Why the Tree of Life?


Learning How to Cook Without a Book

I don't mind cooking. No, that's a lie. I don't really like cooking. I thought I did for a while, but I really don't. The chore of getting dinner on the table every night is a real drag. You can throw baking right along in there, too.

I also don't really know how to cook. I mean, I can follow a recipe like anyone else, but I don't think that really counts as knowing how to cook. Not that many generations ago, women knew how to cook. I want to be able to do that.

Couple that with being in a serious dinner rut, and with various personal wishes of wanting to eat local, organic, in season, blah, blah, blah, I decided I needed to learn how to cook. I have tried getting the local box from Greenling three different times (local produce delivered to your doorstep once a week), but I always found it overwhelming and ended up with vegetables rotting in their drawers.

I wanted to be able to open up the frig and the pantry, see what I had available and make something sufficiently tasty for a weeknight dinner out of it.

So I began my quest, checked out a bunch of books from the library, and here is what I have to share:

How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

This has become my bible, and I am working on memorizing it. I have learned how to sear any meat, prepare any pan sauce, steam/saute any vegetable, a stir-fry formula, pasta sauce formula, frittata formula, make up my own salad dressing... all with stuff I have currently available in the house.

Previously, I would plan out every meal for the week ahead, and buy only those ingredients. Now I am learning how to keep my pantry stocked with basics, and when I go to the grocery store, I can buy the meats that are on sale and know that I will use them that week and they won't be forgotten in the freezer. When I get our produce box or shop for it at the grocery store, I can wait and buy what looks good because I feel confident now that I will make something good out of it, even if I don't know yet what that will be. I might put that summer squash in a frittata or a pasta sauce, or I might saute it with onions and something else lying around in the fridge.

Plus, Anderson has written with the busy mom in mind. Her formulas are bare bones and meant to be fast. And I have found her ideas to be fast, not just wishful-thinking fast. These are weeknight dinners. She intends for you to save the more elaborate stuff for entertaining. You won't find a prize-winning roast in this particular book; you have to look elsewhere for that.

I am finding this exciting and very freeing. Dinner is kind of an adventure now. Some things have turned out barely palatable, but some things have been really, really good. And it will never again be the same way twice... cause I'm making it up as I go along.

The "barely palatable" dishes sent me on a hunt for this book that I eventually found:

The Flavor Bible by Page & Dornenburg

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs

This is not a recipe book. I don't think there is a single recipe in it. What it is is a 2 inch thick dictionary of flavor. You look up what you have (like say, asparagus) and they tell you good ways to prepare/cook it and what flavors traditionally go with it and which flavors are daring possibilities. I'm not the kind of person who gets excited about cookbooks, and I'm not that much of a foodie, but this is a pretty cool book for the ignorant cook (like me) as well as the gourmet chef (who I think the book is really written for)....because it is one thing to cook without a book, and it is another to stare at your spice rack while dinner is beginning to burn in the pan and you are contemplating what to throw in.

And finally, I applied this same line of thinking to baking, and I found this:

Ratios by Michael Ruhlman
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

From bread to batter, it is all really the same thing, just a different ratio. He also has ratios for sauces and other sorts of things. We made Ayla's 1-2-3 cookies from this book, but I am looking forward to playing around with this cookie ratio some on the next project day. Just as Anderson's book is very basic, so is this one. The 1-2-3 cookie, as Ruhlman says, is not art, it's just the basic food chemistry of a cookie. The art comes in playing around with it.

I'm pretty jazzed about all that I am learning, and I fully intend to pass this along to the kids.


  1. Good fo you! I find myself in a serious creativity/motivational rut these days, and that extends to cooking. I have the Anderson book, and maybe it's time to bust it out!

  2. this sounds great! do you think cooking from the staples or a menu is more affordable? i am still using menu, but just read "Real Food on a Real Budget" (Stephanie Langford), and saving lots of money making everything from super scratch, old school style. i'm not there yet, but she even grinds her own flour. i may never get there, but it is saving us lots.

  3. Hi Tmac,

    I'm not sure if menu or staples is more affordable. I would think staples only because I seem to be using more of what I buy than not. We are eating things that I wouldn't normally buy since I am back on getting our every-other-weekly subscription local produce box. My main goals have just been fast and healthy, and waste less. I'm not sure that answers your question...

  4. I've been taking some tips from Steve and Annette Economides 'Americas Cheapest Family'. They have a book about cutting your grocery budget in half. Check for it in the library. Its been good for us (in NZ) but I'm sure it would be even better in the States. I've tried their tips for once a month cooking and its been great! Just pull out frozen goods each morning, ready to pull together a quick meal each night :)