Not long ago, a friend asked me for my pasta sauce recipe. And so, I wrote it something like this.
- Brown Spicy Italian Sausage
- Brown an onion with it and some garlic.
- Add 1 big can of crushed tomatoes (or puree)
- Add 1 small can of diced tomatoes, drained (but if you want, skip this or use diced fresh). Save liquid in case sauce is too thin. Or not.
- Add kalamata olives, capers, artichoke hearts, oregano, basil, bay leaf, wine and whatever and let it go.
Needless to say, I got questions. How much sausage? Large onion or small? How much garlic? How much of the spices and wine. How long do I cook it?
And I didn’t have answers to any of those questions except — “Whatever you think works for you.”
Some people cook by the book. Some cook by the seat of their pants. I do both.
How do you cultivate a passion for cooking in yourself or a child? Just do it. A lot.
My mother was a “dump cook.” Remember, this was back in the 1950s where you dumped a can of mushroom soup into anything creamy. She rarely measured, except when baking (which I do faithfully). She just seemed to know how much to add and how long to cook it.
And so, that’s what I learned too. Decades later, when I went to make her scalloped potatoes, I had to fish for a recipe (and found it in her original “Joy of Cooking”) just to figure out how long and at what temperature to cook it! But the rest I remembered — layer thinly sliced potatoes, dot with butter, salt, pepper and flour, to the top of the pan. Fill with milk till it comes to the top of the potatoes and cover with paprika. I could do it in my sleep. And now I can again. (For those who care, 350, 1 hour, 45 minutes! And yes, you can add ham and cheese if you like. Don’t ask me how much!)
I think we learn to cook partly by the book and partly by our gut. I equate it gardening — you start with the basics but then you modify as you choose. Natural fertilizer or chemical? Or none at all? In pots or the ground? Sun or shade? Perennials or annuals? And then you just have to do it, maintain it, keep at it, to make it all you would like it to be.
I have quite the collection of recipe books (and printouts and cards passed down from generation to generation and bits torn out from magazines) and yes, I do use them! I use the baking recipes almost every time (only a few are committed to memory and I even mess with those!). The others, main dishes veggies and sauces, I use at least once or twice and then only as reference, mostly for timing, or if I’ve not done it in a long while.
But I didn’t start out that way. I certainly learned to wing it and modify things from Mom. But I remember the anguished times of following everything word for word, minute for minute. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was flat.
So, enter experimentation! And I will say this comes with mixed results, especially at the beginning. I’ve burned things, made them so spicy that even Rick didn’t ask for seconds and turned down a take-away of leftovers. I’ve omitted key ingredients because I thought I was above checking the recipe. Once I threw out a batch of the cakey part needed for pumpkin rolls because I only doubled half the recipe.
And I learned.
It comforts me to know that Julia Child tried recipes 50 times or more (quite often, more) before adding them to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Many of those recipes she would send to her friend Avis DeVoto, thousands of miles from France in Boston, to test. Avis would send her feedback ranging on everything from availability of ingredients to instruction specifics. That detail is why “Mastering the Art” is a classic and the recipes — at least the ones I’ve tried — work.
Years ago, when working on a cookbook for a charitable organization, we had to test recipes at least six times by six different cooks to a group of six or more people who had to rate each one. There were hundreds of recipes tested by dozens of cooks who entertained at holiday gatherings, family events and club meetings or who took treats to the office.
Recipes were ruthlessly eliminated, but chosen based on the feedback from both the cook and the diners. The result was that the cookbook itself (which is no skinny thing, by any means) remains a tried and true friend because the recipes work.
I find that when I grow my own herbs, I use fresh herbs more. And I use them in all sorts of things. During herb season, my scrambled eggs are brightly speckled with basil, dill, thyme, rosemary and tarragon. I’ll give sugaring mint leaves or viola leaves a try because why not? It’s pretty (they taste good, too!).
And before you go all thinking I’m some gourmet kind of person, bear in mind, I know my way around a Lean Cuisine and the deli. Sometimes I’ll try to figure out what’s in the deli salad I love and make it (and sometimes I’ll even try to look it up!). And sometimes I’m just lazy because life is too short to limit yourself to only one passion!
I had to ramp up my cooking skills when I met Rick! But we have different styles so it works like a charm. And talk about cultivating cooks — when they were small, both his sons played a big role in the kitchen and now they both are wonderful cooks with, like us, different styles in both cooking and dining. One is a four star grill master and can pull out great party food; the other is into all things exotic. But the fact is, they learned it young and grew with it over time.
My great grandfather was a confectioner — his recipe book included one for opium lozenges in a distinctive scrawl. My grandparents on Dad’s side owned a bakery until it burned down in 1919 and I learned to bake at my grandmother’s side. In their line of work, things needed to be consistent; you had to follow a recipe so that your customers would know what to expect, much like a McDonald’s burger is pretty much the same no matter where you have it.
But times have changed. We can still trust the cooks who work hard on their recipes and techniques and are gracious to share them with us. And I respect their skill, practice and testing.. But we can also swap things out, ramp up or take down the heat and add ingredients that work for our palates and purposes.
I think my mom would be happy to know that I’ve followed in her footsteps to some degree.
But remember my friend who asked about the pasta recipe? Well, I recently returned from a visit to Rick’s cousin who made a killer chicken and rice dish, which included adding broth and soup mix. She told me the ingredients (I immediately forgot three of them because I didn’t write them down). When I later went back to it and I looked at her shorthand note (it included BSCT — which is boneless, skinless chicken thighs, in case you were wondering), I had to ask those same questions my friend once asked of me — how much of the broth and how much soup mix and by the way, how long and how hot should I cook it?
Maybe I’m not as inventive as I thought!
About the Author: Jeanie Croope
After a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.