|Backward Strategies for Recipe Development
COINCIDENTALLY, a day after I confessed — in my last column — my penchant for cooking off the cuff, I came upon a similar confession in an upcoming memoir by the Italian cookbook author and cooking teacher Marcella Hazan.
Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting her in person, I came to know Hazan well through the recipes in her first book, "The Classic Italian Cookbook." She taught me much about Italian cooking beyond what I had learned from my family. My well-worn copy — a sixth edition, published in 1978 — is living proof.
In her memoir (the title, according to the advanced uncorrected proof, will be "Amarcord: Marcella Remembers"), Hazan describes her approach to cooking as "spontaneous and intuitive." She continues, "Unless I was baking a cake, I never measured ahead of time, because it would have interfered with my instincts." I know exactly what she means. But, she had to make adaptations when writing her first cookbook. She goes on to explain how she learned to "work backwards." For instance, when making mayonnaise, she measured out the oil, using only the amount needed for the preferred consistency; then calculated the amount she used by what was left in the cup. This method may sound confusing to some, but to me it makes perfect sense, because I sometimes use this and other related "backwards" methods when trying to adapt my cooking to a written recipe. For instance, instead of using predetermining amounts when I'm trying to get a recipe down on paper, I sometimes chop or dice ingredients and mound them separately in bowls or on my cutting board. Then as I cook (all the while formulating the recipe in my mind), I measure out the amounts my instincts — and the appearance, consistency and taste of the recipe — dictate. I make a mental note, or more often these days a hand-written note, of the final measurement. It is hard work compared to "cooking off the cuff," but it's the way we manage to get our recipes correctly written and in print.
Reading Marcella's memoir made me hungry for her food. Leafing through the book stirred up all kinds of memories for me. The dog-eared page with the recipe for bagna caoda, the hot anchovy flavored dip for vegetables that I now serve every Christmas, the elegant recipe for vitello tonnato, cold sliced veal with tuna sauce, that wowed guests at a dinner party more than 30 years ago when we were living in our Brooklyn brownstone, and the insalata di tonno e fagioli, tuna and white bean salad, that to this day is still a summertime supper staple.
As I continued to flip the pages, I found a faded slip of yellow paper with the words frullati di frutta and a page number scribbled across the top. Ah, fresh fruit whips, the Italian version of a fruit smoothie. A refreshing nourishing libation I've been making for so many summers, I'd almost forgotten its source. It's so easy, it doesn't need a recipe. Just blend 1 cup fresh fruit, 2/3 cup milk, ¼ cup cracked ice and a dash of sugar in an electric blender for about a minute. To get it right you won't even need intuition and instinct, just juicy fresh fruit and a big thirst.