Cooking Without A Map

It has often been said that men don't like to ask for directions — to their own detriment. There are those of us who refuse to use a map. We'd rather drive in circles for days in the Black Forest than admit we didn't quite understand if Frau Heffernen said it was the third or fourth turnoff from the Autobahn to get to Baden-Baden.

Call it male pride. Or pig-headedness. We'd rather get to where we're going through force of will. I, for one, have never had that problem. I'll ask for directions at the drop of a map.

And yet, somehow, that trait never got translated to the kitchen. I don't like to cook by the book. Sometimes, I will look at a recipe to get the basics down, but then I run with it. I prefer to go by instinct. To keep checking a recipe would take the joy and spontaneity out of it, like reading the Kama Sutra while... well, you get the idea.

I'm not saying I'm a genius in the kitchen, but I have a pretty good feel for things; for temperatures and times, cutting and salting. I've cooked since I was a teenager, and had some minor training in a professional kitchen and at singer Howard Jones' Nowhere restaurant (random, I know), but most of my skills are just me.

Now, it's not like this culinary liberation theology doesn't get me into trouble. I'd say out of 10 dishes I make, two turn out great (Chinese sir fry, tacos, homemade mac & cheese), six come out on the spectrum of good (mostly pastas, salads, chili), and two in the blah-to-awful category (a recent ma po tofu that tasted like sock juice comes to mind). You can see I don't exactly stretch myself with fancy fare — but I deliver.

For instance, while writing this very piece, I had to whip together dinner. I was inspired by a visit to my daughter's friend's house the day before, where they were eating sofrito, a Spanish mix of tomato, cilantro, onions, and garlic. I had never heard of it before, so I checked out some recipes, found nothing I could focus on, and just winged it. Was there lime in it? Green pepper? Broth? I don't know, but there was in mine. (My 7-year-old daughter's verdict: "It's good," she says. "But it's not the same." I can live with that.)

There's something about the randomness that I appreciate. My wife, on the other hand, has a giant accordion folder stuffed with recipes that she uses. I think she likes the order. It also might be that she likes to eat good food, rather than bad food. Me? I get a perverse thrill out of never knowing where I'm going to end up.

The one exception is a New York Times recipe for roasted shrimp and broccoli, one of the few that my wife successfully pushed on me a year ago. It's actually a great dish, and I follow the instructions to the letter. I don't mind doing so, because it contains such exotica as coriander and whole cumin seeds; both of which I have no innate feel for.

I give in to mixing the shrimp, the spices, the oil, like it's cooking by numbers. And I love eating it. But there's something different about the meal. I don't own it; it's like I'm just a work for hire.

And yet, I'm literally surprised every time when it comes out perfectly. And that might just be the very definition of pig-headedness.

Do you cook from recipes and cookbooks, or are you more of a wing-it type of guy? Best comment wins a cookbook!