Improv at the Second Kitchen

I am a slave to recipes.

I’ve cooked enough by now to avoid that numb terror you first feel upon picking up a knife (or a spatula, or a pan, or a…). I make certain foods, like guacamole, with confidence and ease and nary a glance at a slip of paper. But for the most part, if I haven’t cooked a dish at least a dozen times, I still clutch a recipe and God help us all if I vary from its instructions.

Everyone knows baking is a science, but for me all cooking is–and recipes are its immutable laws. If I add more than exactly a quarter-teaspoon of pepper, the house may explode. If I substitute powdered garlic, the planet cracks in half. Many times during my cooking adventures, my brother has sighed, strolled on in, tasted whatever I was convinced ‘d destroyed, and added a pinch of this or that to make it edible.

How do you people do it?

Take last night’s dinner (and today’s hastily-eaten lunch, hence the empty bowl): gazpacho-based tomato sauce with meatballs and angel hair. We started with a big jug of thin, cold soup leftover from a recent family party; my mom puttered about in the kitchen for a while, opened a few jars, and when dinner hit the table the stuff had magically become a real good, totally different, totally hearty sauce.  When I asked her what she’d done, the answers seemed so obvious: boiled off some of the water. Added some crushed tomatoes. Smashed in some meatballs. And yet, had I been in front of the stove, I would’ve stared glumly at the gazpacho for a while before cooking up a side dish and dining on cold soup.

Maybe, once my brother’s done with it, I should take a look at The Improvisational Cook. But something tells me I’ll be reading How to Boil Water and its ilk for a while, yet.

It’s a long–and hopefully delicious–road ahead.

-Jim should probably start filing these recipes

  • tigerfish

    But if you put a dash of this and sprinkle of that in baking, it never works!
    In cooking, it is more forgiving and you can adjust the taste as you cook. :P

  • chip wilson

    at the end of the day….just add chocolate

    my chocolate meatballs are amazing

  • Lydia

    One way to train yourself is to ask someone to put together a pile of ingredients for you, and give you a time limit to make something out of them. You’d have to promise not to reach for a cookbook, but reaching for a beer or a glass of wine might help! After a while you realize that you know more than you think you know about cooking; you just need to learn to trust your instincts. And if what you create tastes like crap, you throw it away and go out for dinner!

  • Hillary

    Lydia, sounds like making your own episode of Top Chef! Hehe. Good idea though!

  • Kelly

    I feel the same way about baking–how do you people do it? It’s so precise! It’s terrifying!

    As for the dash and pinch and handful ways to cooking? I find it much more forgiving. There is rarely a “correct” amount. Maybe a better or worse amount (or technique), but adding a bit more of this, or less of that, or doing it differently, etc., will rarely screw it up beyond repair. In the end, I guess I’m just not afraid I’ll screw it up. If I worried about making something inedible, I’d never cook again. And usually it takes several tries to get a recipe “perfect” anyway.

  • melissa

    jim, you just made my day – or year – with this post. I feel like I am such a novice because of my adherence to recipes. well, I kind of am a novice since I only started really cooking two years ago. but still. on the rare occasions I get “creative” it’s only a very small variation but I feel so proud. I’m just glad to know I am not the only one.

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