food New Year's Goals

Cook Without a Recipe

In my last post, I started reviewing my 2019 goals with the easiest one: playing more games. I’m continuing this trend from easy to hard by reviewing my cooking goal.

Cook without a recipe once a week

Re-reading this goal, I worded this poorly. Like most people, I usually make food without looking at a book or website. I know how to make oatmeal, eggs, and our regular weeknight dishes. However, most of those meals technically still have prescribed steps and ingredients: I just have them memorized.

With this goal, I wanted to start from ingredients, imagine a final dish, and come up with the steps on my own.

On that adventure, I made (amongst many other things that I forgot): cauliflower and mac ‘n cheese casserole, pasta primevera, salmon and peas pasta, breakfast quesadillas, maple-mustard salmon and Brussels sprouts, mushroom-eggplant stew, salmon and peas pasta, zucchini and corn quesadilla, and an apple pie smoothie.

I learned a few things along the way.

Figure out Recipes

I usually cook in a hurry. The “cook times” are always ridiculously underestimated, so I get water boiling, the pan heating, and whatever marinating while I’m starting the first step of the recipe and beginning my prep. Over the next half hour, I have the timer on my oven and timer on my iPad going off while I’m dumping half of the chopped carrots in the pan because I need to keep moving even though I’m not done chopping. It’s kind of exhilarating, but by the end, I have a complete dish, a mess in the kitchen, and almost no recollection of what I did.

(This process, by the way, is a yet another symptom of my obsession with micro-optimizations of time. It’s exactly what I’m trying to slow down on).

I realized that this cooking process leaves me with a full stomach but empty brain. Because I was so worried about getting the meal done quickly and reacting to everything happening in the kitchen, I didn’t ever really think about what the steps of the recipe were for. I often didn’t even read over the recipe before I started on the first step. That’s how I ended up with not a meat loaf but a meat lump.

Instead, I learned I need to read a recipe and figure out why. Why did it say to add the cream before the tomatoes? How did it come up with that ratio of onions to pasta? I learn almost nothing by doing a recipe once. I learn a little more if I memorize the recipe. I learn the most when I can say, “I can see what they were going for by writing the recipe this way.” Maybe I can’t perfectly reproduce the measurements and timings, but that’s real understanding.

Smell and Taste Along the Way

With a recipe, I just follow the chopping, heating, and timing. Maybe if there’s a new technique, I might need to pay attention to when something turns a certain color or texture. Either way, I’m trusting the recipe to take my work and turn it into a good meal.

When I cooked without a recipe, I’m not guaranteed a good meal. I only have my idea and my five senses to see, sniff, touch, taste, or hear if things are going well. And in doing that, I realized I never really relied on my senses.

I mostly learned how to cook on the internet, which is full of recipes. Occasionally, I have seen recipes from decades or centuries ago or hear about an oral family recipe and am amazed at how vague the steps are. I was amazed that people cooked good food without temperatures or measurements because I couldn’t do without it. But depriving myself of the precision of a recipe, I can see how they might have done it by cooking with their senses.

No More Milk Pail

I wrote about losing the Milk Pail, the beloved local market. That post is still true, but since then, I have also noticed that I have lost my guide on interesting produce.

When the Milk Pail was around, I just bought whatever was on sale. I figured if it’s cheap, the store probably has a lot to unload. If they have inventory, it’s plentiful and cheap to source, which probably means it is local and in-season. Stuff gets expensive when it’s being shipped from around the world or if it’s been kept in reserve for months.

At the Milk Pail, I would just buy mysteriously named squashes, apples, and greens because it was on sale. Unfortunately, most grocery stores don’t sell produce like this. I read the Safeway ads, but they always have the same types of eggplants or bok choy lying around, so I can’t really explore through that.

I am lucky to have a good farmer’s market nearby. However, the number of choices is actually overwhelming. I can pick cauliflower from a half-dozen different stands, but I rather liked that the Milk Pail told me to buy this this one bundle of asparagus.

Making Salads

At the beginning of the year, I wanted to learn how to make good salads. Julie and I make 1 good salad: spinach, sliced onions, goat cheese, fresh or dried fruit, candied nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. That’s it: that is my entire repertoire of good salads.

Everything else is forgettable.

I never got around to it. I figured I would improvise and learn how to make a salad from scratch, but it was intimidating. I have some ideas why.

First, I still view salads as a side or starter rather than a main dish. Thus, I never specifically shopped for or found a recipe for a salad. We had to figure out what to for a main dish, but not for side dishes. I think I need to prioritize the entree salad.

Second, I should start with recipes. When I was coming up with weird quesadillas or pastas, I had some foundation. I had made good pasta dishes before, so I just needed to mix some of those ideas. Since I have no idea how to make good salads, I need those recipes first.

Pulled Pork Week

Earlier this year, we inherited 2 full gallon ziplock bags of pulled pork, and we were determined to use as much of it as possible.

I think we got through maybe one bag. Maybe.

But as they say, way too much pulled pork is the mother of invention. Suddenly, every meal had to incorporate pulled pork in some way regardless of whether it made sense or not.

Pulled Pork mac ‘n cheese. Pulled pork tacos. Pulled pork scramble. Pulled pork ramen. It seemed like we could put pulled pork in anything and come out with a successful dinner. For future cooking, it would help to have a theme or need to constrain my thinking and spark creativity.

Final Thoughts

I’m certainly more adventurous in the kitchen now than I used to be. I don’t think Julie is totally sold by the experience since I think she would prefer a good meal over a good experiment.

I can’t say I’m a better cook having done this experiment. However, I am more confident that I won’t starve without instructions, so I’m counting this goal as a success.

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