Several years ago I went through a phase where I obsessively borrowed cookbooks from the library. I poured over them never to ever attempt to follow them. I couldn’t follow them. I was trying to eat seasonally with food from local farms, and I avoid white flour and sugar. Very, very few cookbook recipes met those limits, yet still I read them. I learned to use the books as inspiration. I learned about spice combinations and cooking methods. The internet provides a seemingly unending variation on any imaginable recipe or idea, so borrowing cookbooks from the library seems a little strange now, yet I’ve been thinking about doing it again, just for inspiration and to get back into the creative explorative aspect of cooking.
It was because I was thinking about cookbooks that I said yes, when I was asked a few days ago, if I would review the book Cooking Without Measuring: Taste and Approximate Yourself To a Great Dish by Rachel Wizenfeld. I was sent an ecopy of the book and read through it quickly. It isn’t very long – more a booklet than a book. The premise is that measuring exact amounts is more work (more dishes, more time consuming) than learning to cook on a more instinctual level. She includes approximately twenty very flexible recipes with variations and some hints for how to estimate common amounts. The idea of estimating amounts of dry goods by the space in the hand or the number of shakes of a spice canister is normal to me but the thought of measuring liquids by the time pouring is new to me.
Reviewing a cookbook with recipes but no measurements poses an interesting dilemna. If the cookbook had specific measurements then I could attempt a few recipes to test whether the proportions suggested produce the desired result. On the other hand, if I am reviewing a book that relies on my own guesses as to amounts, then the results will be a statement of my own skill at guessing. Unless the books instructions and recipes are supposed to be completely fool proof, where it doesn’t matter if I add half a cup or a cup of breadcrumbs to the Black Bean Burgers.
I tried the Black Bean Burger recipe. It definately matters how much you mash the black beans, how soft they are and how much breadcrumbs you add. I could not get them to stay together at all, so I gave up and threw the whole mess into the frying pan and just mixed it as a hash. It tasted delicious, but it definately didn’t make the burgers I was trying for.
I tried the macaroni and cheese recipe and it passed the most difficult test of any recipe that enters our house: the children didn’t just tolerate it, they liked it. They said I could make it that way again, and I probably will because doing so was easier than the cheese-flavoured white sauce I’ve been using for mac and cheese.
My understanding is that Ms. Wizenfeld also has a baking book, but that it relies a little too strongly on sugar and white flour for me to try reviewing. That’s okay, and I will say that even in the cooking book, Ms. Wizenfeld keeps repeating the caution that baking is picky and you have to be careful with it. I’m not sure I would agree with her on that. My children and I have been baking things the past few year without either recipes or measurements. We made a date-sweetened chocolate and black bean cake this morning just mixing our best guesses in the blender and then baking it. It turned out fine.
But it comes down to this. Do you cook without measurements because you have the skill to to recognize what needs to be done to make the food turn out the way you want, or do you cook without measurements because the recipes are failproof and the variation in the results don’t matter? I think the introduction and discussion of Ms. Wizenfeld’s books are directed towards learning to have the skill to recognize when you need to add more or less of an ingredient, though the flexible recipes are in some ways more directed to the latter. Pictures would have been a plus but Ms. Wizenfeld did a pretty decent job with descriptions.
One of the best things about Ms. Wizenfeld’s book is its friendliness. The author is incredibly encouraging, upbeat and just generally sounding as though she wrote it as a letter to a friend.
I’m adding an affiliate link to Amazon. If you click through here to buy the book I get a tiny, tiny percentage reward (in the pennies or less level, I think). I’m still a little uncomfortable with the idea of affiliate links but it dawned on me that I end up directing people to Amazon anyway, why not sign up for the affiliate program?