On a scorching hot day last week, I decided to make a cooling salad of roasted figs and onions with mint and green leaves, a recipe that caught my eye in the lovely new cookbook “Falastin” by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. After I started, I realized that I had only half as many fresh figs as I needed. I also didn’t have the radicchio or walnuts or goat’s cheese that the recipe stipulated.
In the past, I might have anxiously rushed to the store to get exactly the “right” ingredients. But this is 2020, and new rules apply. I doubled up on onions to make up for the missing figs, subbed in feta for the goat’s cheese, used lettuce instead of radicchio and toasted cashews in place of the walnuts. The rest of the recipe—the dressing, the cooking times—I followed to the letter. It may not have been quite what the authors intended, but I put a Post-it Note in my copy of “Falastin” saying that it was still one of the best salads I’ve made all summer.
When we finally resurface from this pandemic, one of the many things that will have changed is our relationship with recipes. Through necessity, we have been forced to become more experimental cooks and start talking back to our cookbooks. This is a good thing, if you ask me.
For years, many of us tortured ourselves with the idea that recipes were stone-carved commandments issued from on high by godlike chefs. But a recipe is more like a never-ending kitchen conversation between writer and cook than a one-way lecture. Recipes were originally designed to help people remember how to cook something rather than to give them exact blueprints. When something in a recipe doesn’t work for you, for whatever reason, you are free to say so and make it your own.
During our pre-Covid-19 lives of comparative freedom and abundance, many home cooks got in the habit of obediently following written recipes to the letter, even when they asked us to buy all kinds of fancy and very specific ingredients that might not be in season. Cooking from pantry stores during quarantine, we were forced to adapt in the kitchen and start thinking more flexibly. At the height of the panic buying, we became grateful to have any shape of pasta in the house and were in no position to follow a cookbook’s precise demand for fusilli if penne was all we had.