Back to the Books

by gratinee on March 2, 2009

Ever since the tender age of twelve when my adventures in the kitchen began in earnest, most of my attempts to bring a recipe off the printed page have ended up in the garbage with tears of frustration, or recriminations over wasted time and expensive ingredients.  At best, they have left the lingering impression of something missing–a crucial ingredient or flavor–or a misstep on my part, caused by a lack of knowledge of some important technique that the cookbook assumed I’d have.  I concede that my failures are mostly my fault but I don’t believe all of them are.  Some recipes just don’t make sense.  For example, one day I set out to make a recipe for zucchini in cream sauce created by a Famous TV Chef.  The recipe called for heavy cream but no thickener.  No flour.  No egg.  Nothing.  Alarm bells sounded in my head.  How was I supposed to make a cream sauce without a thickener, or at least instructions to reduce the cream?  Full of doubt, I went ahead and made the recipe as printed.  After all, The Famous Chef was Cordon Bleu trained with several cookbooks to her credit.  She appeared daily in millions of people’s living rooms.  What did I know?  I ended up with a mess of soggy spears of zucchini floating in a soup of tasteless cream.

Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t love cookbooks because I do.  I collect them the way some people collect ceramic figurines or Elvis memorabilia.  Like an incurable romantic who is in love with love itself, I am in love with cookbooks.  I love the glossy photos, the alchemy of ingredients, the promise of endless pleasures at the table.  But the recipes contained within my cookbooks are nothing but a starting point for me, an idea mill.  I rarely follow one exactly because I am convinced that I’ll be disappointed with the results.

I am purely an improvisational cook.  Over the years I think I’ve become a pretty decent one, honing my skills through trial and error, learning techniques from my mother–an accomplished cook whose idea of a measuring cup is an old brown stoneware mug from the 1970s.  Obviously, she’s more of a natural in the kitchen than I.  Lately, however, I have come to realize how limited my repertoire really is.  Dinner at my house, whether I’m dining alone or having guests over, invariably involves a pasta or curry dish, or something gratinee.  I am the Queen of Gratins (hence the title of this blog).  Dessert is uninvolved, usually requiring no baking, like tiramisu or chocolate mousse.  Meat is something I have in restaurants or at other people’s homes because, apart from roasting chicken in the oven, I don’t really know what to do with it.  Although I sometimes manage to impress people with my cooking, I rarely impress myself.  For someone so passionate about food, I feel like I need to know a lot more about cooking than I do.

So, I think it’s time to get back to the basics.  Take some of those cookbooks down from the shelf and go back to the beginning.  What I have learned from all my improvisation in the kitchen is that cooking a dish well means cooking it over and over until you get it right.  When you learn to cook one perfectly, you move on to another.  We expect magic from our cookbooks because they are backed by test kitchens and authoritative chefs, but the science of cooking (and to a greater extent, baking) is too complicated to reduce to a set of givens.  Variances in oven temperatures, humidity, and elevation, as well in the quality of the ingredients we use, are all factors that influence how a recipe turns out.

Maybe if I take a recipe that appeals to me and give it a proper chance, tweaking it until it makes sense for me, I just might cook something truly fantastic.

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