107 Cookbooks Rotating Header Image

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.


  1. Jamie Konegni says:

    Hey Amy –
    Laura and I received an ice-cream maker for our wedding and tried very hard to use it. We really like ice cream and cooking, so we figured this would be one of those appliances that we actually used. However, the ice cream we would make would be pretty darn good out of the ice cream maker, but then would turn into a big block of very hard ice the next day.
    I decided I needed to try a few different recipes and then found a custard recipe online that got me close to the consistency that we find at ice cream shops and in store bought. But then I bought Laura the Ad-Hoc at Home cookbook, by Thomas Keller and tried homemade chocolate ice cream a couple of months ago – it was amazing. I’ve made a few other batches and just finished up a Colorado Peach batch – I’m interested to hear how you made your peach ice cream. Did you puree and then reduce? Was the peach mixture added in at the very end while the custard was cooling? I like the result, the consistency is great, but I’m a little disappointed in the peachiness. Colorado peaches are amazing and in their prime right now, but it’s not that peach punch that I really wanted. I put in 3 cups of peach puree and reduced it on the stove for about 25 minutes per the recipe…perhaps I should have reduced longer since it only called for 2 1/3 cup of puree.
    Anyway, much longer commment than I’m sure you asked for, but really wish we could trade ice-creams easily.

  2. The peach ice cream was a simple Philadelphia-style mixture with no eggs; just milk, cream, peaches, sugar and vanilla. I was afraid it might get too hard in the freezer but our freezer is kind of weak, which may have been a factor. The peach flavor was good but could have been stronger, though that may just mean I needed to mash the fruit more instead of letting it stay chunky.

    We also made a vanilla with a cooked custard base, which was extremely good. And yesterday I made a peach sorbet, which had a very strong and clear peach flavor. That was basically a sugar-water mixture cooked and cooled, then pureed peaches and some lemon juice. You couldn’t really taste the lemon juice; I think it was to help keep the sugar from being overpoweringly sweet.

    One of the recent issues of Ready Made has some ice cream recipes with unusual spice flavors, so I may have to look in that direction soon. All the recipes we’ve made have been from the machine’s booklet, so I need to turn to the cookbooks now to see what I can try next.

    It is too bad we can’t trade ice creams. Probably isn’t practical to pack it in dry ice and send it overnight (certainly wouldn’t be cost-efficient).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.