One of the most interesting cookbooks of the last 20 years was one designed to reinvent cookbooks altogether. Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook (William Morrow, 2006) is a reinvention because it doesn’t follow the usual prescriptive, scientific, top-down way of recipe writing — add 1 teaspoon of X to Y and cook at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Instead, Schneider lays out recipes in the broadest possible sense.
First, she explains the topic at hand — say, winter tomatoes — and then she describes one way of making them delicious, such as slow-roasting them to drive out taste-diluting moisture, to caramelize any available sugar and to soften fibrous flesh. Finally, she provides a master recipe for the ingredient, along with a series of “improvisations” — dishes you can make using the master recipe and your own understanding of the topic.
Regarding the slow-roasted tomatoes, for instance, she explains how to make the tomatoes into a slow-roasted tomato sauce, plus slow-roasted tomato soup, hors d’oeuvres, tarts, pizzas, lasagna and much more.
You’re probably familiar with the old proverb of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. In this case, Schneider shows that if you give a man a roasted tomato recipe, he has a meal, but if you teach him how to roast a tomato, he can feast for a lifetime.
Schneider’s idea for this book sprang from an Internet cooking class she taught. “There was a lot of interaction between my students and me on the message board, and I was shocked at how often the idea of fear came up,” she says. “Fear of cooking, yes. But more than that, a fear of not having the life they imagined other people were having, a fear of not cooking the way they imagined other people cooked, a fear of not cooking the way people on TV cook.
“I gave people very simple chunks of knowledge — how to roast a fish, for example, and we’d all talk about that.” For some people, says Schneider, that knowledge was enough: “They were off and running. For others, though, I found that what really worked was to focus a little on their fears and pull them into the light: What is this fear of cooking? Do you know that other people have them, too? You don’t need to feel trapped by fears. Instead, put them aside and ask, ‘What would happen if I tried this?’ If you try it, and it doesn’t work out, that’s fine. You’re learning something, you’re engaged in the process of your life — it’s OK.”
What causes all these cooking fears? Schneider mostly blames TV. “Television has really done damage to people,” she notes. “Food magazines, too, where everything is
perfect. People don’t realize that what they’re receiving are these cleaned-up images. Everyone makes a mess when they cook. On television, though, there’s a prep cook who does all the advance work, and anything that doesn’t go right or is boring or unattractive is either edited out or reshot.”
This image of perfection can be positively poisonous, says Schneider. “People sit at home in their own kitchens thinking, ‘Other people know how to handle their life, other people know how to look good, other people know how to cook, and I can’t.’”
That’s where her improvisations come in. “The nice part of the recipes is that they give you a way of thinking and point you toward a series of actions, but there is no wrong way. There’s no idea that if your tomato tart comes out lopsided that you’re a failure.”
I asked Schneider if her students felt better about cooking once their fears were named and they had some tools with which to succeed. “Actually, for lack of a
better word, people tell me they feel empowered,” she said. “They’re in the kitchen making all sorts of decisions they never felt confident making, and this idea that there really is no failure, and that things just work out or don’t, and that either way you’re learning, gives them confidence in all sorts of other parts of their lives.”
In fact, Schneider has found this idea of improvising to be so powerful that she’s planning to launch a lifestyle blog based on the concept this spring. Her goal is to help people apply the same flexibility they used in the kitchen to reinvent other areas of their lives, such as travel, office space, clothing and so on. (Find more info at www.sallyschneider.net.)
If necessity is the mother of invention, is improvisation the mother of reinvention? Perhaps. These days, reinvention might be exactly what we need.
For the recipe pictured above, Rustic Bean Stew With Caramelized Onions, as well as more recipes from The Improvisational Cook, see the Web Extras!
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.