This book strives to unshackle me from my 1,000+ cookbooks.
I’m not someone who can cook on the fly. The romantic notion of being inspired with what’s in the market or lying around in the pantry and then transforming it into a pleasurable edible escapes me. I envy those people who “just whip something up” – but tell me, does that really exist?
Sally Schneider, the author of The Improvisational Cook, believes it does. In the Introduction, she states that improvisation is thrilling, freeing one from recipes and ingredient lists, and is “… the key to ease and pleasure in cooking.” She understands that people are daunted to cook without a recipe but sets forth an approach that “points a way in…” to what she calls a largely creative process. She believes that it’s simply a lack of understanding that stymies people from improvising, how ingredients interact to create flavor or how basic techniques create their magic, so to speak.
I’m still not convinced but Schneider’s writing approach is so personable that I read on. She further persuades by detailing how the creative mind works, explaining that it involves casting off control and letting an idea develop organically. Thus, she writes, “…start out with one thing in mind, [but] as you cook, the idea shifts until you find yourself on a different path than the one you started on.” She offers Strategies For Improvising: subbing one set of flavors for another, learning versatile preparations that can be used for many dishes, or even swapping out similar ingredients in a recipe.
For example, a fish sandwich is made up of several simple elements – crisp, panfried fish, bacon mayonnaise, and shallot toasts. Slow-roasted tomatoes morph into sauce, soup, tart, and jam. A macaroni and cheese can be dressed up into a gratin, a crusty noodle dish, and even a frittata. Each chapter offers several dishes that Schneider discourses on, explaining concepts and ideas behind the particular recipe – i.e. a basic soup-making formula: broth+vegetable+protein+flavoring element; the fat [you choose] alters the flavor, a typical Caesar sauce – by adjusting certain elements – becomes a warm garlic dip, a Caesar salad dressing, or a pasta sauce.
This doesn’t go to say that it’s going to be smooth sailing all the time. She addresses the possibilities of pitfalls in Accidents and the Unexpected but bolsters me up with Learning What Goes With What and using Long-Keeping Ingredients as Opportunity. I’m beginning to see that improvising may be a possibility for me.
This is a classy paperback book set in matte ink with simple but sufficient photos. The text is clean and streamlined, the writing unfussy and direct, the recipes doable and down to earth with no obscure ingredients. The Resources section at the back of the book lists some helpful classic flavor affinities, staple ingredients to have on hand, and a tidy essential equipment list.
I’m not sure I’ll chuck my cookbooks or make improvising a habit but with this book, I begin to believe that there’s hope for me yet when it comes to cooking without a book.
The Improvisational Cook
By Sally Schneider
Hardcover: 400 pages
William Morrow Cookbooks
Available at Fully Booked.