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Cooking and an utter inability to follow directions

It’s probably no secret that I love food, cooking and eating probably as much as I love animals. I mean, I eat animals.  Not all every day, but reasonably frequently, although I do have long vegetarian spells here and there.  And like many people who enjoy food and cooking, I visit sites like Serious Eats, Urbanspoon and cooking blogs, as well as own a ton of cookbooks.  And most of my cookbooks never get used.


I’ve thought a bit about this the other day, and there are very good reasons for owning cookbooks that are not cooked from. Some are visually stunning with great writing and are enjoyable on their merit as books alone. Others are so regionally oriented that to cook from them out of context seems if not sacriligeous, then at least extremely unsuitable. For instance, I have several great Southern cookbooks, and all of them are so saturated with the soul and spirit of the south, the terroir if you will, that huddled in our cold Calgary winter it seems wrong and uncomfortable to hunt out of season ingredients like okra and grits. And say what you will, but a good crabboil can only be accomplished on the coast.  This happens with many California inspired cookbooks as well. Our farmers markets don’t get going until early June, and gallop through the seasonal offering SO fast, that you can’t keep up ‘seasonal’ cooking from places that have ummm seasons.  For some reason few ‘seasonally’ insprired cookbooks really delve into the bounty and beauty of beets, cabbage, turnips and potatoes, being much more likely to praise tender asparagus, ripe tomatoes, and perfect figs, none of which we are likely to see for more than about two weeks out of the year.



Then there are the cookbooks whose recipes simply don’t speak my language. I’ve heard amazing things about the Barefoot Contessa recipes, yet every time I pick up a cookbook of hers, I am uninspired to the max. Either the recipes seem way too simple and easy – a salad! with tomatoes! thanks! or they are just not a good fit for the day. Every day. I also find that the more information is given about the origin of a recipe beforehand, the more likely I am to want to make it. Which is why Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries is fantastic to read and browse through, he seduces the reader before they crack a spice jar. 


But every so often I look fretfully at my growing cookbook collection, and make resolute efforts to cook more from them. Or at least work my way through the piles of randomly bookmarked recipes all over my computers at home and work.  Which is where my inability to follow a recipe exactly comes in. I’m a fickle cook, and typically a cookbook has one chance to impress me.  I will typically choose a recipe based on a complex matrix of whether I can obtain the ingredients, how much I like the main elements, how unique it is, how much the author praised it, and whether I heard great things about it on a cooking forum. 


I know that to do a recipe justice, I should make it as written the first time, then tweak it to my preferences if I make it again. But for some reason I am constitutionally unable to do so. Most of my tweaks are minute – a bit more garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a hint of red wine, or a bit  less sugar. But sometimes I deviate from the recipe so much, I know that I was no more than ‘very loosely inspired’ by it. I don’t know why I can’t help myself. I actually have a pep talk with myself when I first make a recipe, and still I fail, as I see my hand reaching for something clearly not written anywhere. I need a supervisor. It’s not that I want to deny myself creativity in the kitchen, but it hardly seems fair to cook from books that writers have put great efforts into, and muck about right out of the gate. 


Next post I’ll tell you about three new recipes that I tried to make AS WRITTEN, and failed. Two were successes despite myself, and one – I should have smacked my hand harder.  Which brings me to you, dear reader? Do you follow recipes as written, or are you an improvisational maestro? Is it possible to subvert my tinkering nature and learn to give recipes a chance?


9 comments to Cooking and an utter inability to follow directions

  • I’m terrible at following recipes… my cookies come out notoriously flat.

  • When my first husband and I split up 14 years ago, I got custody of the cookbooks. I don’t think I’ve ever opened them. Ha!

  • […] Cooking and an utter inability to follow directions […]

  • […] Life in Cowtown » Cooking and an utter inability to follow directions […]

  • Most of my cookbooks never get used, but I keep buying them nonetheless – I use the internet a lot now as well. I also have a number of cookbooks which subscribe to seasonal cooking – it’s all very romantic in theory, but very difficult to (consistently) pull off. I come from a long line of ‘tweakers’ – whenever we pass on a recipe, it always comes with a number of ‘versions’!

  • admin

    @DirtyGirl – I hear you, although with baking I’m actually much more likely to follow recipes – I don’t have enough of an instinct to tinker.

    @Teena – too funny! Oh well, they’re there if you need them!

    @Jane – my collection keeps growing too. I have nothing against seasonal, but we get seasonal produce for about three months. The rest is roots and imports. Then reading recipes that extoll fresh peas and foraged mushrooms just seems cruel.

  • I just packed up and donated a ton of cookbooks. I’ve been hanging on to them for years, never once opening them up. I collected many cookbooks over the years for who knows what reason. But I’m an avid reader, so there could be several reasons for this. But I finally decided enough is enough. I need my shelf space for other books, so I got rid of recipe books that I know I’ll never use, and I only kept the ones that I do, albeit it only once in awhile. I suspect that I’ll end up picking up new ones over time, and end up right back where I started from 🙂

    When I do use a recipe from one of my books, I follow it completely, taste the results, wait for some feedback from the family, and then tweak the heck out of it to suit us. I don’t think there’s a single recipe I haven’t changed over the years.

  • admin

    @Martha – I know! Except for I start the tinkering right from the get go. I too should cull my cookbooks, but they’re like friends, some I don’t cook from but read and re-read once in a while. Aaah to be a bookworm.

  • I usually make something exactly as the recipe says the first time and then tweak it going forward.

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