I just came from Michael Ruhlman's second blog, Elements of Cooking. It's based in part on his latest book, The Elements of Cooking, which I'm sure is available at your local book seller, but will also be available soon from Ruhlman's own site, Ruhlman.com.
I'm excited about the book, and the site has just made it onto my permanent links section (over there, on the right). Why? Because it's not about recipes. One of the things I've loved about my own cooking journey is not recipes--don't get me wrong. A good recipe is a wonderful thing. But what I've found most valuable is basic cooking methods. Take, for example the simple béchamel sauce. A little flour, butter and milk and you have a base on which you can build all kinds of things.
Just the other day I used this small bit of knowledge to really jazz up a lunch of leftover chicken and mashed potatoes. 6:30 in the morning, and I knew I wanted something a little more than plain chicken. I checked around the kitchen, found some mushrooms, and in about 10 minutes time, had a wonderful mushroom cream sauce. Simple comfort food that didn't come from a Campbell's can.
You can do it, too:
- Sautee mushrooms in a teaspoon of olive oil with a just a dash of garlic
- When they've given up most of their moisture (probably about 2 minutes), remove them from the pan
- Melt a tablespoon of butter in the same pan and slowly whisk in a tablespoon of flour (you've just made a roux)
- ***The flour and butter mix should be about the same. For a single serving, a teaspoon to tablespoon of each should be fine. If you need more, up the amount accordingly
- Now, slowly add milk--just a little at a time--until you come up with a sauce that's the desired consistency
- If you want, you can add some Parmesan cheese to thicken the sauce a bit
- Add in the mushrooms, salt and pepper to taste and you're done
Done! In 10 minutes I was able to take bland, boring leftovers and turn them into something delicious (and even a little impressive).
Anyway, my whole point here is that by understanding a singular fundamental (béchamel is one of the 7 mother sauces used in French cooking), I made something. And I could have just as easily gone with bacon in the sauce, swiss cheese, or any number of additional ingredients. And that's key. As I said on Ruhlman's blog, recipes are great, sure, but...it seems that fundamentals, not a recipe library, are the real key to kitchen creativity.