BY THE BOOK

The Case for

Off-the-Cuff Cooking

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In the kitchen, recipes can be both aids and adversaries. Their place in the culinary world is to offer experience from one chef to another, sharing novel techniques and flavors. But while recipes can broaden our horizons, overreliance can stifle creativity and, more importantly--as adherence to tight timing and ratios replaces fun with stress--diminishes the unique joy that comes from creating something new.

Like many others this year, as options for eating out have run thin, I’ve found a new home in the kitchen. The initial shift was a welcome one; I’ve always enjoyed cooking to a certain degree. I grew up in a food-centric household; we had daily family meals and emphasised quality. Since living on my own I’ve been known to fire up the stove in an effort to recreate some of my favorite home meals (to varying success). But I soon found there to be a large gap between cooking for fun and cooking for sustenance. This term, I cooked and ate nearly every meal at home. At that volume, cooking began to shift from a relaxing and fun activity to a chore, or, at best, a hurried study break. Following recipes for each meal quickly became tedious and, more importantly, shopping for a week's worth of groceries for specific recipes became more work than it was worth.

Laziness ultimately overcame my desire for culinary precision. Chicken? Toss it in the oven for 30 minutes. Pasta? Italian food uses garlic and tomatoes so let’s try that. Vegetables? Cook literally anything as long as there’s fat involved. These were meals prepared mindlessly, distracted, or otherwise inhibited, and for the most part proved only a step above edible. Yet, every now and again, a wonderful dish would emerge from the chaos. Call it a case of the monkey and the typewriter, but the mere possibility that something perfect or near to it could emerge from a process of throwing ingredients into a pan and hoping for the best was nothing short of magic. One example in particular comes to mind.

Late one Tuesday night, I decided the paper I was writing simply wasn’t happening. I knew there was chicken defrosted in the fridge, my favourite veggies at the ready, and my roommate’s rice conveniently left forgotten in the cooker, so I decided to try my hand at preparing a stir fry. Foregoing the usual recipe search, I instead decided to rely on inklings about Chinese cuisine garnered through conversations, pop culture, and the odd Reddit thread.

"Armed only with memory, a cloudy idea of cooking basics, and willingness to fail, I chopped the chicken and mushrooms, washed the green beans, and started cooking."

First, stir fries require a high heat. Images of flaming woks and Gordon Ramsay angrily yelling at sizzling vegetables came to mind as I recalled the occasional episode of Hell’s Kitchen I’d watched to help me fall asleep. Ok, high heat, check. Second, I knew from experience that my apartment’s cheap pans were more likely to burn than sear at high heat. I would therefore need to use our cast iron skillet to avoid setting off the fire alarms. Third, based on my recollection of the names of menu items at cheap Chinese restaurants, I knew that I would need to use (aside from meat and veggies) soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and brown sugar.

Armed only with memory, a cloudy idea of cooking basics, and willingness to fail, I chopped the chicken and mushrooms, washed the green beans, and started cooking. Heat? Max. Cast iron? Scary hot. I threw the chicken in the pan with oil for a sear and waited until it was a deep golden-brown. I started to dump the sauce ingredients in, throwing what looked like enough into the mix, with each ingredient creating a satisfying sizzle and a puff of steam as it hit the pan -- just like the cooking shows.

Much to my surprise, with a healthy dose of veggies, a few stirs and some luck, I ended up with a succulent meal, free of charge and minus the tip. Most importantly, however, the surprise arrival of a meal actually worth savoring created one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences I’ve had in the kitchen. I realized that night that recipes offer a canned version of the exploratory joy that cooking has to offer.

"What I realized was that cooking is not analog to putting together a Lego set."

However, regular success with this “method” of cooking isn’t automatic. The absence of a recipe leading to an above-average, relatively authentic meal began to make me see that there was a body of knowledge beyond the recipe that contributed far more to the success of a meal than the recipe itself. What I realized was that cooking is not analog to putting together a Lego set. There’s no set list of materials, precise manual, or perfected predetermined outcome (though those subscription delivery meal kit boxes might try to tell you otherwise).

Instead, cooking is an act of looking, listening, and understanding the transformational magic occurring on the stove top. And this is where the value of a good recipe comes in. Recipes are distillations of knowledge; they are not promises of a perfect outcome, but ideas to be applied in the cooking process. Recipes function as training wheels in the kitchen, allowing inexperienced cooks the safety to build culinary knowledge and incorporate the techniques and experience of chefs into their own cooking with a diminished risk of ruining their dinner.

That’s why the best recipes begin with an explanation of how the dish came to be and the forces at play behind the recipe’s creation. If the reader learns about the why behind the dish, they’ll be able to more accurately manipulate it going forward. I encourage you then, to not look at recipes as strict guidelines, but rather as a framework to build and apply your cooking knowledge. After all, the only rule in cooking is that it needs to taste good.

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