Pastry Queen extraordinaire Anita of Dessert First tagged me for the "Recipe Collection Meme," which was started by the Web Sorceress Cooks. Admittedly, my first reaction to Anita's email was a roll of the eyes and a sigh. "Oh good, another meme." But then I read her insightful post and realized that this was quite an interesting topic. In a nutshell, the topic is about how we choose (and store) our collection of recipes. But, delving even deeper, I am inspired to write about how we decide to cook what we cook.
The Web Sorceress provides a definition from a dictionary website that calls a recipe "a set of instructions for making something from various ingredients." True, but then again that's like saying a novel is "a set of sentences strung together to tell a story about various events and people." To me, recipes are far more than a mere set of instructions.
For one, recipes are a source of inspiration. I rarely follow a recipe as it is written, but I often look to cookbook authors - especially favorites like Paula Wolfert, Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney, and Alice Waters - for guidance, advice, and ideas.
When well-written, a recipe and the prose attached to it can convey the author's personality, preferences, and his or her personal history. If you've ever seen Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, then you know what I'm talking about. Her book is probably the quirkiest, most opinionated collection of recipes to be published in the last decade.
Where do you obtain the recipes you prepare?
I have too many cookbooks to count (well beyond 101). Or more accurately, I'm too lazy to count them. So I measured my collection to see how tall they would be if they were piled one on top of the other. The answer: just a shade under 20 feet. Those 20 feet are spread out over 11 shelves. One shelf, the one dedicated to storing the over-sized sumptuously illustrated coffee table books, just collapsed last week.
That is only part of my collection. The 20 feet don't include years of back issues of Saveur, Fine Cooking, Gourmet and Food & Wine. Nor does it include the recipes I've clipped from the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and all the recipes I've gathered from the restaurants where I've worked over the past 10 years.
What about the Internet, you ask? With the exception of food blogs, I don't really get any recipes from the Internet. For one, I'm old-school. I like the tactile sensation of the book in my hands and the feel of the paper against my fingers. Reading, like cooking, is a dying pastime. They belong together. Besides, if I bring my laptop into the kitchen and spill tomato sauce on it, I'm out a thousand bucks.
The main reason I don't look to the Internet for inspiration, though, is a question of trust. Why would I cook a random recipe written by someone I know nothing about when I could cook something by Marcella Hazan or Suzanne Goin? If I don't know who wrote a recipe, I know I will never cook it. That's why the only online recipes I use come from food bloggers. Food bloggers tend to be incredibly open and generous with their thoughts and opinions, willing to share both their (our) successes and failures.
How often do you cook a new recipe?
The last month I have been cooking a lot less frequently than I usually do. I am putting all my creative energy into my restaurant search, so I have little left over for new recipes. When I have cooked, it's been mostly comfortable old favorites.
I have another perspective on this topic, though. With the exception of pastries, I do not really follow "recipes" in the traditional sense of that word.
I cook intuitively. The products I use tend to come from small farms and artisans, so they vary incredibly. I rely on all my senses and experience to determine how to bring out the best in a particular ingredient. I've probably already said this before, but I view my products, especially seasonal fruits and vegetables, as my Muse.
Take that quintessential spring ingredient the fava bean, for example. When they're as tiny as the tip of my pinkie, they taste good raw, skin and all. When slightly bigger, I prefer to peel and quickly cook them to bring out their sweetness and bright green color. When they get larger and starchier, they taste best stewed and then mashed.
I try to maintain that sense of wonder and respect for the products that I buy so that, in a sense, every time I cook I am cooking a "new" recipe.