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There Is Some Good in ‘No-Recipe’ Cookbooks

I also noticed something funny that I cross-referenced with Elisabeth, showing her a few of the meals Chang features in the book—descriptive instruction with mostly quantity-less ingredients (cleverly underlined and colorized so they stick out) all tucked into meaty paragraphs.

“They’re recipes in prose form,” she said. “Is that helpful?”

I tried to answer that question by making Chang’s no-recipe recipe for shrimp with corn and potatoes, where the spuds cook with bacon, onion, and garlic then get a squirt of miso or a sprinkle of chaat masala. It’s a fun, tasty dish, with an unspoken reliance on a home cook’s existing skills to get it over the finish line. Potatoes, diced to the size shown in the photo, took way longer than the five minutes it says they need to cook, and while the bacon I used had plenty of fat, it didn’t render enough to cook the onion and potatoes like the recipe implied it would. I also found myself reverse engineering the recipe to prep things and figure out quantities.

Similarly, Chang’s microwave eggplant parm turned out like you might hope a recipe for “weeknight eggplant parm” might, but in this case it was fussier. The recipe calls for “a few” eggplants cut in half-inch thick discs, arranged on a platter and nuked for five to ten minutes. My microwave is a small but mighty GE we’ve dubbed Sparky Jr., and while microwaves can be fantastic kitchen helpers, cooking this quantity of eggplant in it was a pain in the butt. I was forced to do multiple rounds on different plates, a problem I think almost everyone trying this recipe will have. (Sparky Jr. is small, but not that small.) Eventually, though, I layered everything into a baking dish (Chang and Krishna suggest an oven-safe pot of indeterminate size) and 30 minutes later, we had a nice little dinner.

I’d had enough of this book, but just to be sure I was reading things correctly, I DMed a food writer colleague.

“I hate this ‘no-recipe’ crap,” she responded. “Recipes, when they are well written and edited, are designed to be clear instructions to get you to a specific destination. Why is that a bad thing?”

There’s a good book in here somewhere, perhaps something called David Chang’s Weeknight Cooking. But being cloaked in the no-recipe format just bogs it down.

The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton, on the other hand, is sleek and nimble. Clothbound in a dashing red and roughly the size of a thick iPad, it’s chockablock with low-effort, high-reward food. Outside of the table of contents, there are exactly four pages of text before it dives into the recipes, and three of those suggest good stuff to have in the pantry.

And those “recipes?” They’re still recipes, with a classic (super short) headnote, ingredient list, and procedure, all quite streamlined. Quantities tend to rely on your good judgment. I came to think of the book as a collection of good ideas for people in a hurry who know how to cook and just want some guidelines.

One cool evening when I didn’t want to go to the grocery store, I made anchovy butter, mushing a tin of tiny salty filets into a stick of softened butter with some minced garlic, paprika, and lemon. That got smeared on toast homemade bread, topped with a soft-boiled egg, and Elisabeth and I washed it down with a glass of cava. For a moment, the news of the world faded away and everything was good.


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