The joy of cooking (without a recipe)



One of my greatest joys in the last year or two has been tossing the recipe book out the window.

Adieu, dear recipe book, you’ve been a wonderful teacher, a darling guide.

But it’s time to learn to cook without another’s advice, without another’s direction.  It’s time to learn to cook by feel, by intuition, by heart.

And how fun it’s been!  The fingers reach in the refrigerator for this ingredient, this slender carrot, the riveting multi-colored swiss chard, the can of deep dark black beans from a faraway jungle.  The hands create dishes based on the dream of the moment, adding some red tomato here, a spicy dijon mustard-lemon-honey-salt dressing, what else might agree? Some chopped cilantro?

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.  Who knows what shall arise at the lunch table, on the dinner plate?

Certainly not me.

Guess I can show you the frig; it's relatively clean.

Guess I can show you the frig; it’s relatively clean.

“What’s the name of this dish?” Barry will ask and I will frown, pondering deeply.

“Braised Fennel Delight with Quinoa!” I’ll announce triumphantly and he will sigh.

“It can never be replicated, can it?” he’ll inquire.

“No, never,” say I, “so enjoy it while you can.”

Like life, a recipe-less supper can only appear exactly this way once.  In six weeks something similar may appear on your plate, but it’s not quite the same.  You know how life is.  Always changing, always trying other ingredients for the curiosity of it.

Some days we don’t like our recipe-less fare.  Oh well!  After all, our rice-pinto-corn tortilla-peach salsa-enchilada may lack some spark, some fizz, some delight.  Some days our cornmeal-crusted tofu might sag, unappreciated, upon our tongues.  Alas!  Life is like that.  Some days we weep into our coleslaw.  What can we say?

Rutabaga mashed with olive oil.  Crowned with a mix of Panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, yum!

Rutabaga mashed with olive oil. Crowned with a mix of Panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, yum!

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I baked without a recipe.  Oh the daring!  Why must it take 56 years to try this dangerous act of love?  It all started with a tub of quark.  (What, you ask, might quark be?  All you Europeans raise your hands eagerly, as most of us Americans remain ill-informed.)

In Switzerland, a trifling years back, my friend, Suzanne, produced some quark, mixed it with herbs, and served on crackers. Taste buds exploded!  I’ve looked for quark ever since on American shelves, never once meeting this tantalizing stranger again.

Until this week.  There, nestled at the co-op, innocently lounging between feta and mozzarella.   Snatched it up and brought it home–never mind that we very rarely eat dairy products.  (Although sometimes we do.)

Quark reminds one of a mix between cream cheese and yogurt.  It’s not sweet.  One adds sweet or savory to its quarkness and creates.



I suddenly wanted something like a Quark Apple Muffin.  Yes!  I cruised through Google’s recipe suggestions for quark, muffins, cream cheese and apples and found nothing appealing.  So many recipes for quark speak in grams.  Or they load up with butter, oil, sugar.  Nope, I wanted something healthy with just a tad of sweetness to satisfy.

Here is the non-recipe:

Take several spoonfuls of quark and place in gleaming glass bowl.  Add a tablespoon or two of sorghum (gifted to me by Fountainpen, one of my long-term blog readers!) and chop up a delicious (not necessarily the brand Delicious) apple.  OK, add some walnuts, to die for walnuts (a gift from my dear friend, Ruth) and what else?  How about some oats?  Blend up some oats in a blender and there we have some nice oat flour.  What else, what else? A dollop of warmed coconut oil.

How about some flax seed?  Toss some in the blender and grind, too.  Whoops, that didn’t really work well, because it didn’t blend up nicely into a flour.  Oh well.  Add the partially-blended flax seed anyway. (You astute health types probably know that ground flax seed acts like an egg–like an egg, can you imagine?–and leavens your baking.)  Mound into muffin tins.  Preheat the oven at, how about 380, just because that sounds like a bold non-ordinary baking temperature?

Are we finished?  No.  I wanted that coffee cake strudel atop.  Even though our white sugar is usually only for the hummingbird food, I took a scant teaspoon and sprinkled it atop the applified mixture.  Then some cinnamon.

Bake.  Check oven every five minutes to see what the heck’s happening.  When it browns deliciously, it’s most probably done.

“What is this?” Barry asked, later that night.  Three of the little fellas were missing already, eaten steamy from the oven.

Apple Something!

Apple Something!

“Apple Stravanja!” I announced.

“Gosh, these are pretty good,” he replied.  He–my fellow with no sweet tooth!

How I enjoyed baking without a recipe yesterday.  Some more quark hovers expectantly in the refrigerator.  Shall I make another batch?

Have you ever cooked or baked without a recipe? Have you fallen in love with the joy of it?

P.S.  I haven’t really thrown the recipe book out the window.  I still do play in the culinary fields with recipes on certain days when creativity fails or an old favorite rushes in to beg–cook me, cook me!

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
This entry was posted in June 2014 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to The joy of cooking (without a recipe)

  1. Fountainpen says:

    Quark and sorghum
    Can’t beat it!
    Because they both bind with love
    And brown nicely!!!!!

  2. Ruth says:

    …thank you for the smile this morning…it was so delicious as a side dish to the sun!

  3. lucindalines says:

    I agree cooking without a recipe is fun. Even when I use one I rarely follow it completely.

  4. I learned to cook without recipes, only instructions from my mother, “now some flour…a little more…a handful of nuts…a shake of salt…” I was thrilled to receive a cook book when I graduated high school (a gift from my mother!)! Finally, the rules behind what had, until then, just seemed like a random and somewhat dangerous game! I still love cookbooks, own about sixty of them, and love to just read them for inspiration. I rarely use them to cook with, only because most of my recipes, like yours, depend on what I have on hand. Most are variations on things I’ve made so often there is no need to measure. Basics, with changes based on the moment: what is offered, what is felt, what is needed. Lovely post, Kathy!

    • Kathy says:

      Cindy, my mom is a definitive recipe-follower. I never knew there might be another way. How interesting how your mom taught you to cook. I like how you expressed changes based on the moment: what is offered, what is felt, what is needed. What a great way to put it!

  5. I hardly ever cook with a recipe–which may explain a lot (lol)–enjoyed your cooking adventures–good luck on this journey

  6. john k says:

    Quite artistic! You have a wealth of experience with things that Mr. & Mrs. Main Street have never even heard of, so your palette of epicurean paints that you have to create your dishes with is enormous, You should try starting a food truck and camping out at MTU. My son Jim who works at the University of Chicago frequents a truck called the “Fat Shallot” that has people lining up from the time it parks, till they close their window. Their faire is very creative like yours.

    • Kathy says:

      I would love to sample some of that Fat Shallot fare! Next trip to Chicago… Truffle fries…be still my heart. I dunno how many locals here would even sample anything we eat. lol. Although there are a handful of folks who eat like us. To think we even have an organic veggie buying club in L’Anse now!

  7. Heather says:

    It’s a joke among my mom, sister and I that we are all terrible recipe-followers. We gave up on ever truly following a recipe, and now refer to them as merely “guidelines.” Dinner around here is more often a recipe-less affair, sometimes with results you only wish you could repeat, and sometimes it’s just “dinner.” Baking is a slightly different story. I usually have a recipe that actually is a guideline. I might change things up, but I don’t tend to toss a bunch of things together hoping they bake up to a certain consistency.
    Quark sounds great. Especially with apple and walnut. What it really needs (there I go, changing your “recipe”) is some of the toasted walnut oil I bought the other day. Have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but it is nearly good enough just to drink!

    • Kathy says:

      I like that term, Heather. “Guidelines”. Yes, guidelines can be immensely helpful. Many of my meals follow guidelines. As for baking, this was a first try recipe. The heart is still thumping in excitement! To think it even turned out. I wouldn’t mind some toasted walnut oil! Will keep an eye opened for it.

  8. Carol says:

    I am learning now, late in this life, about healthy eating using these “foreign” ingredients and most of my time in the grocery store now takes me to bulk foods, healthy food items and produce. All these new to me and exciting ingredients! But to cook without a recipe? Not that daring or knowledgable, although I do improvise. A little.

    • Kathy says:

      It often does take a while to wrap one’s head around these “foreign” ingredients, Carol. Back when we started lovin’ em–maybe in about 2006?–I was a tad intimidated. Now it’s just plain a love affair! OK, with tofu, we’re still just friends. lol. I’m proud of you!

  9. P.j. grath says:

    The way you cruised online is the way I often consult my cookbooks, pulling out three or four and looking up and comparing recipes — and then going down my own path, having been inspired by the books. I can go for days or even weeks without opening a cookbook, but I still love them and wouldn’t want to give them up. Also (confession!), there are a few tried-and-true recipes I rely on so as NOT to be surprised. Sometimes I want a surprise, sometimes not. One thing is for sure: I would never dare post a photograph of the inside of my refrigerator for the world to see! More power to you! 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Cruising sounds like a good way to describe that cookbook/recipe comparison dance. I’m not sure I would give up my cookbooks, either. The throwing them out the window — a slight exaggeration for literary effect. And, yes, sometimes we simply want comfort food, the tried and true. As for the refrigerator pic, years ago I posted another one on my blog and everyone expressed sheer amazement at my courage for days. I won’t tell you the story about how my grandma became so disgruntled about the shape of our frig when she came to visit once that she begged to clean it.

  10. Hats off to you, Kathy, for cooking (and even baking!) without a recipe!

    My sister-in-law has always cooked this way and dazzles me every time I see her with what she can whip up and create to go along with my ever-changing dietary requirements. Once, many years ago, I asked her how long I should cook something and she replied, “until it’s done.” I, Ms Follow-the-recipe-to-the-exact-detail, thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. But I’m getting braver here and there, and can now caramelize onions with no written assistance whatsoever. 🙂

    Your apple-something looks scrumptious!

    • Kathy says:

      Mmmm, Barbara, I love caramelized onions. The mouth is watering now! I was once a recipe follower like you. And then one day…who knows what happened? Next thing you know you’ll be tossing your cookbooks out the window too. 😉

  11. Love this Kathy! To be honest, this is how I cook too — sans recipe. And you name your creations so, well . . . creatively! Love it!

    • Kathy says:

      I suspected that might be the case, Patty. Your recipes so often look so divine to me…although I often use them as stepping-stones into the next creative offering. Do you eat any dairy products at all? We didn’t for years, but now I am allowing some to creep back in. In moderate proportions, hopefully.

      • I bet your next steps are totally delicious Kathy! Some day I’ll come to Michigan and look youp! (You yuper your!) I very occasionally eat dairy. My one real temptation is ice cream but now you can get some great non-dairy ones. And I’m working on making my own without sugar.

        • Kathy says:

          Yep, I know the temptation of ice cream. Unfortunately for us, the non-dairy kinds are 50 miles away and–even if you put them in the cooler–they won’t last all the way home. So sometimes just gotta have a cone. Going sugarless, though, seems a really healthy way to go.

  12. Kathy – THANKS A LOT! [That said with drool laden chin because now I’m hungry and my stomach is growling after reading this post and eyeing the delicious photographs]…

  13. Susan D says:

    I’m with Laurie. So hungry now! I love your lack of recipes daring and applaud it, and the resulting namesakes. Create on, create on, adventurous one 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Any time you want to come over, Susan D, I shall create an unknown adventuresome-ly named feast and we shall assess its relative worth! Thank you, my friend.

  14. Lori D says:

    I cook without a recipe almost every night for dinner. Then, when it turns out delicious, I want to make it again but forgot what I did. My husband asks for it again, but I can never quite replicate the same.
    I’m impressed with the baking without a recipe. I haven’t tried that yet. The muffin sounded yummy even to me, who prefers my sweets sweet. I do love cinnamon. BTW, your fridge is way cleaner than mine. Sigh. I keep blaming everything that I don’t get done on my husband’s accident, That excuse will work for several months anyway. Thanks for sharing the muffin recipe. I wonder if I can find quark here.

    • Kathy says:

      Lori, I impressed that you do this, as well. Our husbands should get together and commiserate. I can’t replicate again, either. Thank you for your kind compliments on the frig. It is cleaner than usual, although I can’t remember why. Someone must have been coming over… P.S. Good luck at replicating the non-recipe! I’m not sure I can do it again. Let me know if you find quark. I spooned it atop plain apples and walnuts this afternoon and drizzled on maple syrup. Without sweetener, it’s quite tart.

  15. Colleen says:

    Smiling in delight Kathy! Yes and yes and yes, I do know the joy of this 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Smiling in delight right back atcha, Colleen! I am so glad you commented. I saw your “like” for this article come in somewhere about 3:45 and an inner voice clamored, “Oh, I hope Colleen comments! Oh, I hope Colleen comments!” And, look, you did. 🙂

      • Colleen says:

        I wanted to comment right then but had to wait for a quiet minute. Tiny bumping-around keyboard and auto spell/or check/or whatever it’s called…heaven knows what might have come out. I’ve always loved your food sharings, always appreciate your thoughts.

  16. Robin says:

    I just like the name “Quark.” It makes me smile. And oh yes, I frequently cook without a recipe. It’s why my pasta sauce is such a hit. It’s never the same. That did get me into some trouble when I was homebrewing beer and mead, mostly because not following a recipe or keeping records meant I couldn’t duplicate a beer or mead that was well liked. Oh well. At least we got to enjoy it while it lasted. 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Isn’t Quark the strangest name, Robin? Your pasta sauce sounds delicious. Actually, ripe tomatoes sound delicious right now. Smiling about your beer & mead challenges. You gotta love creativity! 🙂

  17. All of the non-recipe-bound cooks have already said everything I would have said. My mom taught me to cook, also, and we had precious little to cook with. If I’d had to follow a recipe, we would never have had anything for supper. Cooking is using what you have and making it edible, even tasty. The first time I heard of a recipe for meatloaf, I was utterly amazed. Meatloaf is what you make when you don’t have much meat and need something for supper. You add whatever you have, pour catsup/ketchup over it, and bake. NEVER the same meatloaf twice! Bread is the only baking I do without a recipe…and usually I’m sorta following one more or less. Welcome to the wonderful world of “inventing supper”, which is how I’ve usually referred to it.

    • Kathy says:

      Esther, I so enjoyed reading your comment about meatloaf. Fascinating. Would love a slice of your home baked bread with dinner tonight. And how I love the world of “inventing supper”. That is a great way of referring to it!

  18. lisaspiral says:

    I cook without recipes much of the time. My Mom’s recipes are all lies! (which I learned in Junior High). She never measures. One of the things I have learned to do over the years is to convert the “dollop” into an actual measurement – to share those treats with less experienced cooks. I’ve also found it useful when I want to stand a small chance of reproducing a particularly satisfying experiment. Having a computer file of recipes makes it easier to jot down notes than trying to find a blank index card when I need one. Have fun throwing things in the pot!

    • Kathy says:

      Yes, it is very hard to explain terms like “dollop” in order to share. Or to reproduce. I made the apple-thingees again yesterday. Not as great results. Must remember that consistency (as in ingredient consistency) is very important. To make sure the batter looks and feels appropriate and to add more dry/wet as intuited. By the way, that would be a great title. My mom’s recipes are all lies! (Of course your mom might not like it…)

  19. Stacy says:

    My, how delicious all of your non- recipes look, Kathy! As for me, I cook this way all the time – prevents one from wasting food. Tonight I cooked a vegetable medley-something. Yum!

    • Kathy says:

      Stacy, I so approve of you not wanting to waste food. Me, either. In fact I am a Type A person in the arena of utilizing food to its utmost advantage. Thank you for your kind compliment. At least the food LOOKED good, lol.

  20. coastalcrone says:

    What fun to cook without a recipe and just cook what you have! It took me years to start doing this. I agree with Stacy that it prevents wasting food and Husband likes recycled food. Yet I do rely on some recipes but am not afraid to change them up.

    • Kathy says:

      Coastalcrone, it sounds like we are very similar. It took me years, too. And not wasting food is such an advantage! Nice to see you again.

  21. Tee- hee, now you’re cooking with gas or maybe in your case electricity. Cooking with gas is an old expression but you probably know that. I cook minus receipes and things that ordinary folks take for granted. All fresh produce and cooking everything from scratch. Baking is a different ballgame but I don’t do that since I can’t eat the stuff anyhow.

    Kathy you are eating much healthier and that is so important. Don’t forget to use good olive oil- it’s very good for you. And almonds or walnuts. Fill your freezer with blueberries so you have those for shakes or smoothies just about every day. And cranberries- but they take sugar which is not good for you. Use local or almost local honey or maple syrup as your sweetner.

    • Kathy says:

      Old expression or not, we certainly do cook with gas! It sounds like you are a very healthy eater, Yvonne. How wonderful. We do buy good organic olive oil and I am the biggest fan of almonds (just bought a half case and froze many.) And walnuts, yum. I am now utterly convinced it is necessary to buy some blueberries when we go to the “big city” tomorrow. Would like to eat more of them, as you suggested. We do buy a quart of local honey for our primary sweetener, oh, and some local maple syrup, too. Thank you for all your good advice!

  22. sonali says:

    very interesting.. wait, i’m just leaving from work right now & will read once again from home…..

    • Kathy says:

      Hope you still thought it was interesting when you got home, lol!

      • sonali says:

        Haha! LOL… Yeah I do. I find it interesting, after 27 yrs as well I’m sure to find it interesting. Whats Sorghum? ok… the dish looks quite professional.. was it crunchy or soft? I like apple pie.. do you know how to make them?
        Cooking without recipe is my routine.. sometimes delicious, sometimes worse!

        • Kathy says:

          This one was very soft. And sorghum is a sweetener like molasses. Here is a link:

          I do know how to make apple pie. My grandma and mom used to make them. But now I don’t make them because they are full of too much sugar. Glad to hear you’re another recipe-less person. Even though we have to deal with that “worse” challenge.

  23. bearyweather says:

    I find the most cookbook freedom when making soups, stews and salads. When it comes to baking, I usually just play with recipes I know are good (add things, change flavors, etc..) .. I am not as brave as you when it comes to baking. 😉

    • Kathy says:

      Bearyweather, I am just embracing this particular form of baking bravery. It was so fun to have that first success the other day! However, made it again yesterday and learned a lot about how to pay attention to the proper consistency of wet/dry which is necessary in the Baking World. Glad to hear you’re a recipe player.

  24. Barb says:

    Well, I was going to add my comments here, but looking through the others, I see that my lovely daughter already stole my thunder!!! Don’t know where she gets it, lol. But if asked by husband or others, when they say “What do you call this?” …I say “Lunch” And, yes, the quark sounds quite interesting…kind quirky..

    • Kathy says:

      Quirky quark indeed, Barb! As for daughters, yep, they can sometimes steal our thunder…or we steal theirs. It’s give-and-take that way. 🙂

  25. Reggie says:

    My hand was up too! I used to eat ‘Quark’ all the time when I was living in Swakop, which used to be a very German village in Namibia (it is now a very large town, and no longer as German as it once was). Loved it! You brought back some happy memories there. I’m not sure if I’m brave enough, though, to tackle your recipe ‘Apple Stravanja’. There’s some things in there that I’ve never used. 🙂

    But yes, cooking – even baking! how delightfully rebellious! – without a recipe is awesome. I rarely follow recipes, because there’s usually something in there that I don’t have in my fridge or pantry, or that I don’t eat, or that I am allergic to. So I always ‘ad lib’ it. Mind you, I also tend to prepare my favourite standard meals, rather than experimenting. You have inspired me, Kathy!

    • Kathy says:

      How fun to know that someone else has sampled Quark, Reggie. Cool! As for my Apple-Whatchimacallit–I tried to make it again yesterday and it barely resembled the first time. Am learning lots about baking without a recipe, though. Consistency seems to be the key (as in the proper amount of wet/dry ingredients). Hope to get this down a little better. Glad to hear you’re an ad-libber. Sounds like a womans-libber, ha ha.

  26. Karma says:

    Wow, baking without a recipe! You are a daring type for sure. Cooking without one – yes, I’ve done that and lived to tell about it (though I do like a recipe I can replicate in case it is something really good that the whole family enjoys). With baking I don’t think I could ever be sure to get the chemistry right and it pains me to throw out things that don’t turn out well. I’m sorrowful at the waste of the ingredients. I’ve had this experience twice lately with “no bake” recipes – items that were supposed to do their magic in the refrigerator- and ended up big mucky failures!

    • Kathy says:

      Karma, this daring baking is brand new, so who knows where it will go? It is much harder to ad-lib when you’re cooking for an entire family, it seems. Barry and I started eating “out of the box” about ten years ago, so our taste buds had a long time to adjust to novel eating experiences. And, yes, it’s so awful when we have to throw out food. Usually I end up just eating it, awful or not! lol.

  27. dorannrule says:

    Your courage in blindly cooking sans recipes is the mark of a really good cook. I know if I tried that, the end result would look (and taste) like mud. 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Well, Dor, we HAVE had a few “muddy” meals at the kitchen table. It’s just that after a long LONG time I started to notice that there seems to be formulas at work and that it’s possible to interchange things much more than expected. I suspect you’d graduate to making good improvised sans-recipe meals in no time!

  28. Fascinating post and comments.
    I never learned to cook; my mom always said “Go and practice the piano,” and off I went. She was a great cook.
    Cookbooks, I have somewhere, but they are written in a foreign language.
    Loved the photo of the refrigerator. I should take a photo of mine. It has water and juice in it along with Almond Milk. What a difference!
    Keep experimenting…maybe you will be the next Mrs. Edwards.

    • Kathy says:

      How lucky to have a mom who urged you to play the piano. Actually, my mom never really taught me to cook very much, either. I remember her trying to get me to clean chicken parts and I carried on like a crazy teenager about how awful this was. Smiling at your foreign language cookbooks. Funny!

  29. Janet says:

    No cookbook? 🙂 I smiled when I read this because I can hardly boil water without a recipe. My friend (who is the exact opposite of me) and I have discussions about this. Lately, though, I have been going without and creating some simple, yet tasty dishes. It’s freeing. But I don’t think I will ever be able to bake without a recipe.

    • Kathy says:

      I know a few others who would agree with you, Janet! And I was exactly this way for a few years, too. (The baking is really iffy. There is definitely a recipe-free learning curve and I don’t have it mastered yet.)

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