Playing By The Rules Of The Kitchen

It's all in how you measure it.

Strike Up The Band


The precision of a marching duck.

Whose beat do you march to?

In my book there are two types of cooks. In the first camp are all those who follow a recipe down to the letter. They use every listed ingredient and measure each one out with the precision and accuracy of a military marching band performing for the top brass on the 4th of July.  These folks are far more likely to envision the big picture—a Marsha Stewart meal all decked out to perfection, down to the hand-made ceramic napkin rings, that were kiln-fired with a seasonally-appropriate glaze.


Slop On The Color


Cooking in the abstract.

Hmm…limited choices here…mostly gray.

In the second group are all those who see a recipe more as a rough guideline or a list of potential suggestions.  These folks are more like the abstract artist who stares at a paint-by-the-numbers canvas, picks up a brush and then decides on a whim what suits.  Oh, sure, as they look at a recipe it’s got to have some basic underlying appeal, but whatever that appeal is can shift like the winds around the campfire, meaning the only real goal is to avoid the smoke.  Yes, definitely two distinct approaches for cooking.


Yes, Sir.


If I had never cooked before and somebody asked me which group I planned on joining, I would have said, “Sign me up, Sergeant Major.  Give me a trombone.  I’m ready to enlist in the marching band.”  You see, in the day-to-day events of my life I tend to follow the rules. In fact, I’m pretty fond of rules.


Measuring butter.

I know enough to measure but it’s easier to guess.

The Dreaded Call


As a full-time programmer, I need rules to make computers do what they’re supposed to do (i.e. to run and not spit out garbage) and I know from experience that when I deviate from a prescribed path it can end up in disaster.  For me, the worst sort of disaster usually involves taking a phone call at home.  You know how it looks—I’m already exhausted from working all day so I’m lying around in pajamas.  On top of that, I’ve got my eyelids propped open with toothpicks so I can listen to hubby prattle on.  Okay, I actually enjoy talking with hubby, but the point’s the same—if I do my job and follow the rules at work like I’m supposed to, I won’t get interrupted at home.  My incentive has therefore been to pay close attention to all the notes, learn the drill, keep in step, and so on.  One might therefore conclude I am a natural fit for “recipe following” crowd, but that’s just not the case.



All It Takes Is One


All you need is one good recipe.

Mom was always looking for yet another cookbook and that perfect recipe.

No, when it comes to cooking I am definitely in the “it’s only a guideline” group.  And it’s not for a lack of an example, either.  My mom was a fantastic cook who bought cookbooks each and every chance she got. Her motto was, “If I get one good recipe from a cookbook then it was worth the price”.  Mom was a gem.  She followed those recipes to the letter and never worried how or whether it would all turn out.  You’d think I might have learned from her example and enthusiasm, but I’ve always thought of myself as a timid cook.  My stuff never comes out how I expect or looking picture perfect. But how could it, right?  I’m not following the directions.


Too Much For Me


I think one big reason I don’t follow the recipe is because I’m cheap. I hate paying lots of money for specialty ingredients, especially ones I won’t use up in preparing the meal or probably won’t ever use again.  Nor do I like paying more per ounce for a particular item than a whole meal should cost.  Take spices for example: I just can’t bring myself to buy certain ones which aren’t used very often, or where I’m only going to need to use 1/8 of a teaspoon in the recipe.  Unless it’s some spice like Cayenne pepper powder it darn well ought to require more than 1/8 of a teaspoon!


What’s Green And Spins?


Is it algae?  Spinach?  My mom looked at cooking differently. She would buy anything that the recipe called for no matter how much it cost or how little was needed. She would travel all over the city trying to find ingredients if it was necessary. I remember the year my uncle had a bumper crop of basil and they decided to make pesto. This was in the late 70’s so pesto wasn’t common yet. Now, you may know that besides basil you can also make pesto out of parsley, kale or anything else that is green and leafy.  In fact, I’m beginning to think pesto simply means something green whirled to oblivion (albeit with some garlic and olive oil tossed in).  At any rate, back in the day, pesto was the new “la-ti-dah” Haute couture of cooking, and unless you’d been living the life of a squirrel and already knew all about this, you got your very first look at one of it’s base ingredients—something equally exotic called pine nuts.


Nuts To You


A squirely little guy.

Got nuts?

I remember Mom drove all over Seattle in pursuit of the elusive little critters—that’s pine nuts, not squirrels.  I thought she was as nutty as they must surely be, and when she finally did locate some she paid a lot of money—in my book, they still cost a lot of money!  It didn’t bother, Mom, though.  If the recipe required pine nuts, the recipe got pine nuts. Me, if I don’t have a particular item in my cupboard right now, or if I don’t see it named in at least three recipes I expect to make in the near future, I’m not going to buy the thing.  Truthfully, this does limit my cooking choices at times, but at least I don’t have a spice cupboard that needs to be insured against the theft.


Room For Improvement


Measuring the oil.

No, this isn’t me.

Another reason I tend to be a guideline person goes back to that paint-by-the-numbers thing I mentioned earlier.  Now, I realize some people are good staying inside the line, but if I read recipe and go, “Oh, that sounds good, especially if I omit this or add that,” then I know I’m really onto something. In truth, it’s hard for me to read a recipe and think it is good enough in its original mode.  There’s usually at least one ingredient definitely lacking, or one which should not have been included to begin with.


Scars From My Past


Take green peppers as an example…please…take all you want!  Now, you may like green peppers, but once long ago when I attended college, the school cafeteria laced nearly every single menu item with them—breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It truly was 24/7 with green peppers. Surprise, surprise, I can no longer eat them.  Strangely, hubby had the very same experience at his college and that was halfway across the country.  I’m thinking there must have been a seriously large bumper crop of green peppers that year, but in no way, shape or form did that give those cooks the right to lace every one of their dishes with them.  Blah! I still start to get queasy just thinking about it.


Who You Gonna Call?


Stir frying some veggies.

With all this writing I’m getting hungry.

I suspect by now you blame my cheap and picky taste buds for my inability to follow recipes.  Or perhaps you’ve surmised it was my way to rebel against Mom, or a way to gain a sense of freedom from the stress and structure of my work.  No matter.  I’ve tried to follow recipes, but even with the best of intentions I’ll inevitably decrease the amount of salt, increase the amount of vanilla, add an onion, toss in a mushroom…well, you get the drift.  I don’t know—maybe I need to see a cooking shrink.  Anybody know a good one?  If they do send ’em my way.


Was It Or Wasn’t It?


Something's missing here.

Now, this has to be good, but I’m still out of thyme.

The other day I was watching the food network and there was a recipe for Braised Beef Brisket with mushrooms, onions and balsamic. It looked fantastic so I thought I’d give it a go. What I made was good, but it wasn’t at all like the recipe I had printed off the internet. For one, I couldn’t find brisket at the store so had to use chuck steak. Then I didn’t have the right kind of mushrooms.  I also omitted the bacon because I forgot to buy some.  Plus, I was off on my measurements:  I used quite a bit less onion, cut down the amount of balsamic vinegar and I reduced the amount of chicken stock.   Finally, I had no thyme and I was all out of time since I wanted to hit the gym.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  What came out was yummy, but I have no idea how it would have compared to the original.


It’s Time To Eat


I’m trying to be more relaxed about things these days.  My job is stressful enough for two or three people besides me so it’s nice to know there are no kitchen police ready to pounce if I want to try and be creative.  I guess in the end, I’m the only one who judges what I do. No doubt I will continue to cook this way—edible but not necessarily repeatable.  That’s okay.  I don’t expect to be writing a cookbook anytime soon.


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One Response to Playing By The Rules Of The Kitchen

  • Connie Nichols says:

    Carol! I was chuckling throughout! “Only a guideline” must be a Nichols /Austin family byword, since I hear it frequently! (I am the a follower of the ‘guideline’ school, whereas your uncle adheres to the ‘follow the recipe’ creed!

    GOOD essay! (submit it to a cooking magazine!)


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