It’s unfortunate that we’ve learned to view recipes as something to be followed rather slavishly. That’s not the way cooking works since there are so many variables in ingredients available. If we can get out of that habit, then we’ve made a huge stride in cooking for one.
I’ve talked about Pam Andersen’s How to Cook without a Book-–which is based on using ratios in recipes. Even more liberating from the slavish following of recipes are a number of books which really don’t give specific quantities at all or just suggest approximations of ingredients. These can be easily adjusted if you pay attention to the proportions of the main ingredients or the ratios.
I just purchased Michael Ruhlman‘s Twenty. I found it a fascinating approach to cooking–it introduces you to the really important ingredients that you work with so often that you almost do not think about them–you take them for granted: like salt, eggs, water (yes, water!) and onions, to mention a few. He presents recipes that will make you aware of how these ingredients actually work in the process of cooking–to help you understand them so that you can improvise!
Another great thing about this book is that even though the recipes may be for more servings than you want, ratios are given for important ingredients. For example, in a recipe for “Traditional French Onion Soup”, he give a and “onion-to-liquid” ratio that he prefers for the main ingredients–7 or 8 pounds onions (which really cook down) to 6 cups of water. That gives you the information you need to downsize the recipe. Other ingredients are mostly “to taste” although quantities are suggested in the base recipe. It’s wonderful when the recipes give you this kind of information; however, you can always look at the major ingredients in a recipe and come up with your own ratio.
This book stresses “thinking about food”–and that does not mean looking at the recipe that has 20 ingredients, and dreaming about how nice it would be to make that, but it serves 16, and…. Techniques that are basic to many recipes are presented–some of them are basic ingredients–to help you understand the why and the wherefore of the ingredients. That is the key to improvising. The other important thing stressed: think! Once you understand ingredients, you can adjust the recipe, you can improvise.
This is a book that I’d recommend highly–at least check it out of the library and read it–it just might give some food for though, and open some doors to make single-serving cooking easier for you. I’d also suggest checking out Michael Ruhlman’s website for other good information for the home cook.