Record those recipes, but no carving in stone

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 08:48 PM

I want to emphasize, at the outset, that no one has ever told me I should write a cook-book. 

People have asked me for recipes, though, and that is where I get into trouble, because I don’t work from or towards recipes.  If I open a cookbook, I use the formula more as a “suggestion” than as a mapped-out procedure.  I often add or subtract, based upon what I have at hand.  Things usually work out.

I am a knitter and I work with patterns the same way.  Typically I see a pattern I like and go to my stash of yarns to find something that might work.  Since my yarns are handspun, they don’t fit neatly into categories.  I must adjust needle size or stitch count, and I rarely knit the “test swatch” that is always recommended. 

Most of my projects are hats and scarves—things that don’t require much attention to fit.  But I am now working on a sweater for my daughter and, typically, I’ve improvised things.  I held my breath last night as I wrapped the yet un-joined pieces around her to try out the fit.  As with the recipes, things usually work out.

One of my favorite cookbooks came from a woman who deemed herself, “a far-from-enthusiastic and qualified cook,” and describes herself as someone who “spends as little time as possible at the stove and in the kitchen, who resorts to few recipes or cookbooks, who throws odds and ends together for a fast meal, and who uses the simplest of ingredients and procedures.”

Among the categories of “those who are good cooks and those who wish they were good cooks,” Helen Nearing ("Simple Food For The Good Life") posits a third category, “those who are not good cooks and who couldn’t care less.”  “I am happily one of those,” she says. 

She could be talking about me, except that I’ve changed a lot over the past two years since I’ve reformed the way I eat.  I’ve gone from caring little to experimenting a lot, and I am having more fun with food than ever.  Most meals feel more like play time than work time, though cleaning up still falls into the latter category.

Despite dismissing herself as a cook, Helen Nearing went on to research the entire genre of cookbooks and to write her own tome with an emphasis on whole (unprocessed) foods and simple concoctions.  Her recipes do not include meat or seafood, but rely on a hefty amount of dairy (especially butter) which we no longer use.  So, as with most recipes, I improvise.

 Nearing describes her style as “rough and ready,” and “spur-of-the-moment… I like to have a dearth of materials out of which to make things. It fosters more ingenuity.”   She says that every recipe should fit on the front of a 3 x 5 card, and while her formulas all list amounts (cups of this and tablespoons of that), I imagine that she had to work hard to come up with those numbers, translating things like “dollops and pinches” into something others could replicate.

I find myself doing the same translations since I changed my food lifestyle.  I’ve come up with some great meals but rarely measure a thing.  One morning I concocted a non-dairy French toast that everyone swore far surpassed the traditional egg-and-milk version. 

But I had thrown it together, measuring nothing and not remembering the ingredients beyond a smashed up banana and coconut milk.  I saw a contest for breakfast recipes and thought I might enter, but I’ve never been able to make the meal quite as good.  Later I discovered similar recipes in two different vegan cookbooks.  When we play with our food, I suppose we stumble onto similar results.

I am thankful for recipes and patterns.  They get me started with exciting ideas, and they guide me through some tough times when I can’t figure things out on my own.  I save them in my computer files and write them on 3 x 5 cards.  Just don’t expect me to carve them in stone.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.