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Jan 24, 2013 03:10PM

Do without: Getting back to basics as a healthy cooking method

By Sarah J. Gardner
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Paul Colletti
Preparing meals that do not require recipes can be a good way to start eating healthy.
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Paul Colletti
Salmon, a few slices of lemon and a few sprigs of dill can create a simple, healthy dinner.
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You could call it a crisis of conscience. One day, while broiling some tilapia fillets for dinner, I started thinking about what a simple recipe this was: salt, pepper, fish. In fact, it wasn't really a recipe at all. There were no measurements, no baking time. Just a pinch of this, a pinch of that, a little heat until it's cooked through.

I also planned to eat some steamed broccoli and boiled rice as sides (no recipes needed for those, either). There were no heavy sauces made from butter or cream, no dressings tinged with sweetness — in short, little in the way of added fat or sugar — and that's when it occurred me. The healthiest meals I make are generally the ones without recipes.

That's a tough idea to confront when you make your living, as I do, reading and writing about food. I love and collect recipes, often taking cookbooks to bed with me to read like novels. And I wouldn't go so far as to say all recipes are inherently unhealthy. In fact, many recipes I have worked with over the years have been a gateway for me trying new grains, fruits and vegetables. But still, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if I put the recipes away. Would simpler meals also be healthier?

Hits and misses

One month. That's how long I decided to try cooking without recipes. No sooner did I resolve as much then I was filled with panic that I would spend the next month eating nothing but broiled fish. Or sandwiches. I could always make lots of sandwiches. But was it cheating to use bread someone else baked?

Even when cooking with recipes, I do buy basic staples from time to time like bread and noodles. Since the point of the exercise wasn't to make everything from scratch, but to make the things I make from scratch simpler, I decided it was OK to purchase parts of a meal — say, a good loaf of whole-grain bread from the farmers' market for sandwiches — so long as I did so in moderation and aimed for healthy choices. An entire frozen TV dinner, on the other hand, would be out of bounds.

As I got started, I was pleasantly surprised to find how many meals I already made that needed no recipes. Roast chicken, for example. It has been a Sunday staple in my home for years: salt and pepper outside, some lemon and herbs inside, all popped in a 450 degree oven. A half hour later, toss in some chopped root vegetables and a cup of wine or broth, then cook a half hour more. Easy enough.

We also regularly eat a number of soups (usually made with stock made from the bones of Sunday's chicken) throughout the week, which are fairly straightforward to make without a recipe. Just add vegetables and pasta or beans (or both). However, midway through the month I found myself craving a more complicated cheese soup. Without a recipe to guide me, though, it was off the list. I settled instead for an onion soup with some grated cheese melted over the top, which was undoubtedly a lower calorie substitute.

Of course, there were some failures. I quickly tired of boiled rice and decided to make baked rice instead, only to realize I couldn't remember the exact proportions of rice-to-water in this more exacting method. The rice came out rather soupy as a result. I made my peace with using a recipe next time.

Also, my husband, bless him, gave me a cookbook as a gift, which proved too tempting to leave on the shelf for a whole month. So I cheated and made bœuf bourguignon one weekend. The results were heavenly, but the amount of effort the recipe required — five hours of cooking! — definitely satisfied my recipe itch for the rest of the month.

The boss comes over

The real test came when we decided to have guests over — and not just any guests, but a former boss. It was one thing for my husband and me to eat simply in our month without recipes. But could I satisfy the appetites of guests?

We settled on salmon as the main dish. So far, so good — it was just a matter of putting a few slices of lemon under the fish and a few sprigs of dill on top, then wrapping it in a foil packet to bake. In my month of cooking without recipes, I had realized when the baking techniques are simple, the outcome depends a lot more on the quality of ingredients going in to the dish. So we splurged on a really good fillet of salmon, and rounded it out with rice, steamed broccoli and a raw salad of sliced fennel and orange segments as side dishes.

It wasn't until our guests arrived that we realized we had a small problem — thanks to a chart on our stove, we knew the internal temperature to aim for but not how long the fish would take to bake. This wasn't such a big deal when it was just the two of us waiting for dinner to heat up, but I felt we couldn't keep two hungry guests waiting and still be good hosts. So, we instituted a drinks course. While the fish finished in the oven, I poured everyone a glass of wine. It was a cheery solution that set a nice tone for the rest of the meal.

The results?

If this had been a scientific study of our eating habits, I would have taken my weight or tested my cholesterol level starting out to report any changes over the course of the month. In reality, I did neither. But I can offer some anecdotal evidence that this was a good change. We really did start eating a lot more vegetables — I mean a lot — as steamed vegetables, tossed salads and stir-fries are about as easy as it gets without a recipe. And we ate fewer desserts, as most sweets require more ingredients than I can trust myself to memorize.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was how much more relaxed I felt about cooking once I let go of recipes. I didn't spend lunch hours looking at recipes online to figure out what to make for dinner, and my trips to the store became quicker as I rarely had to search for hard-to-find ingredients. We got better about eating leftovers, too, maybe because they are the easiest no-recipe dish of all.

Does this mean I'm done with recipes forever? No. Like I said, I enjoy finding new things to cook, and recipes are a great way to try new foods. But I definitely like the easy, healthful rhythm of cooking without a recipe, especially on weeknights.

Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish.

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