Cookbooks are my porn. I love cookbooks and have to physically restrain myself from buying every one that takes my fancy. I own a surprisingly small collection for someone that loves them, and for that I can only thank the fact that visiting them at the bookstore gives me a fix that will last at least a week.
So this whole eating seasonally and locally thing has only made their siren call harder to resist. I find myself coveting books with “seasonal”, “farmers market”, “organic”, “local” and “seasons” in their titles. Wanting to justify them with my need for guidance on what’s in season and when. To offer me reinforcement of the things I already know.
Their beautiful photos, alluring titles, recipes that look leaps above those I’ve already got. It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to take them home and put them on the shelf. To pour over them with a glass of wine. Study them over coffee. Stain them with onion and oil and wine. But then I remember, I remember that I already have my kamasutra at home. That it’s been there for years.
When Mike and I first got together 8 years ago I was a competent cook. I could make basic meals, I could follow a recipe, and my food was edible. But I wasn’t an adventurous cook, I rarely strayed away from the familiar foods that I ate as a girl. I had no understanding of how to cook fresh fish, how to make a pasta sauce from scratch, how to combine spices and herbs to season a dish.
Now Mike proclaims me a great cook – and I think that I’m perhaps better than average. I’ve been pondering lately how that came to pass. Is it because I cook from better recipes now? Because I own nicer cookbooks and can afford premium ingredients? Perhaps. But really I don’t cook from recipes that often – usually the things I cook on an every day basis are variations or takeoffs from a recipe that I used a while ago. Adapted to what I have on hand, our preferences and what mood I’m in that day.
And I can give a big chunk of the credit for my learning how to cook without a recipe, to improvising with confidence, to feeling good enough about the meals I cook to love to entertain, to Nigel Slater. He’s a Brit with attitude – more popular in the UK than here in the US by far.
About 4 years ago I got a copy of his most popular book “Appetite” as a gift from my aunts – I think it was a wedding gift, or maybe it was a Christmas gift, I can’t remember any more. And from the opening sentence:
I want to tell you about the pleasure, the sheer unbridled joy, of cooking without a recipe.
I was hooked. He offers no exact measurements (except for baked goods and some liquids) – instead offering guidance like “2 or 3 peppers”, “noodles – a small handful”, “a small bunch of parsley”. Each recipe begins with a discussion about why the recipe is included, what season it’s most suited to and what it can be paired with. Each recipe is followed by several variations along with commentary about how to decide on other directions that it could go.
The first 150 pages are dedicated to pantry basics, shopping for produce, tasting food, winning flavor combinations and fundamental techniques. Also included in the intro is a month-by-month discussion of what’s in season, what’s at it’s peak, traditional and non-traditional menus.
My copy is tattered. It has sticky pages, gravy stains, turned down corners. If you rifle that pages it falls naturally open to my favorite parts. It’s the source of my pie crust recipe, favorite potatoes, mouth-watering roast chicken, herby pork chops, pasta with attitude, upside down apple tart and hollandaise sauce. Most of them now cooked without consultation as my beloved version only vaguely resembles Nigel’s original recommendations. I have made his recipes my own, I have taken his lessons to heart. I have learned to cook without them.
In our recent quest to own seasonal local cooking, we’ve embraced some fabulous new, and old, cookbooks and authors. But we shouldn’t forget that long before it became trendy to be seasonal, there were already solid chefs out there offering great advice for how to take advantage of the best that nature is offering at any given moment. And at the same time, teaching us how to cook as opposed to telling us how.
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