by John Ryan
One of the most common questions I get is about "natural" cooks, those people who cook interesting and delicious things without measuring spoons or recipes. The irony is that the questions usually come from people who take cooking classes and have subscriptions to several food magazines; the last place to look for the secret of cooking without a recipe is someplace that thrives on selling recipes!
But magazines are tricky that way. One staple of food magazines are features about "natural" cooks. One variety is the rustic cook. These culinary poets never live in downtown Cleveland. They live in Provence or Tuscany. Artful photographs show them wandering through their local market. Captions tell us how the cook's favorite pastime is letting the ingredients inspire (as if the market was a forest primeval).
Give me a break!
What irritates me most about those profiles is how great cooks never seem to live anyplace I might live. They always reside in some villa and have markets where grizzled fishermen bring their catch, where chickens are hanging from hooks, and vendors have field mud on their boots. (I imagine these markets filled with distracted cooks in search of a pristine monkfish. But when I visit these places on vacation, all I see are normal-looking folks with shopping lists trying to get their shopping done.) I love the pictures and savor the images, but always find myself quietly depressed because I'm stuck with an inner-city supermarket where clerks don't know red cabbage from radicchio, where shopping for food is a chore rather than a religious event.
Another "natural"-cook cliché takes place in an upscale urban-American setting. These cooks are never secretaries or dental assistants. They are noted architects or cardio-thoracic surgeons who come home from work and turn out beautiful meals while sipping some lovely Chardonnay and chatting about a recent play they saw in London. These cooks rarely seem to use recipes and they claim that cooking relaxes them, that it's a creative outlet after a hard day at work.
But if you look into the freezers of these free spirits (and I have) you're very likely going to find a dozen frozen pizzas neatly lined up. Investigate their pantries and you'll find a month's supply of macaroni and cheese. Check out their refrigerators and you'll find more to-go containers than fresh vegetables.
The truth is that most of these magazine articles are more about showing off granite countertops and the latest cabinets than true attempts to pass on cooking secrets or recipes.
But there are cooks who manage to make delicious, satisfying dishes without measuring spoons and recipe books. In my experience, these cooks are able to do this because they have made a dish so many times that it becomes second nature.
They own the recipe.
For instance, a friend of mine loves cornbread and makes it several times a week. He doesn't use a recipe. He doesn't even use a measuring cup for the milk. Most of the time he just makes his cornbread plain. But he also adds things. One day it might be onions or scallions. Another, diced jalapeño chilies. Grated cheddar was good. He's also played with dried herbs in the batter. He has baked his cornbread in a cast iron skillet, Pyrex baking dishes, muffin tins, and those cast iron pans with molded shapes like corncobs or dinosaurs. He makes cornbread for breakfast. He makes it for dinner. I've even seen him use cornbread to make a turkey sandwich. (It's a good combination, a little crumbly, but tasty.)
In short, he owns his cornbread recipe. And if you're around when he makes it, you won't see a measuring spoon or recipe in sight. And that, to me, is the secret of "natural" cooks: they own a few recipes, then wander through a supermarket thinking "what am I going to put in my cornbread?"
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created October 2000
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