A Recipe for a Recipe
February 21st, 2012 - By Lari Robling
Nathalie Dupree is one of my go-to cookbook authors. She's written eleven cookbooks, hosted three hundred television shows and I can't wait to see her forthcoming book, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" in the Fall.
Recently, though, it was a Facebook post about a simple meal she had thrown together that caught my eye. In a few short sentences she described sautéing some garlic and spinach in a bit of butter, just pushing it to the side of the pan and frying up a couple of sunny side eggs. A few ladles of leftover bolognese sauce, toast. "We lapped it up," she wrote.
I loved the post and it made me feel as if I were in the kitchen with her, rooting through the refrigerator for that left-over sauce. She also noted it would never be a written recipe.
What, I thought, had I just read? Sure, there were no quantities, no doneness descriptions, or elaborate notes as to when to start toasting the bread. It did the job, though, just as much as any formulaic recipe would have. In some ways it was more — simple prose making me hungry for tomatoes and eggs.
How did we get to this state that we feel we need a recipe to be so scientific, so precise, so replicable that we can't simply "tell" a dish just as we would sitting across the table from a friend? Elizabeth David was perhaps the last great food writer to make recipes a joy to read as well as prepare. While there is a place for technique, I wonder where we lost the confidence as cooks to also use a recipe as a pleasure-able jumping off point rather than an imperative?
"When the tomatoes are soft, break in the eggs, whole, and cover the pan until they are cooked," says David in her recipe for "Eggs Cooked with Tomatoes and Peppers." "Cooked" can be anything from poached to hard boiled. You don't need to know how many minutes to simmer it – your flame may be slightly different from mine anyway. You just cook it.
In his book, "The Table Comes First," Adam Gopnik relates his favorite dishes much like David in imaginary letters to Elizabeth Pennell, a food writer dining at the turn of the 19th century. Follow the thought and feed the intellect, but follow the recipe and feed body and soul. A trend in food writing that I hope is making a comeback.
But back to Nathalie Dupree making me hungry for tomatoes and eggs. Here's what I did with what I had on hand.
Pour one can of diced tomatoes and green chiles into a sauce pan. (There are several brands around and some are higher in sodium than others so take that into account when purchasing but always have a can or two on the shelf.) When it's simmering carefully crack your eggs into the pan, keeping them whole. When they are cooked the way you like them, spoon them into a bowl with some of the sauce. I like to drizzle a bit of good extra virgin olive oil and serve with whole wheat pita wedges.