Friday, April 5, 2002

Cooking without recipes

The proliferation of cookbooks and recipes is daunting. Printed in magazines and newspapers, on the backs of boxes and demonstrated on TV, the endless supply of recipes has to make one wonder how much people actually use them. Everyone has their favorite recipes that they use over and over. Some people actually do like to try new recipes. For years I cooked with recipes and I still refer to them and read them, but over time I've come to enjoy cooking from memory and imagination. Starting from basic forms, I use the ingredients at hand and meditate on what to combine and how.

Following a recipe can be fun, like looking at a map when you don't know where you're going and the terrain is unfamililiar, but it sure slows you down. You have to measure everything and dirty many measuring devices and containers. Continually referring to the instructions in the recipe, you don't really know what's ahead and make mistakes. The old grandmothers of our memories threw in a little of this and a little of that to make it good. And they tasted and smelled, til they knew it was right.

There's often a lot of waste involved with using recipes. At the grocery store you pick up all the ingredients you need for the recipe. For some ingredients, you invariably get more than you need. After a couple of days of following recipes, you have quite an assortment of odds and ends in the refrigerator. How much of this ends up in the compost?

The cookbooks I admire the most have some flexibility as far as ingredients and amounts, often offering suggestion for variations, and ideas about using up leftovers. Use It All by Jane Dieckmann--the title tells it all. Recipes are organized by the main food that is in them, or by the food that you want to use up. Another favorite is Tassajara Cooking, a vegetarian cookbook by the cook at a Zen monastery, Edward Espe Brown. There are recipes with variations for every vegetable, basic recipes for soups and casseroles where the variations are long lists of possibilities and the amounts are vague.

The greatest joy in the kitchen comes when you can let go of the books and move freely and follow your own instincts and the ingredients that you have gathered yourself. I read recipes sometimes for inspiration and ideas, but it's rare that I will follow a recipe slavishly without making any adjustments.

The key to developing your own recipes is to cook gradually, with thought, and taste and smell at different stages to decide what it needs. You can add, but you can't take away.

Acting out in the kitchen allows me to release the tension--the back-and-forth action of my mind. I used to worry about the efficiency of my movements. Now I let my body learn the efficiency through trial and error and some thought too. But I let my body move as smoothly and relaxed as possible, so even if I am making extra movements, I am doing it like a dance--smoothly.

I am not the first woman (person) to recognize the contemplative possibilities of working in the kitchen. Julia Child talked about wanting to get back to the contemplative life of cooking and writing. The act of peeling requires some patience and care that can lead to contemplation, or maybe a form of hypnotism. Whatever--my intuition requires that I do these tasks. Certainly all kinds of manual work can lend to a quiet serenity.

Better than peeling asparagus or chopping vegetables is seeing a vegetable through the whole process. Digging the dandelion out of the grass with a trowel and get out all the root...

My method of cooking usually starts with the question: what ingredients do I want to use up? And I go from there...

In spring, summer and fall, it actually starts further back. I check out the garden, maybe go for a walk and find something to collect in the wild. If I don't use these fresh foods that day, I'll want to use them soon, or freeze them.

After a long winter, the dandelion days are coming!

Anytime of year, I can fall back on the burrito dance and combine various leftovers with staples and a few fresh ingredients that happen to be available.

Cooking without recipes is an art form. Form is important--you work within a form and make variation, like a certain kind of poem. The art comes from imagination of the cook and the appreciation of the sensual components--visual, olfactory, as well as gustatory.

There's a time for following a recipe and seeing into another's creation, and then there's another time for exploring, for a more meditative cooking experience, when each ingredient is appreciated. It's particularly valuable for the deepest appreciation when you know where each ingredient came from, most valuable when you grew it yourself and you know its whole history so intimately that the miracle is clear.