No-recipe recipes may sound like a fun idea for busy people who have no time to follow convoluted recipes and the no-recipe recipe trend being promoted by the New York Times seems to be a popular one. Fun as they might be, no-recipe recipes are also a short cut to kitchen nightmares.
Each week New York Times food editor Sam Sifton, the founding editor of NYT Cooking, sends out a newsletter in which he suggests recipes for dishes you could cook for the week ahead.
Sifton links to recipes secured behind a paywall, and then asks you to subscribe to access those recipes. Ironically, he is also galvanising a no-recipe recipe movement. Fun idea or short cut to kitchen nightmares?
No-Recipe Recipes – Fun Idea or A Short Cut to Kitchen Nightmares
“But I don’t just cook with recipes, and I am not alone,” Sam Sifton said when he recently introduced his no-recipe recipe project. “Indeed, cooking without recipes is a kitchen skill same as cutting vegetables into dice. It’s a way to improve your confidence in the kitchen and to make the act of cooking fun when sometimes it seems like a chore.”
No, cooking without recipes is doltish unless you’ve been cooking your repertoire of dishes for years, you’re cooking for yourself, you’re a chef experimenting, or you’re a food writer or recipe developer. When it comes to preparing and measuring ingredients, most chefs say it’s quite meditative. In fact, it’s the quiet before the storm.
But cooking without recipes is not the same as cutting vegetables into dice – these two ’skills’ are not remotely related. This no-recipe recipe nonsense is just a way to sell more subscriptions to New York Times Cooking, which is ironic considering subscribers signed up for the recipes.
It’s not just the idea that’s ill-advised, some of the non-recipe recipes are just not great ideas. Take, for instance, ‘Steak Tacos with Pineapple Salsa’. I’ve been in kitchens where a chef can prep the mis en place with painstaking precision but given beef, pineapple and pickled jalapeños, I guarantee the chef is going to be asking “why is this protein not pork?”
Off the top of my head, one of the only cuisines that I can think of that combines beef and pineapple is Chinese. The classic Mexican tacos al pastor, like the one in the image above, straight from the streets of Mexico City, has pineapple on top of the vertical spit and pineapple is sometimes served on the side with the tacos.
But the protein is pork, which is often paired with fruit, think prosciutto and melon, pork chops with apple sauce. In our part of the world pork and pomelo salad. Even ham and pineapple pizza, is an example.
But here’s the non-recipe recipe:
“Get some fresh tortillas and a pound of skirt steak, then make salsa from mostly fresh or canned pineapple, pickled jalapeños and a healthy couple shakes of chile powder, along with plenty of chopped cilantro. Shower the steaks with salt and pepper, and broil them for 2 to 3 minutes a side until they’re perfect and rare. Warm the tortillas. Grate some Cheddar. Rest the steak, slice it, and serve with the tortillas, cheese and that awesome salsa. Anyone want to watch a movie after dinner? We have time.”
Firstly, not marinating the meat for tacos is the first mis-step. You could call canned pineapple, pickled jalapeños and a healthy couple of shakes of chile powder a ‘salsa’ if you insist, but it’s not even remotely as good as even a store-bought, overly-sweet tomato salsa from a supermarket. And cheddar cheese? Can you not source queso fresco or quesillo in New York? I’d wager that the fresh tortillas are wheat not corn tortillas either.
The next non-recipe that caught my eye was ‘Steamed Mussels with Tomatoes and Chorizo’.
Once again Sifton insists “This is a no-recipe recipe, a recipe without an ingredients list or steps. It invites you to improvise in the kitchen.” If you asked a well-trained chef or cook to make steamed mussels with tomatoes and chorizo, they could knock out a pretty good version without having to measure anything. But where’s the creativity?
Here’s the non-recipe:
“Simplicity itself, if you can find a bag of mussels at the store. Scrub and debeard them as necessary. Then grab a big pot, and use it to sauté some cubed chorizo in olive oil over medium-high heat. When it starts to crisp, add a few handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes and a clove or two of chopped garlic. Let the tomatoes blister in the fat, then add the mussels and a glass of white wine. Cover the pot and allow the mussels to steam open. (If at the end you have mussels that haven’t opened, ditch them: They’re dead.) Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with plenty of toast for the sopping.
And here’s what we have when we put that prose into an actual recipe format:
INGREDIENTS (serves 2)
1 kilo mussels in their shells
200 g fresh chorizo sausage, cubed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1-2 pieces of garlic, minced
1 glass of dry white wine
1 handful parsley, chopped or torn to garnish
1. Scrub and debeard the mussels as necessary in a bowl of water. If the mussels are slightly opened, tap them and see if they shut. If they do not shut, or they float, they are probably dead and should be discarded.
2. In a big pot over medium high heat, add the olive oil and the chorizo.
3. As the chorizo starts to colour, add the cherry tomatoes and the garlic.
4. As the tomatoes start to blister, add the wine and the mussels and cover tightly with a lid.
5. Cook the mussels for 5-7 minutes and serve with plenty of toast on the side. Garnish with the parsley.
6. If any mussels are not opened, don’t discard them, open them with a knife and give them a smell test, if they smell fine, they’re still good to eat.
Now I know that the ‘dead’ mussel theory is controversial, but science backs up the fact that mussels that open early and are not cooked for at least 5-7 minutes are more likely to make you sick than the ones that don’t open. If you’ve never cooked mussels before, the ‘recipe’ gives incomplete advice on how to handle mussels.
But this recipe is a good jumping off point depending on your taste. You could add some chilli flakes to give a little more heat, and use a tomato paste instead of the tomatoes…
The whole thing is a tad disingenuous. The New York Times didn’t conceive this dish. They have just reduced a very popular recipe to a paragraph. Google ‘steamed mussels with tomato and chorizo’ and start sifting through pages of recipes. There is no experimentation or creativity in this non-recipe although you’ll have to use your imagination to guess the amounts of ingredients to use.
There are other non-recipe recipes that appear awfully familiar. ‘Amatriciana on the Fly’ is, well, Amatriciana with some bad advice to drain the pasta and then add butter to it before adding it to the sauce. No Italian chef or home cook drains pasta and adds butter. I guess that’s the non-recipe aspect.
There’s also ‘Pasta with Sausage and Parm’ which is very similar to ‘Pasta with Sausage and Sage’ if you read the non-recipe. Google that one for plenty of actual recipes. But read this part of the non-recipe:
“Scatter sage leaves over the whole, drain the pasta, and add a little of the pasta water to the pan with the sausage to make a velvety sauce. Combine with the pasta, grate a lot of Parmesan over the top, and let me know how it goes.”
Over the whole what? And, once again you’re draining the pasta with the added magic trick of retrieving the pasta water from the sink to add to the pan. So I guess it didn’t go so well. If you’re of the ‘drain the pasta’ school, you know to reserve a cup or so of pasta water before draining the pasta.
The New York Times’ no-recipe recipe project might seem like a fun idea for busy people with lots of mouths to feed who don’t have time to follow recipes. But to me it seems like a tactic to get readers who don’t want to pay for access to recipes to pay for access to no-recipe recipes.
Because what is a recipe, after all? Does it even need to have an ingredient list with precise measurements and numbered steps to be a recipe?
According to historians, some of the oldest recipes are for stews. Simmering meat in liquid over fire until it’s tender dates back some 8,000 years according to archaeological evidence, but one of the earliest recipes for a Scythian stew, dating to between the 8th and 4th centuries BC was documented by ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus, who wrote:
“… put the flesh into an animal’s paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself.”
There may not be precise measurements but there are ingredients and there are steps. Herodotus’ ox stew could perhaps be the first no-recipe recipe. Except it’s not. It is a recipe.