by Madeleine Brown
I learned to cook through recipes and now meal plan around the opportunity to test new ones. I am not a cook with a specialty or signature dish. In fact I strive to make two unfamiliar recipes every week, one for a week’s worth of lunches and another for dinners. However, aside from teaching me a variety of techniques and introducing me to a world of dishes, this approach has crippled me as a cook. Now, I don’t consider any dish I make without a recipe, well, a dish. I see it as a pile of stuff I didn’t weigh or measure out, haphazardly tossed together for no approximate cooking time and served in no particular fashion. And, ultimately, yes, that’s what a dish is, but somehow since it’s not codified in a recipe I can’t bare to designate it as such.
I am attempting to correct this outlook. I recently got over making salad dressing without the “accepted” ratio of oil to vinegar, instead eyeballing the amount I added of each as well as whatever in my cupboard took my fancy. I even felt a moment of pride earlier last fall upon tasting a carrot pasta in a creamy tahini sauce I made that was only inspired by a recipe. I am also quite comfortable with substitutions. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought buttermilk—milk with a teaspoon or two of lemon juice or yogurt for me, please. Smoked paprika, you say, Mr. Nacho Recipe? Well, you’ll have to make due with just plain, old paprika. That said my recipe sensitivity only lets me go so far especially when it comes to baking.
I know a day will come when I no longer have the time or patience to work from a recipe. My pantry and fridge are also tiring. It’s like some sort of mind game finding recipes to use up every condiment and spice I’ve collected over the years. I just don’t know when this magical, freeing day will come and how. Recipes are sacred in my mind. We don’t have the time, opportunity or patience anymore to repeat a recipe enough with a friend or family member to learn it. The last thing I want to do next time I’m back home is spend it over a stove with my father—trust me. And, sure, there are many proponents of straying away from recipes, like PEI celebrity chef and friendly giant, Michael Smith. But, I’m sorry Mr. Smith you can’t make that claim and publish award-winning cookbooks. You won’t console me when I come crying to you over my failure of a peanut and jelly cookie because I thought, “Hey, why not replace honey with brown sugar. It’s basically the same, right?”
I have the same kind of respect for the jazz musician as I do the real, bona fide chef. They know their craft so well that they can break the rules and get away with it. For now I cling to the printed recipe. If anything it means should something go wrong, I can blame the recipe tester that wrote it. I promise I’ll grow-up and accept the responsibility someday. Maybe.