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Cook from the Book: No-Recipe Recipes

by Genevieve Halbert

published on 25 March 2021

When we got wind that the new cookbook from Sam Sifton, editor of The New York Times Cooking, would be a collection of so-called “no-recipe recipes” our curiosity was piqued. Here at The Happy Foodie, recipes are, well . . . kind of our thing. But on occasion even we tire of careful weighing, accurate measuring, and anxious page-checking. The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes is designed for those midweek evenings when following a prescriptive recipe feels like a drag; packed with loose meal suggestions, rather than recipes, it aims to liberate readers from their dependence on recipes and encourage creativity and improvisation in the kitchen. We gathered a handful of enthusiastic volunteers to test out these non-recipes, with some truly enticing results. See how we got on below.  

From the book

Who: Claire Scott – Head of Publicity and Communications, Ebury Publishing

What I made: Celery Soup

What I thought: This soup recipe was the perfect lockdown lunch – so easy to make and really tasty. I had a spare, rather sad looking leek that I threw in with the onion and celery. Who knew that so few ingredients would make such a delicious soup? I will definitely be adding this to my regular soup recipe rotation. Simple, easy, and flavoursome.

Who: Caroline Butler – Head of Marketing, Insight & Digital Strategy, Ebury Publishing

What I made: Spicy Caper and Olive Pasta

What I thought: I often actually make something a little like this when I’ve not managed to pop out to the shops and I’m very busy. But I have to say that this knocks the socks off anything I’ve tried previously. What I really like is that is how playful and creative the “no-recipe recipes” are. This particular non-recipe created a lovely base and allowed plenty of scope for mixing things up. I didn’t have chilli-garlic sauce, I had Chinese chili oil and garlic instead – and that didn’t matter. I loved that you could use fish sauce instead of anchovies (how many of us have a half-eaten tin at the back of the fridge all solidified and odd – you never use more than a couple of fillets). And the flavour was really rich and tasty. I think it took about twenty minutes to make (if I’d started the spaghetti at the same time as the sauce I’m sure it would have been quicker) so great for a quick WFH lunch. A delicious, hearty two tomatoey thumbs up from me!

Who: Jessica Cselko – Marketing Executive, Ebury Publishing

What I made: Miso-Glazed Eggplant with a Bowl of Rice + Shaved Cucumbers with Peanut Sauce + Grilled Broccoli with Soy Sauce, Maple Syrup, and Balsamic Vinegar

What I thought:  I’ve never been great at following recipes perfectly; this cookbook proved to me that I can trust my instinct while cooking. I found these three recipes very easy to make and really tasty – highly recommend!

Who: Alice King – Publicity Manager, Ebury Publishing 

What I made: Savoury French Toast

What I thought: This was such an easy, weekend brunch, but looks very fancy! I loved not having quantities for this, it made for a really relaxed, enjoyable cooking experience, and definitely made me feel confident enough to try more intuitive cooking. Chucking the tomatoes in with the french toast make them incredibly sweet and soft, and the mix of basil, crunchy, buttery french toast and fresh tomatoes was a dream. I’ll definitely be making this again!

Who: Stephenie Naulls – Head of Campaigns, Ebury Publishing

What I made: Pasta Puttanesca

What I thought: They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I say do judge a book by its puttanesca recipe. One of the best parts of my job is getting to try recipes from books before they are out in the world and I’d say nine times out of ten the first thing I gravitate towards making is the writers’ take on a puttanesca. If you asked me to, I could share my puttanesca recipe ranking with you off the top of my head – this one just went straight to the top of the list. I had all the ingredients to hand in my cupboard/ back of the fridge. It doesn’t have tuna in it like a lot of puttanesca recipes do, and is vegan (if you use vegan cheese to top!). I made it in the time it took for my pasta shells to cook – an easy lunchtime treat or a quick dinner, ready in no time at all. Sam suggests using pasta shells so the olives can get lost inside them and it’s such a treat when they do.

Who: Genevieve Halbert – Marketing Executive, The Happy Foodie

What I made: Chicken with Caramelised Onions and Croutons

What I thought: This is one of those alchemical dishes that combine a few simple ingredients to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. The juicy chicken thighs and soft, sweet onions are offset beautifully by the satisfyingly crunchy croutons (I made mine with some stale sourdough that had been languising in my bread bin). The recipe (or, rather, “no-recipe”) allows plenty of room for improvisation – I added a little red wine halfway through cooking, which prevented the onions from getting too brown and gave the finished dish a wonderful depth of flavour. I didn’t have the recommended bitter salad leaves to serve, so I paired the chicken with a pile of fluffy mashed potato, stirred through with fresh parsley and wholegrain mustard (mashed potato is a reasonable substitute for salad leaves, right?). The whole thing was ready in under forty minutes, so it’s destined to become a firm fixture in my family’s midweek meal repertoire. 

Who: Chloë Johnson-Hill – Acting Communications Director, Ebury Publishing

What I made: Pasta with Chickpeas and a Negroni + Pan-Roasted Chicken with Chillies + Fried Halloumi with Cucumber Salad

What I thought: Any recipe that recommends drinking a negroni while you make it seems a no-brainer to me, so I was delighted to choose Pasta with Chickpeas and a Negroni. But since the whole concept of No-Recipe Recipes is that you can be approximate with ingredients, and cook much of it with what you already have at home, I actually ended up cooking from the book all weekend. First up I made the Pan-Roasted Chicken with Chillis, which had a glorious depth of flavour you wouldn’t expect from something so simple to make (and there was also a cross-cookbook situation as the breadcrumbs happened to be from Nigella Lawson’s No Knead Bread in Cook Eat Repeat). Saturday lunch was the Fried Halloumi with Cucumber Salad (which was so easy to throw together and so delicious we had it for lunch again the next day, with the seeds from half a pomegranate added too). And on Saturday evening I finally got to have that negroni (below), and I just about remembered to make the pasta and chickpeas (also deceptively good for something so easy). I’m sure I’ll be cooking all three recipes regularly, and many more from this wonderful book.


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