NYT Food Editor Sam Sifton Says Don't Depend On A Recipe: Just Improvise!
Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcast on July 5, 2021. Find that audio here.
Sam Sifton, food editor of The New York Times and co-founder of the wildly popular NYT Cooking, knows a lot about what and how America cooks.
In the past few years, Sifton has become a proponent of what he calls “no-recipe recipes” — so much so that he’s written a book about it, aptly titled “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes.”
Sifton spends a lot of time thinking about how to make better tasting and more useful recipes. But when talking with people about how to make meals at home, he often uses less precise language to describe the recipe — such as cooking with a medium-hot oven or incorporating a handful of something.
He introduced this concept to the What to Cook newsletter every Wednesday to offer “a new way of thinking about food so that you don’t have to always follow a recipe,” he says. “You can kind of riff on something as a kind of improvisation rather than following the sheet music really closely.”
The idea of compiling a cookbook was born after years of sharing these types of recipes on the newsletter, he says.
For example, his recipe for a kale salad with cranberries, pecans and blue cheese is just that. Prepare a mustardy vinaigrette — mustard, olive oil, some lemon juice, salt and pepper — “that’ll stand up to the greens,” he says. Incorporate “big flavored mix-ins” of your choice to hit on sweet, salty and sour flavors, he says.
Switch cranberries for dried currants or indulge in a different cheese, he says, because it’s all about how you want to make the meal.
“Most of us have been cooking more over the course of the past year than we ever have cooked in our lives,” he says. “So I think kitchen confidence is up a little, and I hope that a book like ‘No-Recipe Recipes’ can reward that confidence with some ideas for what to do with your skills.”
Cooking without a recipe can be intimidating, but Sifton says you probably won’t mess up the meal. A year into the pandemic, you likely know how to roast, steam, boil and grill without a step-by-step guide. Now it’s just about adding to the flavor profiles, he says.
“To build flavors, we’re just making little triangles of sweet, salty and fiery, or sour and umami-ish and bitter, and you just kind of play things off one another in ways that are pleasing to you,” he explains.
What “No-Recipe Recipes” does require is a pantry filled with essentials like onions, flour, corn starch, butter and dried fruits. For Sifton, the most important items to keep on hand are condiments. Condiments can “help deliver flavors” in a simple way, he says.
Other items to stock up on are flavored oils like sesame oil, tomato paste, anchovies, soy or fish sauce, and sweeteners like molasses, maple syrup or honey.
Sifton witnessed how cooking habits have changed during the pandemic. Because many spent the pandemic alone or with one or two other people in their household, he says vast serving sizes were unnecessary for some.
“I think that may ultimately be a good thing for our readers’ health that we’re eating a little less,” he says. “I certainly don’t miss it.”
At the same time, NYT Cooking readers craved recipes that would bring comfort to their kitchens during unprecedented times. While the serving sizes might be cut in half, readers still requested stews, braises and meals with big flavors, he says.
As life starts slowing getting back to pre-pandemic norms, Sifton says he believes people will still be spending time in their kitchens making food. Staying at home made many people realize how much money they can save by cooking meals themselves instead of eating out, he says.
But if you’re at your wits’ end with cooking every meal, you’re not alone. Sifton says not to feel bad about ordering takeout.
The act of cooking, he says, should be “an intentional one that brings joy into your life as opposed to drudgery in your life.”
The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes
Rotisserie Chicken Panzanella
Another thing you can do with a super-tanned heat-lamp chicken from the store.
- Rotisserie chicken
- Olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Jumbo croutons
Tear a rotisserie chicken into strips and pieces, then cut a few smallish supermarket tomatoes (or better ones, if you’ve got them) into wedges and marinate them in olive oil, salt, pepper, and red wine vinegar. Pay a few bills or fold some laundry, then turn the whole thing into panzanella by mixing together the chicken, tomatoes, some watercress, and several handfuls of croutons. Shower the salad with pepper and add a spray of salt. This, too, is “cooking.”
Modification: If you don’t have croutons, just cut some stale bread into chunks and toast in a medium oven for about 10minutes. Or toast fresh bread and tear into hunks.
Roasted Cauliflower Soup With Artichoke Cream
Here’s a simple, rich, amazingly creamy soup, relatively quickly made.
- Olive oil
- Canned artichoke hearts
- Stock or milk
Roast a whole head of cauliflower in a pot in a 400°F oven with a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and a few cloves of garlic. When the cauliflower is all soft on the inside and crisp on the outside and good to go—45 minutes or so—cut it into pieces and whiz them up in a blender with a can of drained artichoke hearts and a little chicken stock, vegetable stock, or milk. Blend in some grated parmesan at the end. Yowza.
Tip: Trim the greens from the stalk of the cauliflower, but don’t cut out the stalk itself. It brings big flavor.
Modifications: Roast a couple of anchovies with the cauliflower, if you like their umami pop. Roast a carrot or two along with the cauliflower and use in place of the artichoke hearts. Use Cheddar in place of the parmesan.
Kale Salad With Cranberries, Pecans, And Blue Cheese
Kale salads have fallen into disfavor among the cognoscenti because for a while they were on every restaurant menu in town. There was a reason for that though, and this salad shows it plain.
- Olive oil
- Dried cranberries
- Toasted pecans
- Blue cheese
Make a mustardy vinaigrette that’ll stand up to the greens: mustard, olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Drizzle it over stemmed and chopped kale with a host of big-flavored mix-ins that wink at whatever season you’re in without being dorky about it, which in this case, are dried cranberries plus pecans. And some crumbled blue cheese and a spray of croutons. Sweet, salty, spicy, sour. That and a chilled glass of red wine. Why don’t we eat salads for dinner more often?
Modifications: Substitute currants for the cranberries. Toss raw pecans with a glug of maple syrup and a dusting of cayenne and then toast for a sweet-spicy lift.
Reprinted from The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipe. Text copyright © 2021 by Sam Sifton and The New York Times Company. Photographs copyright © 2021 by David Malosh and Food Styling by Simon Andrews. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.
Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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