Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cooking Without A Net was created about a year ago by Marc Matsumoto, a freelance writer and marketing consultant. The site's motto: "No recipes: Cooking is more fun without them." Mr. Matsumoto focuses on technique and inspiration, rather than detailed instructions, when he writes about his off-the-cuff creations that include spicy lemongrass soft-shell crab, and shrimp and duck gumbo.

"I think 50% of cooking is technique and a lot of people don't learn the technique and rely on recipes as a crutch," says Mr. Matsumoto, 32, who first learned to cook from his mother. His advice: "Throw yourself in the kitchen. Learn about ingredients, not just knowing that fennel is green with the white bulbs, but fennel tastes like licorice and goes well with other flavors like citrus and beef."

Food historian Jean Johnson is also advocating improvisational cooking as she tours the country promoting her measurement-free cookbook "Cooking Beyond Measure," published in August by Seventy-Sixth Avenue Press. She teaches home cooks to be "fluid" so they can look to their cupboards instead of the grocery store when a dish calls for an ingredient they don't have. "I find that after the work day, to have to follow one more set of directions before dinner seems to hit a nerve," she says.

Indeed, improvisational cooking "is a reaction, in a way, to super-programmed cookbooks where everything is legislated down to exact measurements," says food historian and author Anne Mendelson, whose most recent book, "Milk," looks at the history of dairy. "Recipes didn't used to be necessary. They are sort of lab manual cookery in a way."

The rise of recipes that use precise measurements is widely credited to Fannie Farmer, a student, and later, director of the Boston Cooking School, who published "The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook" in 1896. Until Ms. Farmer's manual, cookbooks were written in prose, calling for a pinch of this or a handful of that.

"The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook," which survives today as "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," featured nearly 2,000 recipes that gave detailed instructions using a standardized system of measurement (teaspoon, cup, etc.). Ms. Farmer also included scientific explanations with her recipes, and wrote essays on housekeeping and cleaning. The rising middle-class and subsequent growth in the number of women looking to homemaking as a profession turned Ms. Farmer's book into a hit -- it has sold more than 4 million copies to date.

Read the full story here.

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