About fifteen or sixteen years ago, my wife and I had a few friends over for dinner. Among the guests was a woman who we’ll call Emily, because that is what I assume her parents named her. At the very least that was what everybody called her.
I made three courses from the cookbook of the restaurant where Emily and I were working at the time – I was a waiter and Emily filled in as a hostess or waiter whenever needed. She had been best friends with the chef/owner’s daughter since high school and practically grew up in the restaurant. There were few jobs she couldn’t do.
My dinner was a disaster. Everything was off. The results were either bland or over spiced depending on the course. I couldn’t understand it.
“You didn’t follow the recipes in the book did you?” asked Emily.
“To a tee.” I replied.
“Ha!” she laughed.
To be sure that the dishes in her book were easily reproduced by a home cook the chef/owner enlisted the aide of her daughter and her best friend Emily, both sixteen years old at the time. The idea was that over the course of the summer the two young girls would, unaided, test the recipes and change them as needed. If two teenagers can follow the recipes in her book, surmised the chef, anyone can. She more or less turned editorial control over to the girls.
“We were so stoned that summer.” said Emily, and my trust in cookbooks died that day.
I still buy them. I still love them. I still more or less follow the recipes. The difference is that now I see them as more guides than dictates.
Every cook hits that point where confidence and preference take the reins over appeals to authority. Marcella Hazan (her name be praised) may say dice a whole onion, but I think half will do and oh, look. She left out garlic. I can fix that.
For a long time, I would stay true to a recipe the first time I made something new. I wanted to establish a baseline and decide where to go from there. Not so much anymore. If I read something that looks off to me I go my own way and inject the fix right from the start. What’s the point of experience if you ignore the lessons learned.
I don’t fret over precise measurements because the whole idea is a bit absurd. The perfect amount of salt for a quart of tomato sauce is not a tablespoon. The exact amount of white wine needed to deglaze your lamb pan for a sauce is not a cup. We accept these quantities because they are in the ballpark and we have the tools to measure a tablespoon or a cup. So eyeball a few glugs of olive oil. A handful of herbs or a pinch of salt is just fine. Taste and correct.
For whatever reason I do follow the recipe closer when it’s something I make often but is sufficiently different from my custom. I want to see why. Recently, I was given an amazing cookbook called Rome: Centuries in an Italian Kitchen by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi. I like my carbonara a great deal, but they had one that promised to be an approximation of the carbonara served at the famous Roman restaurant, Roscioli’s. I had to try their way. Cooking a dish as served in Rome it is not the same as travelling there, but it’s a Roman experience of a sort.
For the same reason I’m apt to be truer to a recipe if in the introduction I read that a particular preparation is distinct to a region. Do the Apulians like their chicken cacciatore spicier than the Peidmont… what?…Peidmontese? No idea, but I’d abandon my tried and true to find out.
If I could be indulged a moment, I’d like to take an already rambling post out on a tangent. I’ve often referred to Pat Conroy as a “cookbook whore” popping up across the Southeast, writing introductions for many of the finest chefs in the region. I figured he was pimping himself out in order to get free food. I would. But I just looked at my kitchen bookshelves and I can only find two with an opening by him. So, sorry Pat. My apologies for disparaging your name.