I read cookbooks the way most people read travel magazines, far more for the narrative than the recipes themselves. It’s a near addiction (thankfully, a harmless one) that I’ve had for years, since Aunt Florence gave me the 12-volume The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery in 1969. I’m fairly certain that the collection was one of those supermarket premiums we no longer see—a nominal price for each volume based on how much you spend on groceries. Rich with articles and essays by notables like James Beard, these volumes opened up a world of fascination for me; the stained, tattered pages—some complete with little doodles the children made—mark the “go-to” goodies I’ve made over and over again. While many of my cookbooks have come and gone—passed on to a family or friends or the library auction—these have remained a staple on my shelf.
Like any new cook, I started out following recipes in those volumes by the letter. Eventually, though, I took to experimenting, often substituting what I had on hand for a specified ingredient. Younger readers may not realize that the 24/7 supermarket is a relatively recent invention. If you ran out of or were lacking an ingredient 30 years ago, you were out of luck; you either had to substitute, leave it out entirely, or declare failure and move on*.
I love the German expression Übung macht den Meister… practice makes the master. Our equivalent is “practice makes perfect,” yet the difference is subtle but profound. As a nun for whom I had great affection told me years ago, “We can’t have perfection. Perfection is in heaven.” It’s not about perfection. It’s about the courage to try and to persist. Mastery in the kitchen, as in anything else, is the reward of practice and persistence; the more you do, the more confident and competent you’ll feel.
One day last week, I bought a lovely organic roasting chicken for dinner. A number of years ago, I saw Martha Stewart roast a chicken on a bed of onion halves. It’s a great trick that flavors the chicken nicely and produces a delicious au jus. Unwilling to give up my last local sweet onion, I retrieved from the fridge the last of the celery I’d prepped for Thanksgiving and covered the bottom of the roasting pan first with the celery, then with four or five rosemary stems from the garden. I placed the chicken on the bed, seasoned it with olive oil, coarse salt, and herbes de Provence, and into the oven it went, with a tray of similarly seasoned vegetables to roast beneath.**
Roasting vegetables,*** by the way, may be the greatest example ever of versatility with what you have on hand. Almost any combination works. We had Brussels sprouts, beets, sweet potatoes, a bit of that sweet onion, three baby turnips, and two small white potatoes—a lovely mix of the last of the harvest at the farm market. My daughter does the same with her garden bounty.
In the end, it’s all about having the chutzpah to go off-page, just as our mothers and grandmothers, and generations of cooks before them, did.
*Full disclosure: Baking is another story entirely —it’s chemistry and demands precision. While you can freely substitute the fruits in a pie, you can’t simply exchange butter for oil in a chocolate cake, or baking soda for baking powder, or all-purpose for cake flour.
**By the way, I don’t truss small chickens. Sometimes, however, I will stuff the cavity with sliced carrots, celery, and whatever suitable herbs I have (a trick I learned from Chef Carlo Middione in the early days of FoodTV), a whole lemon, or an onion, or both. This time I just left it open. One other thing: Save the carcass and any vegetables left in the pan for stock. If you don’t have time, toss everything, including some of the jellied pan drippings, into a bag or container and freeze for future use. Because it’s already been roasted, the stock will be much more flavorful than anything you can buy in a store. Plus, it’s free. Slow cookers are ideal for this purpose.
***Once, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, NC, I had macaroni and cheese infused with roasted vegetables—undoubtedly left over from the prior day’s special. I realize this sounds shocking to mac-and-cheese purists, but it was off the charts. I need to try it one of these days.