I HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT I LEARNED TO COOK OUT OF JEALOUSY.
As a young woman in my 20s, I could throw together a few of my grandmother’s signature dishes, and I could prepare a mean green salad, which I served with hunks of French bread from the bakery down the street. The tables turned, however, when I started dating a particular someone, whom I will call “Jim.”
Jim was one of those guys who spent a good deal of time reminiscing about his last girlfriend, but not for her beauty, brains, or bubbly personality. He was obsessed with her cooking. She came from a big, Italian family that operated a popular restaurant in town, so it’s not surprising that she won him over with her culinary skills.
What Jim didn’t know about me at the time is that I have a competitive streak. With every mention of her mouthwatering manicotti, lasagna, or chicken tetrazzini, I resolved to shut Jim up with delicious dishes of my own.
I began collecting cookbooks and subscribed to magazines like Food and Wine and Cooking Light. I hunted for recipes that sounded delicious and followed them to the letter. As time passed, the number of dishes I could make by memory grew, and I started tweaking them by adding or substituting ingredients.
Eventually, I did what most people do when they’re feeling pretty confident in the kitchen. I went rogue and whipped up a pot of homemade soup without any instructions.
Now, I rarely use a recipe, but when I do, I always put my own spin on it. Oftentimes, an idea for a dish just pops into my head. Other times, I’m inspired by food someone else has made. I approach each new dish like an experiment. When it isn’t successful, I (usually) keep trying until it is, and my husband knows I don’t stop there. Even if I’ve cooked a meal a hundred times, I want this iteration to be better than the last. The words, “That’s the best lasagna (or chicken or pizza) that you’ve ever made,” still make my heart skip a beat.
I guess you could say that, these days, I’m competing with myself.
I believe the most important benefit of recipe-free cooking is added enjoyment. In creating dishes on my own, I’m less focused on a recipe and more aware of the little things that make cooking fun — the scent of my fingers after hand-crushing dried rosemary or the sound of minced garlic popping in the pan.
Famous French chef, Jacques Pepin, believes that instead of following recipes to the letter, cooks create better dishes when they understand the “idea” behind a recipe and use it as a starting point for their own unique creations.
So, if you need permission, there you have it.