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Challenge: A Week Without Recipes

Most home cooks consult recipes at least some of the time, whether for inspiration or instruction. Others seem to be able to look at the ingredients in their pantries and conjure a delicious and innovative meal without so much as cracking a cookbook.I fit squarely within the former category. Other ...

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Are all these cookbooks a help or a hindrance? Photograph by Lisa Bramen


Most home cooks consult recipes at least some of the time, whether for inspiration or instruction. Others seem to be able to look at the ingredients in their pantries and conjure a delicious and innovative meal without so much as cracking a cookbook.

I fit squarely within the former category. Other than a handful of simple dishes that I have learned how to make by memory, I almost always look to recipes both for ideas of what to cook and for an explanation of how to prepare it. Part of the reason is that I am relatively new to cooking: until a few years ago I usually lived alone, so it rarely seemed worthwhile to make anything more complicated than some pasta, a salad or a stir-fry. I consider my collection of cookbooks (and great online resources, like Epicurious, Chow and myrecipes) a low-budget cooking school.

But a few months ago I moved to a house in the country, where the supermarket is a 25-minute drive away. This means I can go shopping only once a week, so I have to plan out the menu in advance—a time-consuming task since I seem to feel compelled to look at 1,000 recipes to come up with the five or six I want to make that week. It also means I can't be spontaneous. I get frustrated when my partner decides he wants to go out for a beer and wings on a Sunday, when I have planned to make a soup that would take too long to make on a weeknight, and which I had intended to take leftovers of for lunches during the work week.

Even though I am trying new recipes all the time, I feel like I'm in a rut, overly reliant on recipes. I'm a creative person in other areas of my life; why don't I trust myself to be creative in the kitchen?

I wasn't always so timid about striking out on my own in the kitchen. I remember rifling through the cupboards as a child, taste-testing—apple cider vinegar and unsweetened chocolate were shocking disappointments—and occasionally concocting recipes from them. OK, chocolate "mousse"—made from Cool Whip and Nestle Quik chocolate powder (before it became Nesquik)—may not have been haute cuisine, but the peanut butter muffins I devised from various ingredients I had seen my mother use came out surprisingly muffin-like, considering I had no idea how much of each ingredient to use. Surely, with a little more experience under my belt, I could improve on these early experiments.

Therefore, I have challenged myself to forgo recipes for a week, with the goal of being more creative, more spontaneous and free from hours of planning. I went to the market Friday without a list, which was liberating in itself. I'm hoping I bought the right amount of food, since I spent $20-40 less than usual. I'll report back on Friday about how it went.

Does anyone have suggestions for how I should proceed?

UPDATE: The Results
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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