My cookbook collection takes up most of the first two ranges of shelving that runs along one long wall in my condo’s living space (as seen in the image above). I have long been reliant on cookbook recipes and online recipes, although I have always thought myself courageous for every once in a while going rogue. Over time, however, I have realized that I can’t always afford to follow the rules unless I’m cooking for friends and so following a recipe for 4 or more servings. I follow a recipe mainly to avoid working without a net. When I cook for myself, which is most of the time, adapting recipes for 2 or more servings can not only be tricky in terms of the quality of the resulting meal but I often wind up wasting food.
It has taken time to become confident enough to deviate from printed recipes. Improvising recipes from scratch has taken me even longer to learn how to do well. I reached a point where I asked myself, what was I trying to achieve by devising a recipe on my own: did I want write a cookbook-quality recipe or did I want simply to please myself? I decided that in the comfy solitude of my kitchen I want to please myself.
Inventing my dinners does not mean I made them up out of whole cloth. I noticed recently an article about copyrighted recipes in the Food section of the New York Times. Who owns a recipe? Anyone who has read as many cookbooks as I have knows how to trace the influence of one seminal collection of recipes through other books. Traces of Judy Rodgers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook, one of the greatest of them all, show up all the time, especially in her prescriptions for salting meat a day or more in advance of cooking it. Yotam Ottolenghi’s many books, Jerusalem (with Sami Tamimi) in particular, have had an enormous impact on what and the way people cook. Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten, and others have inspired countless cookbook writers. Less well-known in this country, Diana Henry and Nigel Slater have shaped the cooking of many home cooks in the UK. They are my own culinary lodestars. Nancy Silverton’s method of making a pot of beans has permanently changed how I make beans without a recipe. Lately Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigely’s Falastin and Rachel Roddy’s An A-Z of Pasta, two outstanding recent recipe collections, heavily influence the way I improvise in the kitchen. I don’t plan to print any of their recipes, so I imagine they are happy that I am assimilating into my cooking their lessons on the page. Many times I simply follow the directions; more and more often I take their ideas and run off in another direction with them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But often I tell myself, “I can improve this next time.”
One of my motivations for this newsletter is the recent realization that cooking for oneself is not a question of which recipes best suit a single householder. Rather, coming to own your own daily cooking depends almost entirely on which ingredients, and in which quantities, you regularly have on hand. Do I have what I need to make a pasta puttanesca? Are there cooked beans in the fridge so I can avoid eating pasta and rice tonight? Broth in the freezer? Canned tomatoes in the cupboard? Anchovies? Eggs? Cheese? I like to stand in front of my cupboards, pantry, and fridge and imagine the possible combinations based on what I have.
More thoughts on cooking for oneself to come.