A few years ago my extended family compiled a cookbook. It has some wonderful recipes in it. None of them are mine.
It isn’t that I didn’t want to participate. I did. I fully intended to include my recipe for whole wheat bread, which is my sole claim to any type of culinary fame.
I started writing it down. The list of ingredients wasn’t so bad. But then I felt the need to explain. If you choose, you can omit the salt. You can leave out the sugar, which surprisingly makes the bread rise more evenly. Then it’s even better for you than regular whole wheat bread, at least if you ignore the inconvenient fact that you’ll need to put twice as much jelly on it. If you have some leftover mashed potatoes handy, you can throw those in. You can make cinnamon rolls or cheese bread or French loaves or buns. You can set the oven temperature at 350 or 400 degrees, depending on how you prefer your bread crust.
By the time I had discussed half the possible alternatives, I was up to several pages and had written more than 600 words. I decided the world just wasn’t ready for cooking instructions from me.
This effort wasn’t a total failure. It helped me understand why I rarely use recipes. It isn’t that I don’t cook. I’ve put regular family meals on the table for years. Complaints have been minimal, and nobody has died yet. For most of those years, though, my recipe books have sat patiently in the cupboard, their pages crisp and unstained.
On the rare occasions when I do consult a recipe, I almost never follow it precisely. I would like to believe this shows my creativity and ingenuity. In truth, though, the more likely cause is simply that I hate being told what to do. There are those who consider recipes to be straightforward sets of instructions. I tend to regard them as mere suggestions.
To some, this approach might seem like laziness, sloppiness, or just being contrary. I prefer to think of it as Intuitive Cooking. This approach is filled with alternatives. To me, at least, these are always perfectly logical options. You don’t have any nutmeg for the zucchini bread? Cinnamon will do, or maybe cloves. Or dump in a little bit of leftover cranberry sauce. There’s no celery in the fridge for the chicken salad? Use green pepper instead, or snow peas, or cucumber slices. Green and crunchy is green and crunchy, after all.
Measuring is useful in many cases—and it’s always wise to distinguish your tsps from your Tbsps—but there’s no need to get compulsive about it. A little salt poured into your cupped palm or a glug of vanilla is close enough to a teaspoonful; a cup of sugar doesn’t have to be smoothed off on the top; and if the recipe calls for a cup of milk and you only have half a cup, fill it up with water and pretend it’s skim milk. In defense of such approximating, I simply point out that it’s impossible to precisely measure an egg.
Does this laid-back cooking style work? Certainly. Well, almost always. Okay, most of the time. After a few years of practice, it’s only occasionally necessary to fall back on the Intuitive Cook’s all-purpose explanation: "Maybe it looks a little funny, but it’ll taste good."