I cook like my mother.
I rarely measure anything out, even though I have lovely sets of measuring cups and spoons and am always tempted to buy more when I pass by Pier 1 Imports or Williams Sonoma. I come from a “pinch of this” and “dash of that” heritage. When it was time to learn the secrets of spaghetti sauce, I stood beside the stove and watched my mother pour spices into her cupped palm until the piles of crushed leaves looked big enough to add to the simmering pot. She instructed me on proper measurements: “Cup your palm tighter for the thyme, you only want a small handful.” I’m very lucky: our hands are the same.
Her recipes are frustrating, because they include measurements like a “a squirt” and directions like “until it’s the right consistency.” Unless you’ve watched the process all the way through a few times, it’s difficult to do her dishes justice on your own. But I watched. I watched for years. I pinched pie crusts between my fingers and I dripped sauces off the back of a spoon. I learned.
My spaghetti sauce is nothing like hers, now. But it’s incredible.
A consequence of this learning method is that no recipe is safe with me. I intend to follow recipes – really, I do – but sometimes I only have boneless chicken breasts instead of the bone-in-thighs that the recipe calls for, and the substitutions start. I’ll use cheddar if I don’t have Monterey Jack. I’ll toss in skim milk because it’s probably a better substitute for cream than my Bailey’s Toffee Almond coffee creamer. I’ll automatically double the garlic content of any recipe I’m following.
Of course, the biggest drawback to the substitution game is that I never make exactly the same recipe twice. When someone loves what I’ve made for dinner and asks me for the recipe, I can lend them the book or forward them a website link, but the version they’ll make will never be quite right. I try to explain what I did differently, but sometimes I don’t even know. I added more honey to sweeten the glaze, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how much, because I flipped the honey bear over and squeezed him until it tasted right. I kept adding chicken stock to thin the soup, but I didn’t keep track of how much more I needed.
I’ve considered being more scientific about the process and trying to write down what I’m doing as I go. I should probably add the honey by teaspoons, not blobs, and I should pour the broth from a measuring cup instead of the box, so I can see how much I have left and do the math. But although I consider myself a scientist, I just can’t seem to bring a calculating mentality into my kitchen. My meals are art. Not always good art, mind you, but it’s a creative process more than a formula, and I don’t know that I can change it. I don’t think I want to.
I’d love to cook for you. I have so much fun experimenting in the kitchen, and it’s wonderful to share the results with friends. I promise to do my best to give you an accurate recipe if you ask for it, but unless you’ve been hanging out with me in my kitchen and watching me work, you need to take those recipes with a grain of salt. Maybe two grains. I’m not sure, exactly. Stop when it tastes right.
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