Becoming an instinctive cook

Last night I made an entirely "original" salad. I put original in quotes because once you see the ingredients you'll realize it's a pretty unoriginal combination of ingredients. But it was original to me because I didn't use a recipe of any kind. For many cooks that's not a big deal, but for me it's pretty symbolic. I began my culinary journey as a baker. All through junior high and high school, I baked elaborate cakes, things that required my mother stop at the liquor store on her way home from work to pick up my requested boozy ingredients.

When I started cooking in college, I was tied to recipes. If I didn't have an ingredient (even something as simple as 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg) I wouldn't skip it, I'd dash out to the store and buy it so that I'd have everything exactly right. I was nervous if I diverged from the recipe in any way. I'd see those people who'd just sort of instinctively throw things into a pot and wonder how they did it. Beginning as a baker taught me to be structured and orderly about what went into my pot. Baking does not tolerate things just being instinctively thrown around. If baking were a country, it would be Switzerland or Germany. Cooking would be Italy or someplace nice where you could lounge with a glass of wine. In baking country, the trains run on time.

Over the years I've become more comfortable with cooking, able to veer from a recipe if necessary and recently, even able to concoct recipes of my own. So when we had guests over for dinner the other day, I decided on a roast boneless leg of lamb (grass fed lamb, of course). I made this mint pesto from Epicurious. (Notice the recipe doesn't say whether the leg of lamb should be boneless, this made me anxious when I read it, so clearly I still have baker's issues.) I decided it didn't matter, and I rubbed the pesto inside the lamb and then rolled it up, and slathered the remainder on the outside. It was my first leg of lamb roast and it turned out quite well.

The next day, there was leftover lamb to contend with. Then, almost as if by magic, I thought, "Hmm…a sort of composed Greek salad could be good!" So I picked up a cucumber, some grape tomatoes, feta cheese, baby lettuces, and kalamata olives at the market. I dressed the greens in extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice, with a dash of sea salt and some fresh ground black pepper. I sliced the cold lamb very thin, chopped the cukes and quartered the tomatoes. A little crumble of feta, a handful of olives, and a chiffonade of fresh mint across the top finished it off.

I was so pleased with myself when I ate it, freed from the tyranny of the recipe, if only for one evening. I'll always be a recovering baker, but slowly and surely, one salad at a time, I'll become an instinctive cook.