Cookbooks are great. If you want to know precisely how to make, say, a lemon meringue pie, and you are capable of both reading and following directions, a cookbook will help you produce something that is instantly recognizable as lemon meringue pie. It might not be the most exciting, daring, or even best-tasting lemon meringue pie in the world, but it will definitively be pie.
And yet, slavish devotion to recipes is impractical. Unless you are the sort of person who plans the menus for all of their meals a week in advance, there are times that you need to make dinner out of whatever happens to be in the house. Some cooks I know particularly relish these times. In fact, it’s often why they prefer cooking to baking – they feel like they can be creative, rule-defying. Cooking is art, they say, while baking is chemistry. You can really let your imagination go wild with cooking, while baking requires you to follow the rules.
Personally, I love both approaches. I love following a recipe precisely to make that Italian rum cake that my co-worker hasn’t had in years, and I love making dinner happen out of a couple of chicken breasts and some tomatoes. There’s just this little problem I have with the latter method. If I make something that I really like, I can never, ever make it again.
This isn’t because I have some weird rule about never duplicating the same meal twice; it is rather that, as soon as I’m freed from the tyranny of a recipe, I throw everything remotely related to a process right out the window. I don’t measure at all, I just put liquids and solids into a bowl until they seem to be the right consistency. Random herbs are grabbed off of the shelf because they fit a theme I’ve decided to play with or perhaps I just haven’t had them in a while. It’s kitchen chaos.
And that can be too bad, because sometimes a sort of alchemy happens with this non-method, and the ingredients become more than a sum of their parts and become something wonderful. It’s frustrating to know that you can never have that exact meal again.
At the same time, philosophically speaking, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe those off-the-cuff meals represent a moment, captured and transformed into smell and texture and taste. You can remember, but not recreate them, so you need to savor them while they last.