How to Cook without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

How to Cook without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

by Pam Anderson




Pam Anderson grew up watching her parents and grandparents make dinner every night by simply taking the ingredients on hand and cooking them with the techniques they knew.

Times have changed. Today we have an overwhelming array of ingredients and a fraction of the cooking time, but Anderson believes the secret to getting dinner on the table lies in the past. After a long day, who has the energy to look up a recipe and search for the right ingredients before ever starting to cook? To make dinner night after night, Anderson believes the first two steps—looking for a recipe, then scrambling for the exact ingredients—must be eliminated.  Understanding that most recipes are simply "variations on a theme," she innovatively teaches technique, ultimately eliminating the need for recipes.

Once the technique or formula is mastered, Anderson encourages inexperienced as well as veteran cooks to spread their culinary wings.  For example, after learning to sear a steak, it's understood that the same method works for scallops, tuna, hamburger, swordfish, salmon, pork tenderloin, and more. You never need to look at a recipe again. Vary the look and flavor of these dishes with interchangeable pan sauces, salsas, relishes, and butters.

Best of all, these recipes rise above the mundane Monday-through-Friday fare.  Imagine homemade ravioli and lasagna for weeknight supper, or from-scratch tomato sauce before the pasta water has even boiled.  Last-minute guests? Dress up simple tomato sauce with capers and olives or shrimp and red pepper flakes. Drizzle sautéed chicken breasts with a balsamic vinegar pan sauce. Anderson teaches you how to do it—without a recipe. Don't buy exotic ingredients and follow tedious instructions for making hors d'oeuvres. Forage through the pantry and refrigerator for quick appetizers. The ingredients are all there; the method is in your head. Master four simple potato dishes—a bake, a cake, a mash, and a roast—compatible with many meals. Learn how to make the five-minute dinner salad, easily changing its look and flavor depending on the season and occasion. Tuck a few dessert techniques in your back pocket and effortlessly turn any meal into a special occasion.

There's real rhyme and reason to Pam's method at the beginning of every chapter: To dress greens, "Drizzle salad with oil, salt, and pepper, then toss until just slick. Sprinkle in some vinegar to give it a little kick." To make a frittata, "Cook eggs without stirring until set around the edges. Bake until puffy, then cut it into wedges." Each chapter also contains a helpful at-a-glance chart that highlights the key points of every technique, and a master recipe with enough variations to keep you going until you've learned how to cook without a book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767902793
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 04/28/2000
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.41(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

Pam Anderson is the former executive editor of Cook's Illustrated and author of the bestselling The Perfect Recipe: Getting It Right Every Time—Making Our Favorite Dishes the Absolute Best They Can Be.  She lives with her husband and their two daughters in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and makes dinner (almost) every night.

Read an Excerpt

The Right Stuff

Stocking the Refrigerator, Freezer, and Pantry

Cooking without a book starts with a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry. One of the signs of a successful businessperson is how few times she handles the same piece of mail. To me, one of the signs of a successful working cook is how few times she shops for food.

For want of any meal planning, many cooks end up repeatedly running to the store. Since most American family schedules are erratic and unpredictable, long-term meal planning can be frustrating, but running to the grocery store every day or two also takes time and energy that most people just don't have.

On vacation, I shop every day because I enjoy it. When I work, however, I try to stock up once a week, running back maybe once more if I'm entertaining or I've left something off the list. Every few weeks I go to my gourmet store for olives, cheese, oil, vinegar, and other pantry items. I also stop at a good bakery for French and Italian bread, which I freeze.

I take time to shop because if I find myself with an empty refrigerator at 6:00 on Wednesday night, I'm more likely to grab the family and head for a restaurant. Surrounding yourself with good food is the first step in effortless cooking.

In stocking my freezer, refrigerator, and pantry, I'm neither frugal nor extravagant. Sometimes I get hit with sticker shock at the checkout, but when I think of what I would have spent if our family had gone out for dinner even once during the week, I quickly realize that food shopping is a bargain.

The following pantry, refrigerator, and freezer lists may look long. Although many of the items are necessities (e.g. canned tomatoes, chicken stock, salt, onions, garlic, oil, vinegar), others are not. Simply pick and choose from each list what looks good and makes sense for you. Besides, you probably have many of the ingredients in your kitchen now. And, once you're stocked, it's just a matter of replenishing the supply now and again. As time goes on, you will internalize the list and automatically know what's missing from week to week.

Poultry, Meat, and Fish

Depending on your preferences, keep the following in your refrigerator or freezer. Unless you plan to use it within a day or two of purchase, freeze all meat, poultry, and fish. They can be defrosted in the refrigerator or microwaved to room temperature at the last minute.


* Boneless skinless chicken breasts (or thighs)

* Whole chickens

* Chicken wings

* Turkey cutlets (or boneless skinless turkey breast that can easily be sliced into cutlets)

* Ground turkey

* Turkey or chicken sausages

* Duck breasts


* Boneless New York strip steaks

* Boneless rib-eye steaks

* Filet mignons

* Ground chuck


* Thick-cut boneless pork chops or boneless rib-end pork loin roast for cutting into chops

* Pork tenderloin for cutting into medallions

* Raw and cooked sausage (Italian, chorizo, andouille, or kielbasa)

* Bacon

* A hunk of deli-style baked ham (or turkey).

After letting package after package of sliced-to-order deli meat spoil within a few days of purchase, I've started buying larger pieces of these meats. This way the meat lasts much longer, and I can cut it the way I want—slices for sandwiches, julienne for salads, small dice for omelets, and large dice for soup. If you can't use what you've bought within a week, divide it and freeze one half.

Fish and Shellfish

* Shrimp

* Any fish fillet, such as thick flounder, catfish, snapper, tilapia, grouper, or other thin, white-fleshed fish

* Any fish steak, such as tuna, swordfish, or salmon

* Jumbo dry scallops

* Littleneck, top neck, or small cherrystone clams, eaten within a day or two of purchase

* Mussels, eaten within a day or two of purchase

Food for the Freezer

* Frozen green peas, spinach (two 10-ounce packages of spinach serve four people), and corn. On the nights when the vegetable bin is low or you need an instant vegetable, it's nice to look in the freezer and find something. It's also good to have corn on hand for soups and chowders, and for freshening up quick polenta.

* Good-quality bread. Well-made bread can turn a good meal into a great one. I shop for bread once every couple of weeks. I buy and freeze at least four baguettes, some crusty rolls for soup, and often a loaf of raisin bread or challah for breakfast.

* A quart of premium vanilla ice cream. Having a quart of vanilla ice cream in the freezer is like having a little black dress in the closet. Adorned or not, it's the ultimate quick dessert.

* Two packages of frozen fruit such as strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries. With frozen fruit on hand you can have a cobbler in the oven in ten minutes. They're also handy for baking a batch of muffins on the weekend.

* Frozen puff pastry. This is one of my favorite convenience products. If I've got a sheet of puff pastry, I can whip out turnovers, tarts, and quick cookies with very little effort and no recipe.

Food for the Refrigerator

* Buy fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits that keep well, then store them properly.

* In addition to seasonal fruits and vegetables, I almost always have the following on hand:

Red or yellow peppers
Parsley and other fresh herbs on occasion
Romaine hearts and other lettuces

* Although the following vegetables are not stored in the refrigerator, they are included in this section. For extended life, keep them in a cool, dark place.

Baking potatoes
At least one red onion
Red boiling potatoes
A couple of heads of garlic
A bag of yellow onions

Besides low-fat milk, I keep the following dairy items in the refrigerator:

* Milk

* Eggs

* Butter

* Buttermilk. Since it has a relatively long shelf life, I use it for pancakes, muffins, biscuits, and corn muffins

* Heavy cream. Like buttermilk, heavy cream has a long shelf life and it's great to have around for impromptu entertaining and simple pan sauces

* Three or four cheeses of your choice. A good sharp cheddar, some sort of blue or goat cheese, a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a bar of cream cheese are my favorites.

* Low-fat plain yogurt for making yogurt cheese and desserts. If not used for those purposes, it can always be sweetened and eaten for breakfast.

Food for the Pantry

General Pantry

* Large and small cans of low-sodium chicken broth

* Bottled clam juice

* Cans of crushed and whole tomatoes packed in purée

* Canned tuna

* Canned clams

* Anchovies or anchovy paste

* Evaporated milk

* Peanut butter

* Honey * jam and/or jelly

* Dried mushrooms

* Oils: olive, sesame, and vegetable

* 1 jar roasted red peppers

* Pastas: spaghetti, macaroni, egg noodles, and couscous

* Grains: long-grain white rice, instant polenta

* Dijon mustard

* Capers

* Vinegars: red and white wine, balsamic, and rice wine

* Ketchup

* Barbecue sauce

* Bottled horseradish

* Soy sauce

* Asian fish sauce

* Marinated artichokes

* Canned beans: black, white, and chickpeas

* Mayonnaise

* Dried breadcrumbs

* Dried fruit: raisins or currants and cranberries

* 1 jar each: piquant black olives such as kalamata and green olives


* All-purpose flour

* Salt

* Cornmeal

* Granulated sugar

* Light or dark brown sugar

* Baking powder

* Baking soda

* Unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate

* Chocolate chips

* Unsweetened cocoa powder

* Vanilla extract

Herbs and Spices

* Basil

* Bay leaves

* Ground black pepper

* Ground cinnamon

* Ground cloves

* Ground cumin

* Curry powder

* Herbes de Provence

* Ground nutmeg or whole nutmeg for grating fresh

* Oregano

* Hot red pepper flakes

* Sage leaves

* Dried thyme leaves

Table of Contents

The Right Stuff: Stocking the Refrigerator, Freezer, and Pantry7
Whack and Toss Salads13
Paired Salads: Hold the Lettuce25
Vinaigrette: The Single Vegetable's Best Bet29
One Easy Formula, Many Supper Soups35
Quick in a Cup, Pureed Vegetable Soups48
The Big Fat Omelet53
The Big and Bigger Frittata65
Simple Tomato Sauce, Scores of Possibilities76
Pasta With Vegetables90
Firm Vegetables92
Leafy Greens97
Tender Vegetables101
Weeknight Ravioli and Lasagna106
Quick Ravioli107
Quick Lasagna113
Weeknight Stir-Fries121
More Asian Fast Food: Lo Mein, Fried Rice, and Pad Thai134
If You've Made One Saute, You've Made Them all144
Chicken Cutlets145
Turkey Cutlets146
Boneless Pork Chops149
Fish Fillets151
Duck Breasts155
Pan Sauces158
If You Can Saute, You Can Sear174
Pork Tenderloin182
Fish Steaks186
Flavored Butters191
The No-Hassle Roast Chicken Dinner: ... and Quick Chicken Salad193
Steam/Sauteed Vegetables202
Steam/Sauteed Tender Greens215
One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four220
The Cake221
The Bake224
The Mash225
The Roast227
Simple Ways With Simple Sides229
Spur-of-the-Moment Appetizers246
The Simplest247
Fruit and Vegetable Bases260
A Little Something More264
Just Desserts270
Puff Pastry: Your New Best Friend271
Assemble-and-Serve Desserts276
Menus At-a-Glance281


Recipes from How to Cook Without a Book

Seared Scallops
Serves 4

1-1/2 pounds "dry" sea scallops
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Salt and ground black pepper
Lemon wedges (optional) or flavored butter

1. Set a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes while preparing the meal and seasoning the scallops. (To speed up the heating process, the skillet can be set over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes.) Three to four minutes before searing the scallops, turn on the exhaust fan and increase the heat to high.

2. To season the scallops, set them on a plate and drizzle with oil; turn to coat. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper.

3. A minute or so after the residual oils in the skillet send up wisps of smoke, put the scallops in the pan. Cook over high heat until they develop a thick, rich brown crust, about 2 minutes. Turn them and continue to cook over high heat until the other sides develop a thick, rich brown crust, about 2 minutes longer. Remove from the pan and let stand a couple of minutes.

4. Serve with lemon wedges.

Couscous with Apricots and Pistachios
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, cut into small dice
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup plain couscous
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves (optional)

10 dried apricots, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons coarse-chopped pistachios

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, microwave the broth over high heat in a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup until piping hot, about 2 minutes.

3. Add couscous to the onion; stir to combine. Stir in the broth, cover, and turn off the heat. Let stand until the broth is completely absorbed, about 4 minutes. Stir in parsley, apricots, and pistachios with a fork and serve immediately.

Recipes from How to Cook Without a Book, copyright © 2000 by Pam Anderson. All rights reserved.

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