is something very specific. But, as someone that teaches cooking for a living, I do have to force myself to follow the recipes verbatim. The measuring aspect is time consuming.

Andrea said...

Great post. Also, don't forget, some of us rely on recipes because in this day and age, if you haven't chosen the culinary arts as a profession, cookbooks are often the places home cooks go to learn *how* to cook. My mother really didn't cook. I have to start somewhere. And I have a strong feeling that just throwing things in a pan would not work for my present skill level. But the more I cook from recipes, the more I understand about technique (especially if I'm using good recipes, like Zuni or something) and hopefully the closer I'll get to being able to ween myself off.

betty said...

Wonderful , beautiful , INSPIRING blogsite-I love the pictures!!! Thank you!Betty

Lindsey said...

I loved this! I haven'tused recipes for years but often get told "that was great... shame we will never have it quite this way again". I recently started to write things ddown as a way to be more mindful of my actions, and help friends make what I make. Still, you will never see "stir for 20 strokes" or 1 Tbs, leveled, in one of my recipes! Thanks so much.

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