Ipick up the phone to call food writer Philip Dundas with the sound of the smoke alarm still ringing in my ears, after burning my toast. It’s not a good start. His new book, Cooking Without Recipes, promises to teach you to cook delicious meals with instinctive, effortless ease. Freed from the shackles of someone else’s instructions, Dundas promises, your kitchen can become a playground. Take a few risks, he whispers through the pages reassuringly, and “you’ll work it out”.
At first I am sceptical – I’m an inexperienced and reluctant cook – so could I really be transformed into an intuitive creator of perfectly balanced dishes? On the other hand, I am sick of following recipes. A recent wrestle with Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Plenty left me exhausted, with a red face and potato in my hair, an hour after my dinner guests arrived.
Dundas was inspired to write his book after his adoptive father learned to cook from scratch after the death of his wife. There are no recipes – just advice on utensils (you need fewer than you think), shopping for ingredients (example: only buy jam with 60% fruit), and helpful information about their properties to help you experiment more successfully. “Most books put all the things you should have in your cupboard, in just the first two or three pages at the beginning, but don’t tell you why,” Dundas says. “It’s a huge assumption that people who are experts make.”
When trying to decide what should go in a dish, he says, there is no better way than handling each ingredient yourself, taking the time to smell it and think about its flavour and texture. “Celebrity chef culture doesn’t encourage us to be gung-ho and just enjoy cooking,” he adds. “I find it odd when I go to someone’s home and they say ‘I am doing a Jamie’ or ‘a Gordon’.” Instead, we should be thinking, he says, “about putting food first, using the best quality ingredients, and being responsible for what you create.” His mantra is clear: “In your kitchen, there are only rules that youmake.”
The easiest way to start experimenting, according to Dundas, is with a dish you like so you know how it should end up. There will be a lot of trying and failing, he warns, but that’s how you discover what works. However, he says: “If you are a risk taker, there is another way of starting: find a fishmonger or market, and if you see something you like, go and ask questions.”
Feeling cowardly, I begin with spaghetti bolognese. How will I know what quantities to use, I worry. And how long should I cook it for? The end result is, well, edible. I burn the pan, use too few tomatoes and it is slightly greasier than I would have liked. But it is warm, reasonably tasty and I have learned a few things. For once, I enjoy the process, and feel able to concentrate on it; as I decide that what it really needs is a spoonful of Marmite, the whole thing feels like a game.
Emboldened, I head to the fishmonger, but there is a line of fearsome older women behind me, wheelie shopping trolleys at the ready, and the staff don’t seem to have time for a chat about provenance and cookery. I end up pointing wildly at a pretty, silver heap. Sprat, apparently. My impatient fishmonger suggests grilling or frying them.
Back home I am nonplussed. Do I need to gut them? How? Do I turn them over under the grill? In the end I Google cooking times, cut them open, and stick them in lemon juice, garlic and dill. They disintegrate a little in my inexpert hands, but go well with the fennel and tomato salad I make (another first). And again it feels like an adventure.
For breakfast, I turn to chef Maria Elia whose new book, Full of Flavour, takes a similar attitude to Dundas. Her book does have recipes, but alongside them she lists suggestions for variations, and at the end of the book leaves space for the reader to add their own. I try her muesli recipe, but ignore many of her ingredients in favour of whatever nuts, seeds and fruit I have in. It’s delicious, but making it wasn’t as exciting and satisfying as being recipe-free.
Dundas, far from being anti-cookery books, has a final chapter devoted to his favourites – to use when you have gained an understanding of ingredients. But I have more experimenting to get through first. I have started habitually stocking up on ingredients I fancy incorporating into something or other, such as pomegranates, okra and baby aubergines. And when I am feeling really brave, there is a rabbit steak in the freezer waiting for an instinctive, effortless cook.