Art vs. science in the kitchen

To me, “recipe” means “suggestion.” If I run across a recipe somewhere that looks interesting, I will follow it — at least to a great extent — the first time I try it. If I decide to repeat it, I refer less and less to it each time. Soon enough, I begin making something of my own based on that original formula. At least as often, I look at recipes to get an idea of what ingredients go well together.

I think of my personal “recipes” as “the way I cook things.” That can vary a little from meal to meal. Besides those based on “suggestions” or observation, others have come about by my trying to recreate something similar to a dish I’ve had in a restaurant.

When I began cooking — and I cannot pinpoint a date — I relied on what I had observed others doing. Early on, I built meals around a pork chop or hamburger in the frying pan or chuck steak under the broiler. Primary seasonings were salt and pepper, plus Worcestershire sauce for pork chops. I generally followed the meat-vegetable-starch menu (usually potatoes for beef, rice for pork).

Later, when my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I replaced salt with a salt substitute I make from scratch — based on a “suggestion” I read in a newsletter. I found that Worcestershire sauce works on a lot more than pork chops. I learned about more and more spices and incorporated them into appropriate dishes.

Early on, I added meat loaf to my repertoire and it’s still a regular. Key ingredients are finely chopped green pepper and garlic, as well as ample tomato sauce.

Spaghetti sauce is something else I began developing a long time ago. Use ample Italian spices, preferably fresh, and cook — in an iron skillet — slowly for a couple of hours.

I’ve always really enjoyed fried chicken. As a young adult I started trying to prepare it and got pretty good at it. Later in life, to try to be a little healthier, I developed an alternative to frying. Now I brown the flour-coated pieces in the frying pan, then bake them. Over a bed of rice— even better. Best yet, add a sauce using the broth you can make by putting a little water in the frying pan, scraping and stirring.

I still, however, occasionally can’t resist the Friday fried chicken special at my local supermarket.

Over time I added roasts and whole birds, baked in the oven. You can bake other things along with them — definitely potatoes, onions and mushrooms and with pork, apples, sweet potatoes and celery. I’ve also thrown in squash, green peppers and even green beans. Baking fresh garlic cloves is always a delicious possibility.

I usually make (and enjoy) dressing with baked fowl. I don’t, however, stuff larger birds. I bake dressing inside Cornish hens, but alongside chickens and turkeys.

Since the early days, I’ve upgraded and expanded my choice of steaks. I’ve learned to make rubs from scratch by observation, including reading the ingredients on containers of prepared rubs, and relying on what I’ve learned about various spices. I concoct marinades based on what I know about which flavors go with what.

I’ve also tried my hand at fish. I often order fish in a restaurant, because it’s likely to be better than anything I can prepare. I look for what’s fresh and local. You can’t go wrong with the fish of the day at the beach. Or mountain trout in Asheville. A waiter there once told me that “trout is a battleground here.” Every restaurant tries to be the best at it.

I do a passable job on a few fish dishes. Two of mine I like best are sword fish steak (butter and rosemary are key) and a tilapia with a sauce made in the frying pan after the coated fillets are browned. I sauté onions, add lime juice and wine, then stir in butter. Yes, both of these are based on “suggestions” I saw somewhere. I also enjoy my catfish roasted with Cajun spices.

Dining in some fine restaurants helped me appreciate the value of sauces. In early years, I had used Campbell’s cream-of soups for easy sauces, but when I got more serious, I looked at basic sauce “suggestions” online and adapted. An appropriate sauce adds flavor and enjoyment to a lot of dishes and meals.

Another evolution for me has been moving from frozen to fresh vegetables. I began years ago regularly to use what’s in season at the farmers’ market. For those not in season, I grew less satisfied with frozen vegetables. Fresh produce in the grocery store is generally not as good as fresh from the farmers market, but almost always better than frozen. I’ve veered somewhat from meat-vegetable-starch but still aim for balance, as well as appeal.

So, for the how-to portion of this essay, if you have a cut or filet you want to prepare or some dish you want to try, do an on-line search. You’ll find many recipes. Choose one that looks doable for you and adapt. You can vary ingredients and amounts of ingredients to your own preferences. Or draw on ideas from two or more recipes to create your own dish. Garlic powder, oregano and minuscule doses of cumin can enhance almost anything.

While baking is a science, cooking is an art.

Several years ago, I was at fund-raising dinner for the North Carolina Symphony at A Southern Season, a wonderful gourmet store in Chapel Hill’s past. I was seated next to Michael Barefoot, who founded and at that time still owned A Southern Season. He asked me how I cook.

“I try to make dishes that taste, look and smell great and are healthy,” I said.

He replied, “You are our best kind of customer.”

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