Cooking By Nose

The weekend after I moved into my first apartment, I decided to roast a leg of lamb. I slathered the eight-pound hunk of meat with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and sea salt, then threw it in the oven around 4:00, fully expecting that it would be done by 6.It was a disaster. At around 9:30 p.m., my roommates and I had a wonderful supper of rare, bleeding lamb that made us wish we had dogs to feed under the table. But I did learn a lesson:  next time, stick to lamb chops.

Ever since that fateful incident, I give everyone who dares to try my cooking fair warning – anything I make is classified as strictly experimental.  I don’t use recipes unless I’m baking, and the only thing I’ve picked up from the Food Network is Rachael Ray‘s somewhat questionable one-time tip, “Your nose knows!” It’s a stark departure from (or perhaps a small rebellion against) my mother’s method of cooking:  she has a handwritten recipe notebook that has evolved into an encyclopedia, so full that every now and then it actually erupts magazine clippings and bits of paper that haven’t been glued in – and if she doesn’t have a recipe in front of her, it’s because she’s made it so many times that she can recite it from memory. Her food turns out exactly the same, time after time.

I, on the other hand, rarely replicate a dish. “But you cook so well!” exclaims a friend, reading over my shoulder. My dirty little secret?  I make it up as I go along. Sure, I refer to the Chowhound message boards for ideas every once in a while, and I have a few staples in my playbook.  In case of emergency, I always return to lasagna, roasted chicken or homemade mac and cheese. But the ingredients seem to vary every time, mostly of their own accord rather than by choice. Just a few weeks ago I was mid-lasagna, melting butter on the stove for my white sauce when I realized that I was completely out of flour. Lesson learned:  Bisquick is an excellent substitute.

Like many of my friends I don’t grocery shop particularly often, and certainly not in the middle of the week. When I do go to the store, I buy foods that I can use in more than one dish. Vegetables, lemons, ground beef.  Most of the time, I just don’t think to plan out my meals, but in addition to that I’ve always been an innovator. My love affair with Top Chef has me wondering what I can whip up using vegetable stock, corn and black bean salsa, spices, and only one hand (tortilla soup – GO!). I like the challenge of combining unexpected flavors – if, for example, you haven’t tried watermelon and balsamic vinegar, put the laptop down and head to your local farmer’s market now.

I’m no Julia Child, but for me the key to good cooking is simply not letting inhibitions contain my flavors. Chances are, if two ingredients sound like they’ll taste good together, they probably will.

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