Friday, April 4, 2014

Cooking Without Recipes

Food porn is everywhere.

I probably subscribe to about 15 million blogs (okay, maybe not that many) that regularly publish toothsome treats beautiful enough to rival some of my favorite works of art.

My Delicious board is growing at a rate that would concern any physician.

And of course, behind all of these gorgeous dishes is a link to a heartwarming mealtime story and detailed instructions about how I can make my own (uglier) version.

What I don't see a lot of is how to cook. How to gather ingredients of an unadulterated plant or animal origin, bring them to the kitchen, and come out later with a meal.

Would you know how to make muffins without a recipe?

Until my freshman year in college, it didn't even occur to me that such a thing could be done. If you hadn't measured your flour, baking powder, and butter to the 1/16th of a teaspoon, I'd feared, your finished product would be inedible if not dangerous to consume.

But when I took the plunge and attempted pastries without recipes, I realized that it was possible, and even edible and often delicious. Granted, my standards as a hungry college student were a bit lower than they are now. And nothing I made looked worthy of pinning (as in, I wouldn't have even pinned it myself). What was monumental about this step was the huge shift in perspective. It became real to me that, in fact, throughout time people have traditionally cooked from scratch without cookbooks.

Cookbooks as we know them today started out as volumes on household management and food preparation used as tools for noble families to outdo one another in attempts to prepare the most extravagant banquets for their guests. Later when the publishing industry became more viable, books like Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management came along, followed by a succession of other cookbooks right up today's Joy of Cooking and The Smitten Kitchen.

I love a good cookbook,  Nourishing Traditions and Joy of Cooking and I maintain a steady rapport, but on a daily basis, I don't pull out a volume or dash over to Pinterest immediately upon entering the kitchen to cook dinner.

Instead I just cook. I pull out ingredients, measuring by sight, mixing and adjusting by the feeling of batter against spoon, and cooking until the food displays the right texture.

This is cooking as an art. Once you learn it, you'll love it. I know I did. And now I can make delicious, nourishing food without the hassle of constantly referring to a book or having to search high and low for 4 oz. of something rare and specific to use once and then grow mold in a hidden corner of my refrigerator.

Sure you'll scribble before you make it to the level of edible masterpiece, but it's worth the effort to create real food meals that are all your own.

I do cook from recipes, and I reference recipes, but I've learned to make adjustments to my taste and dietary preferences (like cooking without white cane sugar for example) or according to the ingredients that I have on hand. I'm not a master, yet, but I've been at this for years and I have some things figured out. So I am excited to present the "Cooking without Recipes" series as a new feature here on Handmade Life.

I don't have recipes to share. Lots of other bloggers are filling their pages with seemingly unlimited mouthwatering recipes to choose from. Instead this series will cover such topics as:

  • Cup and Spoon free measuring
  • Basic techniques for baked goods and how to make successful variations
  • Tips for the frugal kitchen
  • Homemade ferments for health-building budget gourmet
  • How to make your own soups and stocks
  • Real food substitutes for popular processed items (yes, you can make macaroni and cheese without orange powder)
  • Sweet treats without white sugar
  • How to use seasonal and wild foods in your cooking (and why you should)
  • Creating nutrient dense meals
  • Using herbs and spices successfully (which is to say deliciously)
  • Sugar-free food preservation
  • and more...

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