A different approach to cooking.

Rob and I have had a number of wine-fueled, dinner-table conversations in recent weeks about our personal approach to cooking, and whether it might be a model, in some small way, for a different way to prepare food. It’s not revolutionary. It’s probably not original (columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman wrote of a similar approach recently in the NYTimes Magazine). In fact, it’s likely a reflection of the way that most veteran home cooks work in the kitchen. It’s certainly the way that my brotherthechef, Bill, does it.

We’ve taken to calling this culinary philosophy Modular Cooking. Here’s the gist: The easiest way to prepare food isn’t by following a recipe. It’s by learning some basic techniques and then applying those techniques to whatever ingredients you have on hand.

An example: You already know how to cook pasta. You have a couple of zucchini, some garlic, an onion and a bell pepper in the crisper drawer. What’s for dinner? Pasta with sautéed vegetables, Parmesan and a spritz of lemon juice. You don’t need a recipe for this. You need two techniques: making pasta perfectly al dente, and sautéing vegetables. In this method of cooking, measurements and quantities don’t matter. You work with whatever you have on hand, or whatever suits your taste. Nor are you locked into the dictates of a recipe; you can swap ingredients freely, exchanging one herb for another, adding ingredients or omitting others because you love basil and hate cilantro.

This Modular Cooking approach could apply to any number of kitchen standards: roasting a chicken, for example; marinating and grilling meat; making pizza or frittata with an endless number of variations; making pasta or risotto or whatever. In fact, I posted a hearty lunchtime salad recipe recently that’s the perfect example of Modular Cooking—it starts with a base of bulgur and lentils and a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. I suggested a number of vegetable/herb/cheese/etc. combinations that can take this salad from Mexico to Greece and beyond.

This approach to cooking is screw-up-proof. It’s flexible. It’s easy and fast. It’s family-friendly. We’re going to be exploring this idea in the coming months, posting additional thoughts about Modular Cooking and sharing (un)recipes to inspire you.

What do you think about this approach? Do you ever wing it in the kitchen, riffing on whatever you have to work with and relying on basic techniques? Are you comfortable with that? Or do you prefer to cook from a proven recipe? I’d love your comments.

9 thoughts on “A different approach to cooking.

  1. This is totally how I cook–and now I have a name for it. I’ve always disliked following recipes which is why I enjoy cooking and hate baking. When I do look at reciped in books or online, I generally look at several for the same type of dish, and I’m really just getting a feel for techniques and cooking times, then I go for it on my own.

    Really enjoying your blog 🙂

  2. If you don’t own it already, check out The Flavor Bible, a reference guide of companionable flavors and textures. To use it, you would look up “rice,” and, in addition to a long list of complementary ingredients, you’ll find a suggestion that risotto + pancetta + Parm + pumpkin work well together. And risotto + pears + Gorgonzola. No recipes – just flavor affinities.

    I love cookbooks with all my heart, but if I were never allowed to buy another, I’d still be content because of that book.

    As for being a modulartarian, you bet. That’s the joy and allure of cooking – discovery and creativity (and the occasional comical disaster that over-ambition coupled with lack of planning create. Not that I’ve ever done that. Nooo.)

  3. Karen, thanks for the recommendation — that sounds like exactly what I need. Like you and Alice, I use cookbooks and cooking magazines more for inspiration than for instruction. I get ideas, and I can double-check cooking temps and times, that kind of thing.

    This approach to cooking syncs up with farmers’ markets, too — you can shop based on what’s available that day, or what looks tastiest, and then cook whatever you bring home. Example: Last weekend, I knew I wanted a side dish to go with some grilled scallops. Found some gorgeous sugar snap peas — voila! Sauteed in butter, spritz of lemon juice, sprinkle of toasted almonds.

  4. Bryn you are such an inspiration to me…seriously! I have never been a cook and when I have it’s usually been from boxes. I know, I know…I am very embarrassed, but I have decided to turn a new leaf!!! Not only is cooking usually actual ingredients taste so much better, but it’s HEALTHIER!!! I am going to try your hearty lunchtime salad as soon as I can find bulgar in this city????

    Love, love, love your blog!!!

  5. Hey, Heather — you should never feel embarrassed about your cooking; heck, getting food on the table for your family is accomplishment enough regardless of how you do it! I’d love to hear more about what new things you’re trying and how it’s going! And you can probably find bulgur in E’ville either in the aisle with rice, or the bulk foods section. Good luck!

  6. Love this approach–and love that you’ve given it a name! And, Heather, don’t be embarrassed–as Bryn said, just getting food on the table is an accomplishment. Plus, that salad you whipped up for your lunch today sounded mighty tasty! 🙂

  7. What a great (and logical) take to cooking! I do the exact same, only sans crafty, writer-inspired label (naturally). My many years of watching cooking shows, reading cookbooks and just plain noticing all there is that makes food so great, have been mighty helpful when trying to throw a meal together—no matter the ingredients available! The economy (not to mention weather) can be a powerful motivator when trying to cobbe together random pantry items into something yummy. I won’t lie…. sometimes my experiments fall short, but its all a learning experience, right?!

    I think this way of addressing ingredients/components could also be something of a phonetic approach. Along with cooking, words and language are another love of mine… this way of thinking reminded me of Latin roots… but that’s just me. 😉

    As all others have said, I’d like to also chime in with my hearty agreement: love, love, love the blog! It is so great to read and learn from a kindred spirit and friend. Well done, Bryn. Well done.

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