Look Ma, No Hands: Cooking Without a Recipe

September 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the universe sends just what you need before you realize you need it. Earlier this week, as my friend Amy was getting ready to head to the East Coast to visit her daughter, she offered me… groceries. Groceries. I wanted to say yes, but um, have you seen my fridge? It’s still packed full of untouched produce from last week’s CSA delivery, which arrived right before IFBC weekend in Seattle. I wasn’t sure I could get through the food I already had, but she insisted, and I’m glad she did. Lucky me, I came home with a container of arugula (excellent, because I’d just run out), a half pint of blueberries (my favorite addition to breakfast cereal), one plump, must-use-now tomato to add to my collection at home, and a small bunch of basil.

Funny thing about that tomato and that basil. Last weekend, during a pre-lunch session at IFBC 2014, Seattle-based chef Thierry Rautureau demonstrated a quick-and-easy tomato-basil soup. The soup is a simple solution to an end-of-summer tomato and basil surplus. Or, depending on your perspective, it could be a last celebration of summer’s bounty. As far as recipes go, it’s the kind of no-recipe recipe that you’ll either love for its simplicity or hate for its lack of detail. Why? Because he didn’t give any quantities — not a one. The ingredients are olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper. That’s it. The technique? Briefly sauté the ingredients together, then purée them in a blender. You can then either freeze the soup, or serve it immediately with a garnish of goat cheese and drizzle of good olive oil. Ta-dah! Wait, what?

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

Chef Thierry Rautureau blending Tomato-Basil Soup at IFBC 2014

In fact most of his presentation was about using what you have on hand to create a dish, or even a meal. After the soup demo, Chef Thierry played an audience-participation game in which he’d ask someone to list the contents of his or her refrigerator, then Chef would come up a recipe idea. It’s basically the exercise that most of us do every day, standing there, in front of the fridge, door open, gawking at the contents, hoping that a delicious dinner will magically reveal itself. Except that Chef Thierry can put those ingredients together in his head, et voilà! Dinner. Nifty.

I could think of just as many friends who would be all over this no-recipe cooking approach as I could those would be paralyzed with fear by it. I’m a big believer in cooking to taste and adjusting ingredients as you like them (for savory cooking, that is — not for baking. Uh uh, no way.). But as I was watching Chef Thierry’s demo, my methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain was squirming. How many tomatoes was that? How much basil? Eek, what if you overdo the basil? How do you fix that? How much olive oil? I don’t have a blender. Can I purée the soup in my food processor? Yep, I’m just as susceptible to recipe fear as anyone else. And yet, that’s the beauty of “savory” cooking — there’s room to adjust as you go, and even right until the end (which is why most recipes have you check your seasoning at the end and adjust to taste as a last step). It’s also the beauty of working with good, fresh ingredients. If they’re flavorful and tasty, that’s half the work done for you.

Yesterday, as I was looking at my really-must-use-now tomatoes, I thought: I should make that soup. What the hell. I’ll make a small portion to test the basil-to-tomato ratio (hello, methodical, technical-writer, pastry-chef brain). Hopefully I won’t overdo the basil. And, if all goes well, I can freeze the soup, saving it for a cold, rainy day, aka, winter here in Northern California. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that, before I went to culinary school, I would have waited to try until it was an hour past dinner time, and I was starving — well, maybe not starving, but definitely hangry. Let me tell you that those sorts of experiments never go well when it’s 8 o’clock at night, and you still haven’t figured out what’s for dinner.

So, with lunch over and done with and a sunny afternoon ahead of me, I pulled together my ingredients, got out a frying pan — and yes, the food processor — and got to work. In short, the whole thing was as easy as Chef Thierry made it look. It was over in about 10 minutes, and yes, I got the tomato-to-basil ratio right — for my taste. My advice, if you’re a cautious cook:

  • Taste your ingredients first; they’ll guide you as to freshness and how much seasoning you might need
  • Assemble everything you need, or think you might need, before you start cooking (aka, mise en place); believe me, you’ll have less stress if you chop those tomatoes before you heat up the oil in the sauté pan
  • Add spices, herbs, salt, pepper in small increments, tasting as you go, so that you can figure out what you like and minimize the risk of overdoing your seasoning
  • Trust your instincts in the kitchen; they’re better than you think

If you’re the kind of person who’s happy to experiment in the kitchen and good with the on-the-fly approach, then you’re probably already off making batches of soup. If you need a bit more structure, here’s my version with quantities. Consider it a gentle guide — a framework for creating your tomato-basil soup.

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Tomato-Basil Soup ingredients: Olive oil, tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper

Recipe: Tomato-Basil Soup
Adapted from Chef Thierry Rautureau’s demonstration at IFBC 2014
Servings: 1 large bowl or 2 cups of soup

Feel free to adjust the quantities of everything to your taste. If you prefer more basil, go there. Use whatever tomatoes you have on hand, as long as they’re flavorful and not too soft. This soup is meant to be served cold or at room temperature, so there’s no need to return it to the heat after you blend it.

Ingredients:

Olive oil
3/4 pound tomatoes (about 3 medium-large), cut into quarters or eighths
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade (cut into thin strips)
Salt
Pepper
Optional garnish: More olive oil, goat cheese

What you need:

Large sauté frying pan (I used a 12″ pan, but scale up if you increase the recipe)
Blender or food processor

How to:

  1. Add 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat on medium-high.
  2. When the oil is glistening, add the tomatoes and any juice to the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring to combine the tomatoes, juice, and oil.
    Adjust the heat if necessary (you don’t want to sear or break down the tomatoes, just cook them enough to enhance their flavor).
    Things will start to look a little saucy as the tomato juice and oil come together.

    Is it soup yet?

    Is it soup yet?

  3. Add the basil, salt, and pepper to the pan and stir to combine. Cook another minute longer.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the tomato mixture to your blender or food processor.
    If you have a blender, I recommend using it. You’ll end up with a soup that has a silky texture and lighter orange-red color. My food processor does a great job, but takes longer than a blender and doesn’t produce the same light, silky texture. My food processor soups tend to be more “rustic.”
  5. Purée the tomato mixture until the soup is smooth and has a light-orange-red color.

    Puréed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

    Pureed soup in my food processor: your mileage may vary

  6. If serving right away, stream some good olive oil into the puréed soup while running the blender, then ladle into a bowl (or bowls) with a dollop of goat cheese and garnish of chopped chives.
  7. If not serving now, don’t stream in the extra olive oil, but do pour the soup into a freezer-safe container and freeze for up three months. To serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, drizzle with good olive oil, and garnish with fresh chives and a spoonful of goat cheese — or enjoy plain.

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