One of the first hallmarks I notice in a good cook is not the taste of the dish, the complexity, or the oddity of ingredients. It’s in the HOW. And a big part of that is how the cook uses recipes.
When I first started cooking, I learned from my mother and grandmother. Both are fantastic Old South cooks who mostly make everything “from scratch” and without a recipe. In fact, both of their best dishes are ones for which they’ve never even seen recipes. The balance has to be taught and made to taste and feel. This means dozens of attempts, occasional failures, and art have all occurred.
Don’t get me wrong, they used recipes occasionally. Certain desserts or rare treats had recipes carefully copied onto index cards and filed in a little box. I plan to one day take a scanner to that box and have a treasure trove of favorites from which to draw.
So how does that look in the 21st Century? My cooking style, though Old South influenced, takes on many more modern twists and turns, most of which land me squarely in Asia. But I still love to pay homage to the recipe-free history from whence I come.
First, I actually use more recipes, instead of fewer. But the way I use them is more loose, more inspirational. I can type in “buttermilk biscuit recipe” and Google will give me nearly 300,000 options. I would then gather what the typical cooking temperatures, methods, and ingredients are and design my own biscuit from that information.
Here’s a semi-regular example of my cooking process from last week:
First, I did research. I’ve never cooked wings before, so I collected a few options. David near about begged for the Thai, so I then narrowed my search and selected the top five Google results for Thai hot wing recipes. I then took some notes:
Sweetness (honey, brown sugar)
saltiness (soy, fish sauce)
tartness (lime juice)
garlic, onions, cilantro
bake 400, skillet to thicken sauce
fry, make sauce, coat
I then chose the ingredients I had on hand, and decided to develop my own recipe based off of these elements and blended it to suit our particular tastes. I dipped mine in Ranch dressing.
Soy sauce, ginger brine (leftover from sushi ginger--I keep it on hand for Thai cooking)
Lemon zest and juice
Red pepper flakes
Fresh garlic, green onions, and cilantro
Peanut butter, coconut milk
Masti chutney (more garlic, onion, and cilantro, but in a puree)
I marinated it, baked it, then used cornstarch and a saucepan to thicken the sauce. I always make Thai and really any curry to taste (this is the secret of Thai—make it sweet, tart, spicy, creamy, and flavorful in a way that makes your taste buds beg for more).
So, now that I’ve finished, I’ll share what I learned.
1. This recipe was not spicy unless you bit straight into the pepper flakes. If you want spicy, you’ll have to use ground peppers or cayenne.
2. They were delicious! Sweet, salty, flavorful, what have you...
3. Wings are pointless. David loved the sauce/marinade and didn’t like the meat, and though I enjoyed them, I tend to agree. Making this with quarters, breasts, or drumsticks would be so much better than wasting time on silly wings. All fat and bone, no meat…nah, we can do better.
4. I think grilling would be better than baking them. They did great baked, but everything tastes better from a grill.
So…recipe, great. Premise, not so great. You live and learn…and eat tasty Thai chicken.