Beyond the recipe

My mother sent me a cooking course on DVD for Valentine’s Day (thanks, mom!), and I’ve now watched all 24 lessons and learned about everything from how to properly handle a chef’s knife to how to pair food and wine—there’s actually a method to that madness; who knew? I will have to watch the series again and reread the accompanying book before I am ready to actually make some of the featured meals, but already I have taken up a few tricks that are making my kitchen a happier place.

The first thing I’ve made from the lessons is tomato concassé, which is just a fancy name for peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes. So simple, right? I now keep a bowl of those all ready to go in the fridge to put on scrambled eggs, into soups and sauces, on top of salads, or into any number of other recipes. That’s an easy, delicious way to get more veggies.

Another is roasting vegetables, specifically red peppers. I roasted a batch of those tonight, along with a couple of jalapeños, a poblano, and some garlic cloves.


These go very well with the tomatoes in soups and sauces, and are also good on sandwiches. If you haven’t roasted peppers before, learn how to do it here. It’s a little bit time-consuming, but the results are so worth it. There’s no better way to add flavor to veggies without adding fat than by roasting.

Watching this cooking course, I notice that the chef never measures anything beyond “add a little” or “add a lot.” The recipes in the book provide a shopping list and detailed preparation instructions, but not a single measurement anywhere, just “proportions to taste.” Apparently the goal of the course is to get you to think beyond the recipe and understand not only your ingredients and what they bring to the dish, but also taste and flavor and seasoning and how to add and adjust those to balance them to satisfy your own palate.

I’ve always been a recipe follower (okay, most of the time), and am a little uneasy not knowing how much basil or chicken stock or pepper I “should” add to a dish. But what I’m learning is that my nose and my palate can tell me better than a recipe can how much is enough and what is good. After all, the dish only works if I like it, right? Besides, it’s very freeing to be able to choose what the dish will be this time, and maybe make it the same way or completely differently next time depending on how well (or badly) it turns out. Cooking is a bit of an art, but mostly it is a craft that entails mastering tools, from ingredients to gadgets, as well as techniques.

Watching this chef season every dish and sauce with, literally, fistfuls of course salt has been more than a little nauseating for me; his palate and mine would, I’m sure, have very different definitions of “properly seasoned.” When I was a real tiny kid, a teenage babysitter talked me into playing the “open your mouth and close your eyes” game. Trusting her as only a 3-year-old can, I expected something sweet, but instead she filled my mouth with table salt and would not allow me to spit it out. I guess I have her to thank for my preference for comparatively bland food to this day. 😛

At any rate, I look forward to trying the techniques shown in the course and finding my own way to cook using what I know about food and flavor to make terrific meals. Maybe I’ll even start writing my own recipes.

The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking, by Chef Bill Briwa of the Culinary Institute of America.



3 thoughts on “Beyond the recipe

  1. Sounds exciting – and this from a total non-cook! My partner cooks by taste – I don’t think he knows how to follow a recipe; he prefers to ‘play it by ear’ and put things together depending on what we have and what we feel like eating.

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