We make about two dozen regular meals based on what is available from a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. In season, we adjust meals to include fresh vegetables from the garden. Cooking has become ingredient-driven in our kitchen garden. If we have an ingredient on hand, it is likely to go into a meal. That is different from the way Mother put food on the table when I lived at her home.
I do seek new recipes. If one comes along requiring a special ingredient we don’t stock, it is usually discarded as I move on to one that fits into our food universe. Seldom do we adopt new recipes without modification to accommodate our outlook about cooking process and vegetarian cuisine. Our meals are pretty basic and that is a good thing.
For example, I don’t follow a recipe for making bread. Water, all purpose flour, yeast, sugar, and salt can make a decent loaf. I start by measuring hot water from the tap into a bowl. I measure a teaspoon or so of dried active yeast and a scant teaspoon of sugar, whisk, and let sit for the yeast to activate. Then I add the flour with a pinch of salt, and knead it into a ball for the first rising. After it doubles in size, I turn it out on the counter and knead a few minutes. I form it into a loaf and put the bread pan into a warm oven for the second rising. Once doubled in size, I take the pans out, turn the heat to 375 degrees, and bake for 30-35 minutes. The result is almost always good.
There isn’t a bread recipe, yet maybe there is. The picture I have of myself while making bread is of interaction with ingredients rather than following a recipe.
Beginning after World War II, changes in the availability of processed food and the rise of community cookbooks reflected a new era of home cooking. Review some of the recipes in these cookbooks and find reference to gelatin, shortening, instant pudding, boxed cake mixes, sweetened condensed milk, and other processed foods. Ingredient measurements for a recipe assumed a certain sized bag of frozen vegetables or can of beans before a time of larger purchases from wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. In part, this is due to the rise of larger grocery stores with diverse supply chains. In part, it is due to a growing population influenced by television advertising and national brands. As we are coming to recognize, it is part of a movement toward consolidation of the food production industry into a small number of large, integrated companies. We had 15.5 ounce cans of beans because that is what the manufacturer made and was available at the local grocer. It is easier to use canned beans than preparing dried beans, so we did. Having read dozens of community cookbooks, I found recipes in them were often quite similar to one another.
The advent of short-form video about cooking may be influencing how we cook. I viewed hundreds of cooking videos on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. What I found is while some of the ingredients changed, common threads run through a majority of them. The substance of food preparation was similar and came from a relatively small list of ingredients. Additionally, a video presentation was not a “recipe” but more the idea of a recipe. I wrote about this in September. I believe our cuisine is poorer for dealing with ideas rather than the taste and economics of actual dishes on our plates.
There is a dynamic between a new recipe, our habitual cuisine and our pantry. Because of my experience as a cook, I am more likely to take the idea of a recipe and use it to make a meal than I am to use a recipe as a starting point for grocery shopping and process control. Making three meals a day is not that complicated, nor does it take a large variety of recipes.
The key transformation as a cook is to stray from recipes completely. To become like that bread-making cook I described and visualize what the dish will look like using techniques needed to create the dish. They say we shouldn’t stray too far from the reservation. Straying from recipes may be the best way to cook.