Once my friend Robbin and I resolved to write a cookbook called the “I Never Use a Cookbook” Cookbook. Alas, this never happened, so I thought the least I could do would be to turn it into a blog post. The basic idea was that, except for baking, neither one of us uses actual recipes when cooking. They’re more like theories than recipes, really.
(Baking is different. Baking is a science. You have to have just the right ingredients in just the right proportions to make everything turn out yummy. Why? Physics, I think, plus chemistry. Ask Alton Brown. But anyway, I digress.)
Most recipes contain the words “to taste.” Add salt and pepper “to taste.” Season with red pepper flake “to taste.” Taken to its logical (or illogical) extreme, all cooking is “to taste” and everyone’s taste is different. That means that if a recipe isn’t right for anyone else at the dinner table, it may still be right for you! That’s a win, in my book.
Of course, there are pitfalls in the “to taste” strategy. Once Robbin and I were making rum balls for a party. She was doing the mixing and I was doing the tasting. Every time she gave me a sample, I said only, “Needs more rum.” It went on like that for a while. By the end, we had true rum balls, with only enough chocolate to hold them together. But, boy, were they a hit at the party!
Rummaging in the pantry is another strategy for avoiding recipes. (Never try the ones on the labels of boxes and cans — fair warning!) One of Robbin’s creations that has entered her regular repertoire is “Tomato Tuna Rice Soup.” (I’ll let you guess what the ingredients are.) She knows it’s done when a spoon stands straight up in the bowl. It’s a hearty one-pot meal for a cold winter’s night and contains all the main food groups.
Pasta is another go-to foundation for a non-recipe meal. My husband likes to create pasta dishes with shredded chicken or ground beef, mushrooms, and whatever’s in the freezer. (Green peppers? Throw them in! Diced onions? In they go! Broccoli? Why not?) Top with any kind of cheese you happen to have. (Parmesan? Great! Co-jack? Sure! Cheddar? Go for it!) Spaghetti? Ziti? Rotini? Elbow macaroni? Doesn’t matter!
Casseroles are yet another occasion for which recipes merely get in the way. Here’s the theory: some kind of meat, some kind of noodles, some kind of vegetables, some kind of sauce. For us, the ultimate expression of this is mac-n-cheese-n-tuna-n-peas, but endless combinations are possible. (I had to convince my husband that some kind of sauce or gravy was necessary, but once he had the hang of that, he was good to go.) Sometimes he even skips the noodles, puts mashed potatoes on top and voilà — some kind of shepherd’s pie!
Using up leftovers is a wellspring of creativity, and one of the most creative ways to do that is to make a frittata. Again, the ingredients are virtually irrelevant, once you’ve got the egg and milk. Diced ham and cheddar cheese. Bacon and mushroom. Peppers and sausage. Some combination of the above, or whatever’s left in the fridge. Call it “Week in Review.” Add garlic, pepper, onion, paprika, chili pepper, or Mrs. Dash “to taste.” Serve with toast. Or bagels. Or English muffins. Or scones. With butter. Or cream cheese. Or jam. Or applesauce. You get the idea.
It’s true that not all your non-recipes may turn out to be hits in their first iteration. But since you’re not using a recipe, that means that every dish is a work in progress. In addition to never using a recipe, my husband and I rarely make a dish exactly the same twice in a row. It’s experimental cooking at its finest.