Good cooks (I’m not talking about chefs here; this is all about home cooking) fall into two categories. The first type is a genius for wading through a forest of recipes and selecting the most delectable. This GHC (Good Home Cook) can then prepare the recipe to the letter, so the end result lives up to, or exceeds, the intent of the recipe writer. They know what they want to make at any given moment, and can find the recipe to make that dish. These GHCs can put together a spread with perfectly balanced dishes, and demur modestly as the diners applaud enthusiastically.
I do not belong to this category.
Sure, I can read and execute a recipe. I’d better be able to; I edit cookbooks for a living. But I can’t resist tweaking. When I’m editing a cookbook, I stick exclusively to the author’s vision. But when I’m cooking for family and friends, all bets are off. That recipe for Sautéed Spinach with Shallots sounds yummy, but it would be amazing if I added a handful of toasted pine nuts. Apple Crisp? Fabulous! But let’s use pears instead, and add some shredded coconut to the topping. Even better! Few recipes are safe from my meddling.
This, of course, is why I don’t bake too often. Unless you’re a trained pastry chef – and I’m decidedly not that – it’s dangerous to stray too far from the road in baking. I stick to things like chocolate chip cookies. The batter remains the same, and I play around with the add-ins: chocolate of any type, dried fruit, nuts, coconut. Or focaccia, which we like to make for parties, and where it’s all about the toppings.
Most of the time I just gather whatever is in the pantry and fridge, and improvise. It helps to have certain techniques under your belt, of course. We have pasta so often my husband will start to beg for potatoes – and he loves pasta. But there are endless variations, and most of them really fast, so it’s a great meal for busy families with soccer practice six days a week (or maybe that’s just us. Band, anybody? T-ball?) Ditto for risotto. We break out the arborio rice often, sometimes as a side dish and sometimes as a main course.
My husband and son are both GHCs. Tom started out as a recipe guy, and has transitioned into a more experimental cook. My son skips recipes altogether and prefers to rely on taste and instinct. Which type of GHC are you? Are you happiest when your creativity is expressed in the choice of a perfect recipe? Or do you prefer to fly without a net, and risk falling?