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August 14th, 2010:

Extending the deadline again; in praise of improvisation

I took a hard look at my remaining row of cookbooks and realized that there is no chance that I will cook something from all of them by the end of Labor Day weekend. And it wouldn’t be sensible anyway. It would be too much food for the two of us, and I am not inclined to host another party until the weather has cooled considerably. Also, a lot of the things I’d be making would not be seasonally appropriate.

And this is a season where it doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of the market bounty. With tomatoes, eggplant, corn and peaches abundant right now, it would be a crime not to load up and make as many fresh, simple dishes as I can.

Last Saturday I took a class from the Institute of Culinary Education called “Cooking in the Moment.” We met instructor Richard Ruben (author of The Farmer’s Market Cookbook) at the Union Square Greenmarket and spent a little over an hour going through the market shopping for fresh goodies. He showed us how to select ripe fruit, how to judge herbs, how to choose a watermelon, and how to think about combining ingredients. Corn, tomatoes, peaches, plums, scallops, lemon cucumber, sorrel, hot peppers, yellow watermelon, husk tomatoes, baby eggplant, okra, a smoked duck, raspberries, red carrots, and far more went into our bags. Then we went to the Institute and decided as a group what to make with our haul.

With Richard’s guidance we chopped onions, minced peppers, sliced beets and radishes on a mandoline, shredded sorrel, and stirred together batters. The result was a fabulous menu: duck fritters, apricot chutney, scallops wrapped in shiso leaves and grilled, watermelon-habanero relish, okra and eggplant saute with cherry tomatoes, corn salad, green beans, sauteed radishes, pattypan squash with cheese, and a “high-end cobbler” of peaches and plums topped with a simple cake batter, served with a white chocolate topping. Richard also surprised us with a limeade that started with corncobs boiled in water with enough sugar to balance the lime juice. We didn’t come away with recipes, but rather with an understanding of how to shop for good food, what kinds of flavors work well together, and how to use a creative eye when judging what’s in season.

And that’s the way I like to cook, really. I like to improvise, to play. I like to tweak the ingredients to come up with new combinations or take advantage of what’s available. The best cookbook recipes help make this possible, but there are so many recipes out there that just instruct without informing. Good recipes help you learn how to do it yourself; bad ones just expect you to follow orders. I’m too ornery to do that very often. I may do it the first time I’m trying a recipe, especially if it calls for ingredients, techniques or equipment I’m not familiar with. But once I know how the food or the equipment performs, once I know what happens when I’ve followed the steps, I like to take a freer hand.

We just bought an ice cream maker. (It was discounted on Amazon; I practically had to do it.) So today we went to the neighborhood Greenmarket and got peaches, and later today we will make peach ice cream. I’ll also make the custard base for vanilla ice cream and let it chill overnight, then finish and churn it tomorrow. And from those two recipes I expect to learn how the machine functions and how the different ingredients work together. Having mastered that, I plan to play with ingredients and flavor combinations. I’ll keep looking for recipes but I will not assume that if I don’t have a recipe I can’t figure it out for myself.

So I’m going to keep playing, and I will also work in the remaining cookbooks on a more gradual basis. I will learn from them what I can, but will not let myself feel limited by them. And from time to time I’ll post about the non-cookbook-collection cooking I do, especially if I learn something from it.

I’d also love to hear about your adventures in cooking, so please feel free to chime in with comments.