DRIVING BY INSTINCT

A lot of people ask me what recipes I use, or how I decide what to make, before I post it here on Popcorn Plays. The truth is, I don’t use recipes anymore.

I used to cook exclusively using recipes, slavishly following every step, down to the amount of oil or time spent in the pan. Most of the time, what I cooked tasted pretty amazing. I was still in college, and it was pretty unusual for broke students to be hosting elaborate dinner parties with sundried tomato bruschetta and homemade walnut pesto and cold peanut noodles, even though all of that stuff seems painfully easy to me now. People seemed to admire it then, and I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I tried “grown-up meals” like seared Filet Mignon and lime-soaked Pad Thai. I baked cookies, grilled pizza, and sauteed salmon. I felt like a chef. I felt pretty great.

[Penne with diced tomatoes, red onion, parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes; cold lentil salad with mint, beets, lemon juice and honey]

Back when I had cable television, I was hooked on the Food Network. I LOVED cooking shows (I kind of still do), and my mom would buy me cookbooks by all of the famous ‘celebrity chefs’: Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten (still adore her), Giada De Laurentiis, Ellie Krieger (woo, Cornell alum!), even Rachael Ray. I would google things on Chowhound or Epicurious like “roasted potatoes” because I wanted to be sure to do it “the right way.” I could barely make couscous without double checking the water-to-grain ratios like a complete OCD-addled freak. It had to be perfect. I would copy recipes from the books onto tiny yellow post-its, and keep them stashed in a drawer in my kitchen and refer to them when I was ready to cook. This was especially important for things that really intimidated me, like soups and braises and weird sauces.

But after a while, I used recipes less and less, until I stopped entirely. I can’t even remember the last time I replicated a recipe exactly. (Actually — I can! It was for Ina’s indescribably perfect roast chicken. But then again, she’s perfect). It’s just not satisfying to me anymore. Even though a blogger’s recipe or a memorable meal at a restaurant often will serve as valuable inspiration, copying one is almost like plagiarism: It feels stilted and wrong and not me.

[Local greens with half moons of carrots and manchego and pickled beets, dressed with my homemade champagne vinaigrette; Moroccan chickpea and lamb stew with carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, golden raisins and a million spices and golden pats of butter; couscous with lemon zest, toasted pinenuts, cilantro and shaved parmesan]

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still addicted to reading recipes. (And if I had a television, in a perfect world, it would always be tuned to the serene vibes of Barefoot Contessa). I spend far too many hours every week poring over my favorite food blogs (of which there are many) or drooling at the food porn on Tastespotting or Foodgawker. The only magazines I still subscribe to are food magazines (RIP Gourmet). I impulsively buy esoteric used cookbooks at thrift stores and Powell’s and spend mornings and evenings reading them like some people enjoy novels or tabloids. I remember once trying to explain to a friend how soothing it was to read lists of things — ingredients, amounts, steps, process — and got a couple of blank stares and condescending pats on the back. I like to think that all of that information seeps into my brain like osmosis, just waiting patiently until I need to activate it. POW! Perfect bechamel sauce.

But at this point, for me, it’s just information. The only thing that dictates what I cook? Whatever it is that I happen to be craving in my brain, and whatever it is that’s available when I happen to be at the grocery store (or Farmer’s Market, or vegetable stand, or you get the idea). That kind of freedom? Exhilarating.

[Tragic potato ‘latke’ disaster; leftover lentils with chopped spinach and nutmeg; hearts of romaine salad with cubed beets and rice vinegar with oil]

I feel inspiration soaking into my soul from absolutely everywhere — from the blushed silk of the roses on the sidewalk to the medallions of raw radishes at a restaurant to the tang of harissa from a soup to the mention of wild mushrooms by a friend during a phone conversation. Often, what I envision myself to make before I set out to cook is very different from the final product. Sometimes, what I end up with on my plate is surprisingly, happily better than what I thought was going to happen (usually butter is involved). And occasionally, there are epic dinner disasters (the most notable instances of the last two weeks involve the gummy latkes pictured above and undercooked falafel. They were, to put it kindly, not pretty. But maybe I needed some friendly guidance for what were, I realize now, both deep-frying recipes — something with which I am a true novice. Oh well). But that kind of uncertainty — the mystery, the ambiguity, the guesswork, and the infinite unknowability — is also a kind of intoxication.

Over the last 5 years, I realized that the best cooks — like Sasha has mentioned many times, and has herself, in spades — have the finest instincts, the most sharply honed intuition. What to throw in the pot at the last second. Chopping without measuring. Salting without tasting. Intuitively matching ingredients without knowing the outcome. Peering into the skillet, and understanding the bubbling language below. Someone I know recently paired fresh white trout with a sauce of butter, bone marrow, and Bordeaux. He said it was astonishingly good. But I’m also not surprised.

That same person also helped me figure something else out: that sometimes the best cooking is also the most minimalist, and that the key to a memorable dish is sourcing the very best ingredients you can find. We’ve all had good buerre blanc, for example — the best fish, the freshest lemons, expensive white wine, shallots and salted butter — at a restaurant, but it’s just as easy at home. It’s basic assembly. It really was a breakthrough moment for me, the idea that a hands-off approach would do the most honor to the final dish.

I love cooking — and its potential for freewheeling, decadent creation — more than almost anything else in the world. The act of preparation, the ritual of consumption, the gesture of sharing something precious and beautiful with people you care about, are powerful feelings. Cooking is something with which I happen to take a great deal of pride and thought. Not to toot my own horn, but feeling like my instincts — perhaps my culinary intuition — have coalesced to a point where I can imagine something in my head (mint-spiked purple fingerling potatoes, braised pork shank in red wine, smoked paprika and cinnamon) and then somehow, without a recipe, without any other guidance than my hands and my nose, result in something unquestionably delicious is something that I feel very proud about. I think my food is very humble (see also: beet addiction), but I also think it tastes really good.

I have miles to go, still — eggs terrify me, for one; I hate baking with very few exceptions, for deuce — but that’s equally exciting, also. To imagine the journey, the transformative quality of food, the eternal quest, and the boundless, infinite love.

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2 responses to “DRIVING BY INSTINCT

  1. It is an exhilarating experience to feel comfortable to just cook in the kitchen–free of stainable Internet printouts or measuring spoons. To realize you now know how to cook is empowering.

  2. I LOVED (lovedloved) reading this. it felt like reading my own thoughts about/trajectory of my own cooking.
    if in 5 years we have no real game plan let’s open a restaurant. beets galore. etc.
    +don’t be so afraid of baking. i used to think i hated it + was afraid too. i’ve now baked enough to feel like even baking allows playing around. i can barely follow a recipe baking anymore, you pretty much just need to know whether to use baking powder or soda + how much + you can make some pretty random + delicious cakes and things:)) start with scone recipes. they’re so easy you’ll feel like a genius in no time:)))

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