Most nights, I throw together dinner using whatever is in my fridge, picking dishes from a mental catalog of options and preparing them from muscle memory.
I cook professionally, so the food comes out nice. But it doesn’t make my heart race a little, doesn’t make me forget that I’m standing over my own stove because I’m tasting a place, a passion from somewhere far more thrilling than my kitchen.
I felt all that last month when I made Claudia Serrato’s recipe for carne con chile rojo. While cooking, I wondered whether I should substitute chicken broth for vegetable or raise the oven temperature, but I chose to follow her instructions to the letter. And I was rewarded with chuck roast braised so tender, it collapsed under my fork, readily shredding into fine threads to soak up a flame-red sauce fruity and hot with dried chiles.
It was one of the best dishes I prepared all year. That’s how I want to cook in 2021.
My New Year’s kitchen resolution is to follow recipes exactly as written, to get to know their creators without altering the dishes to match my own experiences or tastes.
The obvious benefits are eating something delicious and learning something new, not as an armchair traveler or restaurant diner but as an active participant. The more nuanced reward is challenging my culinary framework, to keep moving toward a more expansive and equitable worldview. And my hope is that this form of cooking with empathy, if enough people adopt it, can lead to greater unity and understanding even beyond the kitchen.
To truly embrace another person’s background and culture, I need to suspend my own assumptions, culinary and otherwise. It requires a conscious effort that feels unnatural, because learning to cook is a lot like learning to ride a bicycle.
You start with training wheels — cookbooks, videos, lessons — then fall repeatedly as you try to find balance on your own. With enough practice, you experience the sensation of that bike-riding moment when jerky, erratic swerving is replaced by equilibrium. The shift is sudden and irreversible, the body flooded with a knowing that immediately feels innate.
So it is with cooking. You don’t feel entirely in control of the process until you learn enough to command it.
And once you do, it’s difficult to stray from the steadiness you know. When I try a new recipe, I often adjust ingredients to my preferences — less sugar in desserts, more acid in salad dressings — and modify techniques based on what I’ve mastered. During my apprenticeship in a French restaurant, I was trained to sweat onions so that they end up tender, without browning. That means I often catch myself sweating onions even if I should be charring them to nearly black or singeing them to keep them crisp.
Last summer, as I reflected on how unconscious bias can creep into the kitchen, I realized that I should start cooking by considering what the recipe creator is offering — not by imposing myself on the recipe. By inserting my known likes and dislikes, I miss the opportunity to get to know another person, to see (and taste) her history and culture through her perspective. I want to experience a dish through the person most intimate with it.
It is, in a physical, actionable way, walking in someone else’s shoes. But it’s not trudging 8 miles uphill in the snow to school. It’s the fun sled ride down that hill to return home. As vital as it is to empathize with the struggles and injustice others face, it’s also important to share in their joys. Nowhere is that more pleasurable than in the kitchen.
After thinking about this throughout June and July, I practiced it in August, and rediscovered the wonder of cooking — and eating — something entirely new to me. To satisfy a craving for vegetable korma, I decided to skip takeout and try a recipe in “At Home With Madhur Jaffrey.” In it, she offers the southeastern Indian corollary of korma, known as kurma, which coats lightly boiled vegetables with a grated coconut and yogurt sauce that’s swirled with sizzled brown mustard seeds, chiles and curry leaves. Intentionally served at room temperature, it’s as refreshing as a salad and as complexly spiced as any curry.
For me, it was a highlight of a pandemic year otherwise stuffed with familiar carb-heavy comfort foods. Following Jaffrey’s thoughtful instructions felt like climbing out of a cooking rut. It’s a thrill easy to attain, particularly if you follow these suggestions:
Look for recipes written to be followed precisely
Many recipes are designed to be flexible, and remain a helpful option on busy days. But most professionally developed recipes are meant to be cooked exactly as written. To assess the deliberateness of a recipe creator, look for details intended to guarantee success. In “Chicano Eats,” Esteban Castillo offers his dulce de leche take on chocoflan, and carefully explains how to smooth the chocolate batter and ladle in the flan to keep the layers distinct.
Choose recipes that will work as published
How do you know if a recipe will work if you haven’t tried it? Aside from reading reviews by critics and users, you can flip to the acknowledgments in cookbooks to see if testers are thanked. Most major media companies professionally test and edit recipes before publication.
Pick recipes that sound surprising in some way
For the most eye-opening experience, try something different from what you know — whether it’s the whole dish or some of the ingredients or techniques. Eager to try all the East African dishes from “In Bibi’s Kitchen,” by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen, I started with Tsaramaso Malagasy (traditional Malagasy white beans) from Jeanne Razanamaria, a cook from Madagascar. I’m accustomed to salting ingredients at every stage, but Razanamaria calls for seasoning only after the beans are tender and the vegetables cooked. Her way led to complex tangy, earthy flavors.
Hunt down exact ingredients, even those hard to find
The search is part of learning about other cuisines. The internet has made shopping for dry goods simple, and browsing through market aisles may be a worthwhile pandemic outing for those who are comfortable venturing out. It’s a way to see, smell and hear the world in your own neighborhood.
Read the recipe carefully, and stick with it all the way
Even before you start chopping, read the top note — or whole cookbook — to contextualize the dish. Then read the recipe to anticipate the steps, as methods may differ from what you expect. Resist the temptation to alter a recipe based on similar dishes, for the possibility of a revelation. The coconut chicken curry in “Burma Superstar,” by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy, introduces curry powder only in the last minute of cooking. That surprising late-stage spicing yielded an exceptionally vibrant flavor.
Finally, have a taste, keeping an open mind
We’re built to enjoy some tastes instinctively (think dessert) and to love what we know, but I find it helpful to remember that what makes cooking exciting is how much more there is to discover. It evolves as we do, through connections, openness, a respect for others and a willingness to share what we know and try what we don’t.
This kitchen resolution isn’t limited to this year, or even the next. It’s not a quest with an end, but a journey that can last a lifetime.