All the recipes...

All the recipes...

The difference between following a recipe or improvising on a recipe.


Dare I say it... all the recipes are the same. OK, maybe not all of them, but about 90%. Does this come as a surprise? You don't believe me? Well, let's have a closer look...

Recipes... we love them and we hate them. You probably love recipes for the inspiration and guidance they provide. I do! But many of us hate them too - for impractical advice or frustratingly hard-to-find ingredients they often call for - indeed following a recipe can be really stressful and time consuming, from choosing it, to shopping for it, to making it 'correctly'. No wonder 3-ingredient recipes are trending!

But it doesn't have to be that way, because... most recipes out there follow the same handful of patterns. A soup is a soup, a stew is a stew, and a stir fry is a stir fry: if you look closely you'll realise they follow the same pattern or template regardless the ingredients. Learning to recognise these patterns holds the key to easily adapting any recipe to fit your exact needs and likes, as well as the contents of your fridge. 

Cooking by pattern rather than recipe simplifies the process and makes it easy to adapt and substitute to your needs and preferences. The result may not be exactly the same, but then no meal cooked twice will ever be exactly the same. Cooking happens in the moment with 'live' ingredients, and just as today is not the same as tomorrow (and neither is your mood, your time, your attention, your cravings...), one tomato is not the same as another.

Back to the patterns, here are some examples:

Let's take pesto, the herby green sauce (almost) everybody loves. Search for 'pesto recipe' and you'll be faced with an overwhelming number of possible recipes (over 66 million!). From classic Ligurian pesto to French pistou, there is green, red and purple pesto, pesto with pine kernels, almonds or hazelnuts, with all kind of cheese or none at all, and you can make pesto with basil, coriander, wild garlic, tomatoes... and even carrot tops. Yet all of these versions follow the same pattern: it is simply a paste made with herbs/greens/veggies blended with olive oil plus added flavourings, be that garlic, nuts, cheese etc. You can eat any of these 'pestos' with pasta, obviously, but you can also eat with anything else: on toast, drizzled on soup, mixed into a salad dressing, on a piece of fish or meat, in a baked potato... or whatever you fancy really. Purists will argue that all these versions cannot be possibly called 'pesto' - and they have a point - yet all these recipes out there identify themselves as pesto... because everyone knows what that is: a delicious paste of this that or the other.

Or let's look at curries: They can be South Asian or East Asian or Caribbean, and they come in endless combinations of spices and ingredients, from aubergine to pork, and from to chickpeas to fish, and everything beyond and in between. Basically it's a richly aromatic sauce used as a base to cook other ingredients in. It's usually starts with softening an onion, then adding spices and a liquid, then adding the main ingredients, plus possibly extra flavourings or toppings. This is the pattern. Which spices and which ingredients is just a detail - and can be switched around as you please.

So next time you look at a recipe, do a quick G.T.T. - my method for deconstructing and simplifying recipes - any recipe! Look for the Gist, the Twist and the Turn to easily decode the recipe pattern and get improvising on it in no time.

  • The GIST is the overall pattern - what is similar to other meals/recipes you already know: is a soup, a stew, a curry or a sauce?
  • The TWIST is what makes the recipe unique - what is different or special about this recipe: the combination of ingredients or the method used.
  • The TURN is where you look for ways to turn the recipe on its head: what other uses or combinations can you think of, as related to your likes and needs (and your own food memories).

So why is this important? What difference does it make, following a recipe or improvising on a recipe?

Well, it's the difference between spending a lot of time just planning your meals (never mind the exacting shopping list), and getting frustrated and overwhelmed in the process, or having a rough idea (say, Friday is curry night) and then going with the flow when it comes to the actual cooking. Decide on a pattern (or template, if you like), then let your mood and your fridge contents decide on the result. It saves so much time and headspace, and it adds a touch of fun and lightness to your time in the kitchen. Sounds good?

Go on, give it a try! And let me know how you get on.


Categories: (RE)THINK

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