Old recipes. I liked to imagine that the ones in my cluttered cabinet were all like old friends, enriching my life with their unique presence. But on New Year’s Day, when I set out to clean up the mess, I discovered that many of them had become more like tiresome acquaintances.
In fact, it was not so difficult to toss out many of them. There were ancient recipes for dishes I never made or ate anymore and recipes for foods containing so much butter or sugar that I shouldn‘t ever eat them anymore (exceptions, of course, were made for S-cookies and other family or traditional recipes). There were duplicated recipes or recipes that also appeared in cookbooks I own.
And there were recipe clippings from newspapers or magazines, some of which called for ingredients I was unlikely to ever have on hand and others which required so many steps that I knew I would never convince myself to go to the trouble. I applied the criteria that people often use to clean their closets: If I hadn’t made the recipe in the last year (or had made it once but never would again), I pitched it.
It took (too many!) hours to sort through them all, but in the end, I actually filled the wastebasket.
My file boxes were nice and neat, and the cabinet was no longer overflowing with clippings and stray index cards. Even the refrigerator door was a little less cluttered.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. I’m still sentimental about a lot of old recipes. Besides keeping the ones I make often– like biscuits, yogurt scones, slow roast chicken with lemon– I also kept some I rarely or never make, many contributed from family and friends. I kept my father’s recipe for rote grutze (a kind of pudding made with red currants and raspberries), my mother’s knishes, my brother Joe’s favorite chocolate mousse, Cathy’s recipe for crepes, and a secret recipe for lemon-sour cream pie that Peggy got about 25 years ago from B & O Espresso in Seattle.
For historical purposes, I also kept a hideous-sounding recipe for sweet potatoes with pineapple chunks and brewers yeast that I made in the early 1970s. Why the brewers yeast?? — who knows?
Enough of that. Much of what I make these days doesn’t require a recipe. Like vegetable soup — I’ve been making big pots of that– I know the basics of how to cook it, and adapt it according to what I have on hand.
But cookbooks and recipes in magazines and newspapers can be a source of inspiration, even if you don’t follow them precisely. In a friend’s cookbook I saw a picture of something called “handkerchief” pasta — squares of pasta– with tomato sauce and wilted spinach. It looked good.
The cookbook author advised making the pasta squares by breaking up dry lasagna noodles. That was a pretty good idea, I thought, but I was sure that freshly made pasta would be even better.
Still, the last time I made fresh pasta (ravioli, actually), it wasn’t so much fun to do by myself. That’s one kitchen activity that’s much improved when you do it together with a friend. So when Aviva came over yesterday, I enlisted her for the experiment. She whipped together some eggs and flour into a pasta dough, and together we ran it through the hand-crank Atlas machine till it was fine and smooth, then cut it into strips and squares. I made a nice simple tomato sauce: sauteed onion and garlic, simmered with diced tomatoes (yes, from a can — it’s winter) and a big handful of fresh basil, torn into shreds, tossed in at the end. The pasta cooked in minutes, we mixed it up with the sauce, topped it with some Parmeggiano cheese and….
Instead of tossing the spinach into the cooking water, as the recipe instructed, I sauteed some kale with garlic and a little bit of prosciutto and served it on the side.
This was a hearty and nourishing supper for a wintry night. And I was glad that no recipe clipping would clutter up my (temporarily) orderly recipe files or float around the cabinet.
It was just an inspiration worth repeating — rather like a new friend who already seems familiar, one you’d be pleased to see again.
P.S. My friend Nia just informed me that Mark Bittman recently wrote about handkerchief pasta too (a total coincidence!). And note that he suggests making it with a rolling pin–so if you don’t have a pasta machine, give it a try.