Focus And Trust

“I want to get better at cooking without recipes.”


It was something that a friend of mine said to me in the middle of a conversation. We had been talking about cookbooks, recipes and whatnot. And in the instant that he said that, it donned on me that I really do depend a lot on recipes.

For the past few years, when it comes to holiday meals, I am usually the one who does most of the cooking. It gives my mom a break, and it gives me something to do while I am visiting. It also keeps me a little more centred, as well as grateful for what I am celebrating.  These recipes are now becoming part of our family’s holiday repertoire – even though their origins can be found in the pages of magazines.  We eat well, and everyone enjoys it.

But in the hubbub of making sure the turkey skin doesn’t burn (it almost did), that the squash will be cooked at the right time (“Remember to put the timer on,” someone said, somewhere), and ensuring that someone remembered to make cranberry sauce (Mom, did two days ago), something gets forgotten. Or mismanaged.

But it’s not the fault of the recipe, it’s mine.

Because I wasn’t paying attention.

Yes, I paid attention to timers, and temperatures, and the sourcing of ingredients.  And yes, I paid close attention to the recipe, and knew it well enough to be able to surmise what I could omit or increase if I wanted to, and fine tune it.  I’ve written about this process before. But I’m still following a recipe. I’m following directions, hopeful and trusting that if I do everything the recipes says, if I do forget something all will turn out well.

And maybe it will. But I won’t learn anything.

Hence, why that comment stuck with me.

If I think to how many dishes I can make without a recipe (or perhaps, have the recipe memorized), they would fit on one hand. Dishes that I really wouldn’t need to go and check a quantity, or an amount of cooking time.  There is the granola I eat almost every weekday for breakfast. A fresh batch is made usually every two weeks and it’s quite simple.

4 cups oats, 1 cup oat bran, 1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut, 1/4 cup grape seed oil, 1/2 cup dark maple syrup. Cinnamon. Allspice. Nutmeg.

Bake for ten minutes.  Stir.  Bake for ten more.  Allow to cool.  Add dried fruit.

There are times I will add more oil, or less syrup,  Sometimes I add a little honey, or different spices. Sometimes the heat is higher because I misread the dial.  But I know what the granola mixture should look like, and smell like. And what it shouldn’t look or smell like. But the amount of dishes I can make in that fashion are few and far between.

More and more of us are buying cookbooks. There are books for all kinds of food fans – from 10 minute recipes to nose to tail tomes. Occasionally they contain good advice: taste your food as you cook it.  Learn how to season properly.  Know what it should look like at all the steps in the process.  Pay attention.

Ah, that last one.

I swear, it’s always in the back of my mind. Occasionally, it pops up in my thought processes, most often when I am doing what it asks of me. But it pops up unannounced and unsolicited.  When I am making bread and notice that the dough is stickier than usual, or that it hasn’t raised as much as I would like it to, that’s paying attention.  I know that it needs more of this, or less of this, and that Situation A will lead to Situation C, rather than Situation B if I don’t pay attention.

I admit, I’ll probably never let go completely of the recipes and the books that contain them. They are rather dear to me, a whole bunch of possibilities sitting on my kitchen shelf.

Yesterday I decided to make a chicken pot pie for New Year’s Eve. I know how to cook the chicken, cut the vegetables.  I know how to roll out the pastry.  And I’m only going to look at the recipe once. I am going to trust my senses.  I’ve already cooked the chicken. I trusted that the trick my mom taught me about using salted onions (an old Acadian family secret) will yield a much more flavourful stock.  The last time I made this recipe, I found the gravy a bit too thick, so this time, less flour in my roux. I also want to toast the roux a little more, since I want to develop flavour. These aren’t things that the recipe tell me to do.  They are things I notice, things I see, and things I remember.  Things that you recognise when you pay attention.

Hopefully someday soon, I can make this pot pie without thinking about it too much. Because I’ll have paid attention to all the other times I’ve made it. Sure, I’ll probably have to double check the amount of lard and/or butter in the dough, but I can live with that. I won’t need the recipe to tell me how the dish should taste.  And that it will taste good.