I spent the summer of 2001 studying Medieval Slavic manuscripts through an intensive summer institute at the Hilander Research Libary at Ohio State University that included coursework on paleography and recensions of Church Slavonic… but unforunately (fortunately?) for the forward trajectory of my career in academia, I did not end up incorporating much of what I learned into a later body of research.
I did, however, leave Columbus completely and utterly changed as a home chef.
My roommate for the Medieval Summer Slavic Institute, Ines, hailed from Madrid, had spent much time living in Naples, and produced the most amazing concoctions in our slender galley kitchen. I was no stranger to the kitchen, myself, at the time, but my culinary naivety is striking in retrospect.
That summer was of such staggering importance to my future in the kitchen, because Ines taught me how to cook without a recipe. And not just in the sense that one becomes so familiar with a dish after cooking it several times, there is no need to look at the recipe. She taught me how to use instinct and experience to assemble random items at hand into delicious food.
Now, I’ve had to revert back to a more recipe-oriented standpoint in recent years. Recipe culture on the Internet is, perhaps necessarily, more precise. Submission to formalized recipe sites requires exact measurements of all ingredients, not only for consistency, but also so that submission software can calculate nutritional information. Oftentimes, I will publish recipes on this blog and elsewhere with ingredient measurements that work… but that I don’t necessarily follow when I make the dish. Or I’ll include instructions for fudging the amounts one way or the other.
This Saturday, however, I was reminded of my purely recipe-free summer with Ines. I was over at my parents’ house for my weekly dinner and Star Trek with Neilbert. It was a warm summer day; a couple of ice cold beers (literally, I left mine in the freezer too long) helped to cut the heat, but I couldn’t imagine cooking anything too heavy. A pasta dish in the tradition of recipe-less cooking from Ines seemed the perfect solution.
PASTA WITH SPINACH & DRIED-TOMATO
So, this is the recipe part of the blog, right? But in accordance with everything I said so far, it’s not going to have a list of exact ingredients. Cooking is supposed to be something of an art, so use your own tastes and judgement to figure out how much to use. Here are the items I used in this dish:
dried tomato (here’s one way to make them)
I started by sauteing the garlic and onion in olive oil; that’s pretty much how Ines started nearly every recipe I ever saw her make. When the onions were looking softened and a little crisp, I added the spinach. Now, I’m sure Ines would never settle for less than fresh spinach, but the only thing Neilbert and Saundra had around the house was a box of frozen spinach, so that’s what I used. I added more olive oil as the initial dose got absorbed.
Meanwhile I cooked some pasta. How much? I don’t know, I just eyed it up, and based on my vegetables cooking on the next burner over, I made a guess. I cooked it for about five minutes at most; another habit I took from Ines was cooking pasta very al dente. Before I met her I would have considered it under-done. Now, it’s just the way I eat.
While the pasta was boiling, I added my dried tomatoes to the spinach amalgam and added more oil (as that was my intended main medium of the “sauce”). I also included a healthy dose of paprika; something I’ve learned from Hungarian cooking is that there is really no such thing as too much paprika. Once the vegetables were heated through, I tossed them with the pasta. I didn’t add salt directly to the finished product because Neilbert has salt sensitivities, but for anyone not on a salt-restricted diet, it’s pretty important. There are so few seasonings in this dish that the salt goes a long way to bringing out the natural flavors in the vegetables.
This recipe is great on its own, of course, but it can also be dressed up in a number of different ways. Bacon is a great addition for meat lovers, as would be a number of crumbled cheeses like feta or goat.