To Recipe or Not To Recipe??

I love this hunk of metal.

Pasta sauce waiting to happen.

or…My Life as a Copycat Chef.

I started cooking when I was about 8 years old.  I remember it well; my mother patiently walked me through the steps of making baked tuna noodle casserole.

We got distracted while it was in the oven and it burned beyond saving.  But I loved doing it!!  And after that I started following her around in the kitchen, always underfoot, handing her the milk jug or butter dish before she could ask for it and asking interminable questions. 

My mom, like me, is not a measurer.  She adds what she wants to the mix until it looks like enough.  Growing up, I always wanted to know, ‘How do you know how much oil to put in the cornbread?’ And her answer was always the same: ‘Experience.’  I hated, hated HATED that answer!!

Now, trying to write recipes…I’m looking at the bowl after I add the milk, thinking…uh, that looks like about two tablespoons.  Right?  I hope. Yeah, that’s about it.’  How do I know?  Uh, experience, I guess.  Dangit, I am turning into my mother.

Between the ages of 8 and 17, I cooked dinner for my parents and me every chance I got.  Often it was Hamburger Helper or something of that nature, but I always added something and tried to make it better. 

In my early 20’s I dated a chef for a couple of years and it changed my life.  Suddenly herbs didn’t just come in a jar.  Asparagus wasn’t just something in a can.  It was possible to create a sauce from scratch, without starting with something out of a bottle or packet.

I learned the basics of chopping, and blending, and sauteeing from him.  Of course, he did the vast majority of the cooking when we were together.  Just like with my mother, I would hand him things and ask questions and help as I could, chopping and peeling happily to his directions.  It seemed miraculous, the way he could take the contents of the fridge, including a hunk of whole fish that just looked scary to me, and turn it into something fragrant and delicious.

And once he wasn’t there to cook anymore…I started doing it myself.  Trial and error, baby, that’s how we did it back in the good old days.  I had twelve favorite ingredients and I would put them in anything.  To this day, I have ‘default’ flavors that wind up in almost everything I cook: some kind of pepper (jalapeno, serrano, habanero, poblano, or Hatch), cilantro, lime juice, cayenne, worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar…these are the things I love.  Not all at once, necessarily…but you know, it does make a great steak marinade, come to think of it.

My friends learned that my home was a good place to look for food, because I would cook at the drop of a hat, hungry or not.  Sometimes the results were shockingly good…and other times we went to the Wendy’s around the corner and they teased me for a few days…until the next time the culinary gods smiled on me and their mouths were too full to tease.

Guys I dated loved it that I cooked.  It seems not a lot of single girls do, at least not in Houston.  And lots of times I cooked just for myself when nobody else was there to feed.

But after that…how do you learn?  How do you grow?  I’ve taken a couple of classes from a local adult education organization, but…I need more!  So I watch Food Network obsessively, DVRing cooking and baking shows until the DVR recorder thing’s memory is full and suddenly The History of Styrofoam Peanuts doesn’t record and the hub is mad at me.  But then I learn to make key lime pie, so it’s okay again.

And I surf recipe sites and print out dozens – no, hundreds – of recipes, and they drift in white stacks all over the house wherever I got distracted while leafing through them, trying to decide what to cook next.  They have condensation rings from being absently used as coasters.  I can tell the recipes of dishes I have already made; their clean white surfaces have spatters of sauce and drips of chocolate and splashes of red wine. 

A wide stance is important for balance while creating...

Cooking is a messy sport.

I seem to be constitutionally incapable of actually following a recipe, however.  I always think of something else it needs, or something it needs more of, or a way to work in butter instead of olive oil, or cayenne instead of tarragon (because I loathe licorice).  I know, Bobby Flay wrote that recipe, it is culinary gospel, and there is no way in hell I can improve on it.  But I try.  Like with the Hamburger Helper…I just can’t help myself.

So when I post recipes…chances are, I didn’t make them up.  Not entirely, and sometimes, not mostly.   I learned to cook tuna noodle casserole from my mom, and grilled lobster from Emeril…but I don’t do it quite like they do.  So I post my version, and hope you use it to make your own.

Happy cooking.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. akindafoodblog
    Aug 27, 2010 @ 14:27:39

    I know what you mean. I’m currently learning how to cook. My mother is no help, “just eye how it looks.” How should I know how it’s supposed to look? I’m looking for some cooking classes in my area but I haven’t found any. I think that if I could find a good class, like maybe a mini culinary school, it might help me make up my mind about trying it.


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