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.