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.
How do you store your favorite recipes?
I am very OCD about my cookbook collection (pity my wife). All my Spanish cookbooks are on the same shelf. Ditto for Italian, French, Indian, vegetarian, American, etc. I like to keep all the books by the same author together, too. My recipe files are divided in a similar fashion. Then there are the Current Faves, a regal collection of priveleged books which reside on the two small shelves in my kitchen (they are depicted in the picture that opens this post).
I have read every cookbook and magazine in my collection cover to cover. Although I often misplace my keys or glasses, if you ask me for a recipe for a particular way to cure a salmon, I can present you with 6 variations in just a few minutes. I may not equal the speed of Google, but I do know my recipe collection.
As an aside, I know the sharpness of my mind won't last forever. That's why I like the new Google Book Search. I don't know about anyone else, but I'd be willing to pay for a service that had all of the books in my library scanned and searchable. As long as I already own the hard copy, why shouldn't I be able to search my books as fast as Google.
How large is your to-try pile? Is it organized? How?
It has never even occurred to me to have a "to-try pile." The very thought makes me shudder. An In-Box for recipes, just like unpaid bills! That would make cooking as pleasant as doing homework or plowing through my To Do List.
But, from another perspective, I consider nearly every recipe in my collection to be in my "to-try pile." (OK, maybe not the instructions for how to peel a beaver tail in my mom's 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking). Occasionally, I will pull a cookbook off my shelves that I hadn't looked at in years, leaf through it, and discover a new way to prepare something that perhaps didn't appeal to my palate when I was younger.
What is the oldest recipe in your to-try pile?
If I consider every recipe as potentially being in my "to-try pile," then I suppose my oldest recipes would be the ones from my grandmother. I don't know how old those recipes are, but I know they're older than I am (Does this mean I've inherited my grandmother's To Do List? What a thought. What if we all inherited all the unsatisfied dreams and unfinished projects of our ancestors?).
Are you really ever going to make all those recipes in your to-try pile?
Uh, no. That's what makes cooking so exciting. You can never get bored.
Do you follow a recipe exactly, modify as you go, or 'What Recipe?' I invent new recipes every time I cook.
All of the above. When it comes to pastries and desserts, I tend to follow the recipe to the best of my ability, with maybe just a few tweaks in flavoring.
Even with savory cooking, though, I really don't consider myself an inventive cook. I am the Quixote of the kitchen. I tend to cook like a grandmother. I have great respect for those hyper-modern cooks who follow in the footsteps of Ferran Adrià of El Bulli (who apparently shuns the term "mad scientist" and "molecular gastronomy"). But that's just not me. Sure, sometimes I like to play around in the kitchen and I am open to learning new techniques, but only in the interest of enhancing the flavor and texture of a dish. Recently, I learned an interesting way to cook a steak that, hopefully some day soon, I will share with you.
Although I almost never follow recipes to the letter, I do try to respect the traditions and heritage of the people and places where the particular dish originates. You will never catch me serving couscous with my Indian curry or substituting tofu for paneer. Like the cooking of the Ferranistas, fusion is just not me. Filling burritos with teriyaki and calling them "wraps" is cultural imperialism in my world. But, then again, we all know I'm a snob.
I make an effort to learn the historical and sociological context of the food that I cook and eat. Just this morning, for example, I learned that the cherimoya that I bought at the Farmers Market from my friend Will Brokaw (my guava dealer) originated in Peru, so N is sharing half of it with a co-worker who hails from that country.
In fact, cooking is all about sharing. As I discovered when I traveled through Spain mostly by myself last summer, the main reason I travel is to learn new dishes. Every time I tasted something on that trip, I imagined how I would recreate it when I returned and share it with N and my friends who couldn't join me (beats slide shows). In fact, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to record those experiences in words and photos to enable me to faithfully reproduce the incredible food of Spain, such as the paella I sampled in Valencia or the romesco I had in Tarragona, when I returned. I truthfully never expected anyone but me to actually read it.
My grandfather was the same way with the piano. He would exactly reproduce every song he heard at a musical on Broadway for his friends as soon as he returned home without ever seeing the written music. He played by ear. I suppose I cook by my tongue.
What is one new recipe that you're scared to try?
I think my blog has made it clear that I am not afraid of my food. I am the first to admit, though, that I am not as confident with a rolling pin as I am with a sauce pan. Crusts make me cringe and meringues make me manic. As I've said before, I yield to no man or woman in my love for sweets, so I really ought to spend more time honing my baking skills. Therefore, if there were one recipe that I'm scared to try it would probably be something on David Lebowitz's website. Kouign Amann comes to mind. Not only am I frightened of the recipe's spelling and pronunciation, but the vast quantities of butter and sugar in that recipe make me want to put the numbers for a cardiologist and dentist on speed-dial.
I'm supposed to tag people to do this meme. Well, if you've read this far, consider yourself tagged. Or not. Your choice.