Recipes by rote and riff: jazz in the kitchen

I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to live in such a neighborly neighborhood. Yesterday, I made blackberry pies for some of the folks who've been incredibly warm in welcoming us. We have more to make and thank, but in the meantime, the boys took it upon themselves last night to shower, comb their hair (bless his heart, Oliver combed so dramatically that he appeared to have the most extreme comb-over possible. I didn't have the heart to tell him that he looked anything but dashing.), and dress in suits so as to look their nicest as we took our tray o' pies around.

I could whip those pies up on a busy afternoon because doing so is second nature now. When you love to cook, come from a pie-making family, married an ardent pie lover, and have one child who requests birthday pie, you get good at making pie.

And an absolute pleasure that is. Did I tell you about the time I made a pie at a friend's house during a playdate? Because the mood struck and I could? Delightful.

My 40 in forty bit of wisdom for today is thus: master a handful of favorite dishes such that you can make them pretty much anywhere, anytime.

Do this, and you won't need a recipe because your hands and heart know just what to do. You've got the appropriate pots, pans, utensils and ingredients because since you make these dishes so often, the basics are on hand.

The great thing about gaining such fluency with a cadre of beloved recipes is that without realizing it, you also gain greater fluency with general cooking. You can start to riff on dishes, tweaking flavors and textures, personalizing and making them your own. 

Any good recipe was inspired by many others and will influence more to come. Isn't that connectivity with both past and future delightful?

If you're baffled by the idea of mastering five recipes and tucking them in your pocket, start with those you've always loved. Childhood favorites? A great place to begin. The pies I made for our neighbors? Nanny's blackberry pie of course. 

The Brussels sprouts I made yet again tonight? They're my rendition of Blue Duck Tavern's crispy Brussels sprouts with pecorino, capers, and lemon. I first experienced those more than two years ago and knew that I could never go without them as a regular guest in my life. Necessity is the mother of invention, n'est-ce pas?

Candied kumquats? A must for ricotta (also a must). I make both as often as possible. Gumbo? Yes, thank you. Plum tart during plum season? Daily. I have plums on my counter now, just waiting until tomorrow which is when I've willed them to be perfectly ripe. 

Not once will I need to look at a recipe, or if I do, to worry about the instructions or whether or not I have the right ingredients. These are such familiar friends to me now; we pick up right where we last left each other: an empty plate and a licked-clean fork.