MFK Fisher once wrote, “Central heating, French rubber goods and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man’s ingenuity …”
There is an implicit understanding in the relationship between the cook and the recipe. Recipes can provide a point of departure. A place to begin the odyssey. An organizational tool. A record of progress. A diary. They are guidelines, not commandments.
Cooking requires some intuition, the ability to improvise & adjust, a good memory, the understanding of technique and a whole lotta something more, something that can be described as passion, a desire to please, to give, to love. Yes, to love. Love is the most important ingredient in any dish. Recipes are a road map to a new place. They guide, they don't drive. They don't buy your car. They can't teach you to drive it, make sure you filled the tank, kicked the tires, had a recent tune-up, can read road signs or break for animals.
Because I am of the school of philosophy whose credo is "If it ain't broke don't fix it!", I will take an excerpt from the beautifully written and absolutely essential book, The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman, which should be required reading by anyone who professes an interest in the culinary arts or just plain cookery, baby. His definition of the recipe is so eloquently described here that there is no improving on it &, by itself, offers a rebuttal to those who decry the noble attempt to document that which is essentially a cultural history.
Here it is on page 200:
"Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can't use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or rec room Ping-Pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced. Recipes are sheet music. A Bach cello suite can be performed at a beginner's level or given extraordinary interpretation by Yo-Yo Ma ----same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.
How to use a good recipe: First read it and think about it. Cook it in your mind... try to know the outcome before you begin. Read a recipe all the way through... Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time & prevent errors. Measure out or prep all your ingredients before you begin. If you're unsure about an instruction, use your common sense.....
How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again. That's what chefs do. Often great cooking is simply the result of having done it over and over and over while paying attention. Great cooking is as much about sheer repetition as it is about natural skill or culinary knowledge.”
So why am I yammering on in defense of recipes? Because far too many would-be cooks seem to be intimidated by them, and far too many meals have been spoiled for an over-adherence to the letter of the cookbook author, without an understanding of the spirit behind it - spoiling their carefully planned meals, and causing the frustrated cook to reach for telephone, instead of spatula come dinnertime to order in a meal that they themselves could make for a lot less dollar signs with a little confidence, if they had any.
This is especially true of the average singleton who often staves off preparing his own meals, especially the dishes he likely grew up with because of that dreaded surplus of food known as 'leftovers'. Let's talk about leftovers.
Leftovers are given a bad rap. They are the red-headed stepchild of the culinary family - the broken mule everyone beats to death, even though they need him. There is certainly a thriving industry built upon the modern human need to contain and store the vitality in vittles: plastic storage bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and that Clydesdale of a food storage workhorse invented by Earl Tupper which every mid-20th century middle-class hausfrau found herself subjecting (oops… I mean inviting) her friends to celebrate the purchase of, in hen-clucking collectives all over American suburbia, known as the Tupperware party. Tupperware's resealable, reusable products littering every kitchen drawer from Anchorage, Alaska to Zanoni, Virginia. The introduction of the microwave oven also made the maxim "Waste not, Want not” easier to follow.
Of course, enterprising American companies did their best to convince the "typical" 1950s American homemaker to purchase time-saving appliances and serve her family new convenience foods. Did the average home cook buy into all this convenience? Yes, but not immediately. She also liked to experiment and was intrigued by new flavors and recipes introduced by returning GIs.
1950s cookbooks, food company brochures, and popular women's magazines confirm the popularity of casseroles, frosted meatloaf (frosted with mashed potatoes!, served with peas) and anything grilled...though mostly red meat...on the barbeque (a popular "new" suburban trend). Main meals were accompanied by frozen vegetables, with lots of butter or sauce. Canned soup reigned supreme as the ultimate combination of convenience and versatility, explaining the proliferation of casseroles. Three bean salad was ubiquitous. Chex Mix (also known as Trix Mix, TV Mix) was the "signature" snack.
This decade also marked the beginning of ethnic foods entering mainstream America. GIs returning from tours in Europe and the Pacific developed new tastes. Food companies were quick to supply the ingredients. "Americanized" versions of sukyaki, egg foo yung, chow mein, enchiladas, pizza, lasagne, and barbecued meats with Polynesian sauces regularly appeared in 1950s cookbooks. I recently found a cache of my dearly departed mother-in-law's recipes from that era, all carefully inscribed on 3 x 5 inch index cards in her own print and cursive handwriting. These treasures were handed down from her mother to her and now to me because she had no daughters - only sons, and I was the only daughter-in-law she loved. Since we have no children, I will pass them on to my husband's niece, her granddaughter. Vladimir Nabokov would no doubt have used these index cards as a foundation for a new novel - so intricate, detailed and nuanced are they in their descriptions and suggestions from appetizers to aperitifs, I could picture the stories behind each selection.
Now, this philosophy of repurposing meals is hardly unique to America or the mid-20th century, but nowhere in history were its results more dire. Categorized under the euphemism “comfort food” (surely one of the most diabolical and shudder-inducing misnomers ever created, even if it was in the name of Holy Sustenance), the classic American casserole was a basic weapon in the arsenal of every woman who donned an apron and wore a gold band on the second phalange of her left hand. We had the dreaded/beloved Tuna Casserole - a nuclear family detonating device that combined egg noodles with a rich blend of cream of mushroom soup, evaporated milk, canned tuna, American cheese and chopped onion, baked to a crisp with a toxic crust of potato chips and paprika. Chopped meats, sour cream, and foods were substituted interchangeably, but the result was same "shit on a shingle"-like consistency that, hopefully, we 21st century homecooks now look upon with an indulgent (if slightly disdainful) eye as a relic of our past that can be relegated to its own culinary Smithsonian.
But, honestly, just reheating Tuesday night's grilled chicken breast/pork chop/tofu steak with some cold cooked broccoli is not exactly appetizing, this is why it is imperative that every person with a kitchen actually keep a cache of staples in their cupboards and refrigerators at all times. The clever cook knows that a cup of some dry starch: rice (carnaroli or arborio for risotto, brown basmati, jasmine) couscous, quinoa, or pasta (all shapes & sizes, I especially like my squid ink fettuccine - terrific with shrimp or ahi puttanesca, but I also keep a few cartons of high quality braised veal and cheese ravioli from my local Italian deli, Lucca, in the freezer), any of them anointed with a nice fruity extra virgin olive oil, a few capers, olives, and a couple of cheeses like gruyere, feta and parmigiano -reggiano, a few fresh herbs and aromatics like Italian parsley, tarragon, cilantro, basil, chervil, onion, shallots and garlic can transform any leftover/meat vegetable combination into something truly palatable.
I always have on hand a few types of spices: red chili flakes, curry powders, cumin, smoked paprika, dried mushrooms (especially dried porcini to pulverize into powder for flavoring/coating or to steep & reconstitute for a risotto). As well as a few items in the refrigerator: soy sauce, dijon mustard, Thai fish sauce, refined peanut or grape seed oil (for high heat cooking) sesame oil, sriracha sauce, tamarind paste, hoisin sauce, mayonnaise; a few different vinegars: rice wine vinegar (which is very mild, imparting a subtle piquancy to a dish), balsamic (richer, sweeter, more full-bodied, excellent in raw salads, but good for a final bite of acidity in a cooked dish - buy the real barrel-aged stuff, not the cheap vinegar that's been doctored with corn syrup and food coloring), raw apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, etc. low-sodium broths: chicken, vegetable & beef; a box of whole fresh Italian tomatoes like the POMI brand that are sodium & sugar-free. I make sure I have some leafy green in the veggie drawer at all times like spinach, arugula, or kale... and one harder vegetable that stores well like zucchini, cauliflower, or broccoli; they all can be quickly tossed into a salad with any of the above or sauteed with pasta, olive oil & cheese & whatever leftover meat or mushrooms for a quick meal after a frantic day.
These pantry staples offer you great flexibility when crafting a meal from leftovers. I always save bits of meat, cooked veggies, even leftover cooked rice or pasta. My husband calls such dinners my "Clean Out The Fridge Dinner", and says he'd put me up against any chef on the planet when it comes to making a feast from what seems like a famine. Of course, this was the same man who was willing to eat the most ill-conceived dish I ever served him: duck cakes. Duck cakes are like crab cakes, only terrible - mine were worse still in that I substituted chicken legs for the duck meat because the grocer didn't have any duck, not even roasted duck. Allow me to assure you there is an enormous difference between the succulence of duck confit ( a portion of duck which has been slow-cooked and preserved in its own savory juices and fat) and the rubbery consistency in the tenacity of the sinew of a chicken leg that has been hastily cooked & mixed in with breadcrumbs, red peppers, coated with hazelnuts & fried into hockey pucks. I served them so happily - this was early in our relationship, and at that point, I did precious little cooking because I worked until quite late into the night, it was often midnight when we sat down to a dinner cooked by him, never me.
This was my first real foray into making him a home-cooked meal. The first display of my capabilities as a potential wife. He took one bite of the duck cake, served up in its sun-dried tomato beurre blanc (which came out really lovely), hesitated for a moment before saying, "mmmm...." I was so happy, his hesitation didn't really register with me as the tacit plea for mercy that it was... so I dug in, chewed into the cake, spit it out immediately, and said , "OH MY GOD, this is HORRIBLE! I'm ordering in pizza!" to which my sweet man said very quietly, almost under his breath, "Thank god..." and relinquished his fork and knife, lowering his head in gratitude like a man who had just been reprieved from the hanging scaffold.
Anyway, you have more options than your cereal box, local Chinese menu, or pizza joint. Do NOT throw out those leftover bits of cooked chicken or broccoli! You are wasting food and money as well as casting aside a tremendous opportunity to participate in a grand American tradition! Of course, some days you simply want to order in, but isn't nice to know you don't have to?
Fusilli with Leftover Rotisserie Chicken, Shiitakes & Asparagus in Heirloom Tomato Truffle Butter Sauce
I am going to write this very informally to demonstrate the ease with which one can make a leftover meal. I had leftover chicken from a Whole Foods rotisserie chicken, half an enormous heirloom tomato that I used in a sandwich for lunch and half a package of fusilli already opened from a previous dinner. I started to boil a large pot of water, put in a pinch of salt (I'm partial to Alaea's Hawaiian coarse-grained sea salt at the moment - a sea salt baked in Hawaiian red clay). While the pasta cooked, I assembled my ingredients:
My ingredients were what I happened to have in the fridge and cupboard: olive oil, some truffle butter (just plain unsalted butter will do nicely), Parmigiano, red pepper flakes, a couple of shiitakes, a shallot, some asparagus that needed to be used, half a large heirloom tomato (Brandywine), the leftover supermarket chicken. I chopped the vegetables into uniformly-sized pieces and diced the tomato.
When the pasta cooked, I drained it, left it in the sink in the colander and put the pasta pot back on a medium heat, added the oil, added a pinch of red pepper flakes, when the flakes looked and smelled toasty, I added the asparagus, sauteing them for a minute, before adding the shiitakes, when the shiitakes softened, I added the tomato, then the cooked chicken which I just tore into pieces with my hands, but you can certainly chop them, just make sure they are bite-sized. I splashed a bit of the wine I was drinking into the pan (a Chardonnay that we make from the California Central Coast). I could have easily added a bit of chicken or vegetable stock instead. When the sauce looked like the right consistency, I turned off the heat and added the truffle butter:
I stirred until it was incorporated, then added the pasta, grated the Parmigiano, plated it in one large bowl for us to share (because I think it's romantic to fight over every forkful with the husband), and we sat to eat. The whole process was 20 minutes. If I had a lemon & spinach, instead of a tomato & asparagus, I would have used those instead. See? These ingredients are interchangeable... I could have easily made a risotto instead with these same ingredients or a Chinese stir-fry... ingenuity and flexibility are key, but a well-stocked pantry is your best dinner companion.