When it comes to daily cooking, how often do you rely on a recipe? Even the most basic home cooks can make certain dishes — scrambled eggs, say, and spaghetti marinara — without opening a file box, book or browser.
And that's how it should be. Yet we are, in our kitchens, increasingly driven by recipes, a reflection of how far removed from day-to-day cooking we have grown in the last couple of generations. Most kids these days do not learn to cook by the side of their mamas, nonnas and aunties.
It's a shame, and I'm always hoping the pendulum is swinging back toward true home cooking. There are signs that it might be: The popularity of preserving and of fermenting and the popularity of farmers markets and gardening come to mind as optimistic signs. Cooking is in our blood, our genes, just as gardening and farming are.
One way to simplify your cooking is to focus on the seasons, and the best way to do this is, of course, to garden and to shop at local farmers markets and farm stands, especially when it comes to produce. By doing this, you will naturally combine ingredients that resonate well with one another.
This can mean stepping outside your comfort zone, especially when it comes to certain favorite recipes. For example, if you love Caprese salad — sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, basil, garlic and olive oil — you'll not find all the ingredients in the dead of winter or even mid-spring.
So, what should you do? Run to the supermarket for what is not at a local market? No, of course not.
Wait to make a Caprese salad until local tomatoes and basil appear? That's one option, of course. But there's another possibility.
Take inspiration from that salad, using it as a template of sorts, but make seasonal adjustments.
This is what I do in my most recent book, "Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings" (Harvard Common Press, 2013). Following my version of Insalta Caprese, I offer eight variations to accommodate what is in season at different times of the year.
In the spring, I slice fresh mozzarella and top it with shelled and blanched fava beans, thinly sliced French Breakfast radishes, thinly sliced spring onions, the newest olive oil, fresh spearmint leaves and snipped fresh chives. It is delicately delicious and in perfect harmony with the season.
Sometimes I use burrata instead of mozzarella.
I do the same thing with potato salad, rice salad, farro salad, quinoa salad, bread salad and tabbouleh. I've been cooking long enough that I know the basic formulas, or templates, and then add seasonal flourishes based on what is available and just seems right. This is how I approach soups, too.
Commercial versions of tabbouleh can be very disappointing. In my experience, they can be watery, which comes from either not pressing excess water out of the bulgur or from overcooking it; bland, which comes from underseasoning and from using curly parsley instead of Italian parsley, and rather tasteless, which comes from using out-of-season tomatoes.
<b>Spring Tabbouleh, with a Gluten-Free Variation</b>
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
<i>1 cup bulgur wheat
1 bunch very fresh small French Breakfast radishes, with nice greens