Improvisation, European Style

I've realized since I've been in Belgium and Germany that I have an unusually high reliance on recipes and cookbooks. Most of my friends here, when making lunch or dinner, just glance around the kitchen and throw something together step by step. In contrast, even if I am making one of my own recipes I'll look back at the blog or my jotted notes to find out how exactly I did it. When my friends and I are cooking, this leads to some funny situations, where I am begging them to let me look quickly at a cookbook to find out what the cooking time, quantities, or temperature is, and they are heavily rolling their eyes saying "ahhh, you can just tell when its right, just taste it!!!"
Pumpkin+ Pumpkin oil+ bread + margarine
I have a whole cultural theory behind this: Europeans did not experience the same boom in reliance on prepared foods that Americans did in the fifties and sixties. (Ie, European recipes do not usually look like: "empty a can of mushroom soup onto chicken, toss, and bake for 30 minutes...") As a result of the fact that Europeans, either because of stronger traditional adherence, relative poverty in the post-war era, or the Common Agricultural Policy, retained a reliance on elemental ingredients, and thus passed down to their children techniques for cooking that became second nature. American kids, on the other hand, found themselves at a loss for making things from scratch, having grown up with canned beans, cake mix, and Hamburger Helper. (Not everyone, mind you, but I think its more typical in the US than here.)

Roasted carrots+ Avocado+ olive oil+ salt and pepper

This might be why European cookbooks are so sparse in explanation (as opposed to the novels in American cookbooks), and why my generation had to teach ourselves to cook relatively simple things: we grew up with so many prepared foods at our disposal that we forgot improvisational cooking techniques, and feel more attached, (even, fervently attached) to cookbooks that teach us how to get those skills back.

Now, this is all a theory and I may be totally full of it, please let me know if you have an alternate explanation in the comments.
Mashed potatoes mashed w/ brussels sprouts+roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, and pears

At any rate, this is all to say that here are a few meals that were bravely improvised, with nary a recipe in sight. You may notice that they have very few ingredients, but still, I'm making progress here! However, I don't care if I live in Europe till I die, you will still have to pry my Veganomicon from my cold, dead American hands.


jessy said...

i can't argue with ya, T. i think we have totally relied too heavily on prepackaged and premeasured foods (soups in cans and such) for our recipes in the past and we've definitely lots some cooking knowledge, or maybe we didn't have all that much to begin with. my mom didn't make many meals from processed food (i do remember her making a bunch of sauces and such from scratch), but she did rely on her cookbooks and recipe cards every time. there was no "winging it". i found myself the same way for years, and i still always follow a recipe with baked goods. i've gotten a little better in finding my way around a few entrees, but i do treasure many of the cookbooks i have and don't feel too bad for always wanting to give 'em a little peak so i don't fub something up. :) such an awesome post - it really has me thinking now. thanks, T!

Mihl said...

Really interesting post! Especially your thoughts about cookbook expanations. I realized how sparse they were in German cookbooks when I started to read US cookbooks.

sara said...

that's a good theory. i think it's especially our parents' generation that relied on processed foods. my mom rarely cooked from scratch. my grandma often cooked from scratch without recipes. i'm trying to be more like her, but it's hard! your improvised meals look great, especially the mashed taters with brussel sprouts!

Amey said...

ha ha, I am *totally* with you on cookbook reliance. Your theory actually sounds pretty good. I know that I feel quite unsure without a recipe to follow, but totally confident with a recipe. Every once in a while I"ll challenge myself to cook up something or innovate a little, and I always feel so proud of myself!

Noelle said...

Lovely post. I have to say I often feel the opposite. I totally do not rely on cookbooks. I wing almost every meal and try for it to be simple as possible. I actually love it. It is how I grew up at home and funnier still when my mother asks me what I would like for her to make I have no clue/ Every dish she makes is improv and delicious! :D

Hey by the way, I am coming to Berlin in June 2011, maybe we can meet up!

Anonymous said...

You've clearly not read a French cookbook - explinations on which ingredients you should use last a page, another page on how to chose your pan, etc... They are not novels, they are War & Peace!
Seriously, I agree with the being spontaneous thing - I look in fridge, see what we have, through it together. I can't blog those things, unfortunately, because people want to reproduce what they see, and that's not how it works! I wing, I know it's ready when it tastes ready. But that takes practice, and learning from watching other people. Not something that happens in every country. Sigh.

Ebony said...

I like cookbooks for finding new ideas, but really don't rely on them. I think that if you grew up seeing people cook from scratch, you learn that as the way to go. My parents both cook and both do it by taste. My mom cannot even begin to tell me how to bake her sweet potato pie that I love so much. The same goes for all of my other relatives. My brother, sister, and I all cook this way.

Megan said...

Sadly, that same reliance on pre-packaged food has spread to Australia, but thankfully it's not quite to the same extent as in the USA. I was really lucky that my mother made food from scratch, especially cakes - if I wasn't always hanging out in the kitchen trying to be the first child to get spoon-rights (and I still lick batter from the spoon when I make cakes!) then I doubt that I'd be the avid cook that I am today.
A word on German cookbooks, though: they're undoubtedly more complicated than in many other Western nations, but that's because their recipes aren't simplified. It's as though these cookbooks want the cook to do absolutely everything the long way. My housemate has a book where in one recipe, vegetables get cooked separately and then combined at the end in the sauce, whereas I'd just add them to the pot at different times according to how long they need to cook. It's the sort of recipe that would be followed to the letter by said housemate, because the only thing he can cook without instruction is frozen pizza... :/

Gauri Radha गौरी राधा said...

Those mashed potatoes look great!!