Tune in as Storey publicity and marketing campaign director Alee Moncy speaks with author Phyllis Good about No Recipe? No Problem!
In this episode of Kindling, best-selling cookbook author Phyllis Good explains that she wrote No Recipe? No Problem! as a guide for her younger self—sharing how she went from meticulously following a recipe to freestyling with confidence in the kitchen, and how you can too. Plus, she offers grocery store shopping strategies and reveals the staple ingredients she keeps in her pantry and fridge.
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Full Podcast Transcript
This is Kindling, the Storey Publishing podcast where we explore the spark that ignites a deep-rooted passion for sustainable living. I’m Deborah Balmuth, Storey’s Publisher. From growing organic food and making herbal remedies to fermenting, weaving, and raising chickens, the authors we’ll meet will empower you with the skills and savvy they’ve gleaned from years of hands-on experience.
In each episode of Kindling, you’ll learn what fuels these authors’ excitement and what they love most about creating books that share their expertise and enthusiasm with the world.
Phyllis Good wants you to be more comfortable in your kitchen. With her book, No Recipe? No Problem! this New York Times bestselling author gives you the tools you need to cook more instinctively. Storey’s publicity and marketing campaign director Alee Moncy recently spoke with Phyllis, who talked about the long road that led her to writing this book.
I should start with a confession, and that is that when my husband and I got married, we were both in grad school. And so, we were dividing up the household chores. And a little background on him, he is one of seven brothers, no sisters. They were a farm family, and so they each took their turn helping their mother in the kitchen. And the boys were spaced about every two years apart. And so, he did, in fact, a four-year stint because there was a larger gap after him. And at that time, there was a bit of a stigma related to boys in the kitchen.
However, when we got married, he knew how to do yeast baked rolls. He knew how to do major meals. There was really, I mean, pies. There was nothing that he had not had experience making with his mother’s tutelage.
Me on the other hand, I was always trying to sneak off to read. And I wore my mother out. She was trying to persuade me that this would be something I should really learn to do, become familiar in the kitchen, and learn how to make things. The situation in my family was that both my parents were very good cooks. My grandmother was an excellent cook, she lived next door.
So, there was always great food at our house, but I had no interest in figuring out how that happened. And even the summer before we got married, my mother would bring out the little index cards in her recipe box and suggest gently, maybe now is the time. And I was simply, I was immune to it. I don’t know what I thought.
So anyway, Merle and I are dividing up the household chores and he said, he got ahead of me. He said, “Well, I will clean.” And I said, “Okay, good. Because I don’t like to clean.” I said, “Okay, I’ll cook.” But I knew nothing. I didn’t know anything. I remember the trepidation and the fear I had on the first, prior to the first visit to the grocery store. And I thought, oh dear, I have to make a list. And I did not know where to start.
But I had been given, we had been given a few cookbooks as wedding gifts. And so, I just sat down and I started looking through them. And I thought, well, this looks good, I’ll try it. And one of the books had very few … It assumed that you knew a lot. It had very basic, general directions. That was not enough for me, so I had to go to the other book and rely on every single step.
I remember at one point calling my sister-in-law and saying, “I need chicken broth, but I don’t know how to get chicken broth from a chicken.” It was not easy to find chicken broth on the shelves in those days. I was too proud to call my mother. So that’s just to give you a little sense of my history with food.
But I learned, then, to love cooking because it was so immediate, the result. My husband was a great audience. He was ready to try stuff. I was just making things that I found in this cookbook. And it was a good balance to me. I’m an English major, and I was reading constantly. And so, to be able to do something tactile was a really good thing.
Well, that became almost recreational for me, the cooking. And we eventually started a publishing house. And we live in Eastern Pennsylvania, where there are a lot of visitors to our area. And one of the things people love to do when they come here is eat. The restaurants are very good. They’re very traditional. And so, I said, I could maybe gather recipes from some of the great cooks I know and let people who are visiting here take a book home, and they could then learn how to make the recipes that they come here to enjoy eating.
So that’s a condensed version of how I began doing cookbooks, but it was always with respect for the recipes, and respect for the cooks. I was not a trained chef. I learned it on my own. Basic cooking. And so, I just gathered from the best cooks I knew and put these collections together. And that then led me into doing more cookbooks, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing.
Well, that is a fascinating path. From being the audience, you really are writing the book for your younger self, really?
That is true. And my burden has been to help people like me. Who had no confidence, who had no experience, and who had very little time, really. So, I just wanted to make it possible for those people to make food at home, to feed their families, and to be assured of a good outcome. So, I was always very careful. I’ve always been very careful about putting all the steps in, don’t skip.
Because more and more, I think people are on their own when they’re cooking. And in generations past, you often grew up eating or cooking at the elbow of a mom, an aunt, a grandmother. And now many of us live at a distance from those people in our lives, and so we’re pretty much on our own.
This book has techniques for how to cook without a recipe. Do you cook without a recipe in your own home now?
I do, more and more. I’m not the whole way there. I have never felt captive to recipes. I’ve learned as I’ve gone through many years of cooking to adapt, to substitute. For example, if I wanted to use the oven and not the stovetop, I’d figure out how to do that. Now we have instant pots, and slow cookers, and all of that. So, I’d sort of figure out my own adaptation of that.
I think the inspiration behind this book was really being drawn more and more to fresh ingredients, and things that I would see and didn’t have on my list, but I wanted to try. So, I’d come home, and I’d have, right now we’re in asparagus season, sugar peas, soon strawberries. And you can come home and have this collection of things before you, and not quite know what you’re planning to do.
So, I was also aware of the dangers of freestyle cooking, and the fact that you can start with wonderful ingredients but end up with something that doesn’t quite work. So, these things were calling to me, and I’ve worked on it over a good many years, just to try to think through what would people need? But also, I want to get out of the way.
So, provide enough structure, enough basic information, but then take myself out so that there’s the chance for success—but I’m giving them ideas, I’m telling them stories, but I’m not getting in their way.
Do you hear from people who don’t have the confidence to cook without a recipe? What do you think their obstacles are?
I think just fear of failure. How do I know if these flavors are going to work together? And another is just not having enough experience to know. For example, I like to buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I also use breasts, but I found that thighs are, they’re more succulent, it’s less likely that you can over-cook them, and so on.
Well, I thought of fish, I mean, more and more I cook fish and my husband keeps saying, “You got it just right.” And so how do you learn, first of all, what is the best cooking method? But then also not to overcook something. And I think so often that happens. So, the book has in it, some very useful charts. There’s one whole section given to what I call big proteins, and those are typically the meats that many of us enjoy.
And so, I will tell you for, let’s say a six-ounce chicken breast, you would cook it about this long, and here are the methods that it does very well, if you sauté, or broil, or what have you. You don’t want to subject it to long cooking, too high a heat, and so on. And another cheat sheet in the book is about grains. You need to know the proportion of liquid to dry beans or grains. So again, I give that information.
Otherwise, it’s just learning what seasonings you enjoy. What combinations you like, thinking through the form that you want it to be. Do you want a pizza tonight? Do you want a sheet pan meal? Do you want a soup? Is this really a good salad? So, there are so many options that I try to present, and yet give some sense of direction.
For people who are really used to following a recipe step-by-step, and they’re not confident yet in their cooking skills, what do you think would be a first dish that they should try cooking without a recipe?
Well, why don’t you choose a recipe that sounds good to you? And the first time you make it, follow that recipe to the nth degree. The next time you make it, don’t look at the recipe, just run on your memory and think about now, what was there in that dish that I really enjoyed? And try doing it just by putting together what you remember, but also maybe something that you would like to try and add to it.
Lay it aside, wait a week or two, and then don’t check the recipe at all. Just run on your memory and see what you think. And gather the comments from the people around your table. So, it’s kind of a step-by-step progression until independence, so to speak. But you have, in that process, you learn to pay far more attention to what it is you’re actually putting into the final product that you hope to enjoy.
But the attention you have to pay when you’re actually touching the ingredients, and there is no one there telling you what to do next, a whole other part of your brain becomes involved. You become much more sensory in your attention. And I think that’s when you start to really honor the food, think about where it came from, and extend that respect then into the way you handle the ingredients and finally say, okay, I’m finished, and set it on the table.
I think one of the biggest benefits to learning to cook without a recipe is that you can make a meal with what you have in the kitchen, and you don’t need to go to the store and buy special ingredients to complete each recipe. What are your recommended pantry staples, to make sure that you can successfully cook with what you have?
If you think of your pantry as sort of your, the bank where you keep the things that you know you need., and that usually is fairly personal. It’s either what you most enjoy or it’s what you know that the people that you cook for really do enjoy. My personal list would be, always pasta, always some good grains, always some both dried and canned beans. Because you don’t always have time to start from dried beans to get a dish going.
Ingredients that I call malleable. In other words, they can be used in multiple ways. One of those would be a coconut milk. It’s shelf-stable, you can keep it in the pantry. Certainly, canned tomatoes. And I know that we’ve now become so highly sensitized about eating fresh things, but the truth is that a pink tomato just doesn’t taste very good.
So, in tomato season, yes, eat local vine-ripened tomatoes. But the rest of the year, I like to have canned, good canned tomatoes on hand. They have much more flavor. They have much more body. You can also have dried tomatoes, and either use them, chop them up and mix them in, and they have a lot of power because they are concentrated flavor. Another thing you can do is reconstitute them. if you want them to be softer. So, they are on my list.
Then there are things I have in the fridge, plain yogurt always has been. Good cheese, onions. Back into the pantry, dried herbs. Because again, I don’t always have fresh ones on hand. Rice. Vinegars, a variety of flavors. Different kinds of broth, olive oil. Back in the, in the fridge again, eggs, bacon, butter. And then also I keep frozen vegetables on hand, again because shipped vegetables are not always the most flavorful.
I keep chicken thighs, boneless, skinless in the freezer. Usually ground beef, and I usually go for 80% because the flavor difference between an 80% ground beef and a 95% is quite marked. Much more flavor in the ground beef that has more fat in it. We don’t eat a lot of it, but if I’m going to eat it, I want it to really be good.
Sausage, a variety of kinds. You can crumble it, you can slice it, you can mix it into so many good things. It also makes fabulous pan drippings if you decide to sauté them on top of the stove. Sausage links. Sweet potatoes, I try to keep around. They are, I think, an under-appreciated root vegetable. They’re just these little, humble servants who can just rise and shine depending on what you put them with.
So that would be my list. You all may have very different kind of things that you want to have on hand.
Great, great. Yeah. I think grocery shopping is something that takes a lot of practice to do successfully without over-buying or under-buying, so that’s a great list. Thank you.
You are right. And that really, you opened my thinking now to a whole other subject, and that is how you don’t waste food. And I think when you cook improvisationally, you go shopping without a list, it’s very, very easy to overbuy certain things. You sort of lose a sense of quantity when you’re standing there looking at, how much do I need of this?
And you get home, and there it all is. And you’re thinking, uh-oh, I’m not sure what we’re going to do here. So, there’s kind of an ethic to improvisational cooking and eating that I would like to just register. Because I think there are ways to work at that. One idea is that one of my cooking circle friends talks about what she calls super fresh food. And that means that head of lettuce, that you notice a little brown on it and you thinking, uh-oh.
But she says, stop. I mean, you can peel a bad leaf off. Just move it to the front of the fridge so you don’t forget it’s there, and take off anything that is not prime anymore. But there’s probably a lot of good there yet, and use it soon.
Learning to manage your fridge so that you don’t forget things, I know how easy it is that stuff kind of drifts to the back, and then it’s time to put out the garbage, and there it goes. And I always feel badly. This is something that you learn to be alert to, I think, as you do this more and more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process of writing? I feel like all of this must-have just come as second nature to you now. But when you’re explaining it in such detail, it makes such sense, but you must really have to kind of cook along with your writing.
I did. I do. And I would say I’m constantly learning. Because this is a process of thinking in a way that, as I said earlier, when you’re just following a recipe, you’re just trying to make sure you didn’t skip anything. But your head, your mind is not engaged in the same way. So, to just think about, how do I want to do this? What’s an optimum way to present this particular ingredient? That was something that I’ve really focused on as I was putting together the ideas in this book.
And I should say that there are not only stories from my cooking circle friends in my own life but also just lots and lots of pages of ideas, of combinations, of things that you might want to try. But never with particular measurements given. As I said, my goal has been to give direction to a point, but then step back out of the way and let people experiment and find what they find pleasing.
That was Phyllis Good, author of No Recipe? No Problem! speaking with Storey’s publicity and marketing campaign director, Alee Moncy. To learn more about Storey Publishing’s books and authors, visit storey.com, that’s S-T-O-R-E-Y.com.
And if you have questions or comments about what you hear on Kindling, let us know. You can email us at email@example.com. That’s for this edition of Kindling, coming to you from the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts I’m Storey’s publisher, Deborah Balmuth. Thanks for listening.