Cooking Backward. Cooking Forward.

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My recent KB kitchen time was devoted to something a bit unusual - for me. 

I spent time using up food that was crying for attention, approaching its “best before” time. Squash everywhere – butternut, acorn, delicata and pattypan (of unusual size); zucchini, French butter pears, plums, kale, bananas and more. 

During harvest time, it is tough to resist all the “eye candy” at the market, and easy to come home with an overabundance of food. (And - no complaints - but we also know a farmer who often showers us with veggies.)

Waste not, want not. I hate to throw out food staples not used, or cooked food not eaten. 

So why did I say it is a “bit unusual” for me to use up all that food? Because I tend to cook forward, not backward.

Let me explain. (And I will be curious to know what your cooking style is!)

I first heard the phrase "Cooking Backward" listening to a Grub podcast by Tiffany Mayer of Eating Niagara. She’s a super talented food writer, creatively and engagingly keeping people abreast of food matters in the Niagara Peninsula, publishing in various media (and she has a book). She also contributes her expertise to Food Bloggers of Canada. In Episode 2 of Grub she interviewed Jeanine Donofrio, author of the book and website: Love & Lemons. [Sept 2016 Update: Love and Lemons just won the Editor's Choice Saveur Award for "Most Inspired Weeknight Dinners".]

Cooking Backward. As described by Donofrio, with this approach to cooking, the ingredients are the starting point, and the cook’s task is figuring out what to do with them. Skill in creative improvisation, or intrepid experimentation rule the day. For those lacking both - and seemingly this includes her mother (Donofrio jokes that her mother is a “To the T” recipe follower) - Donofrio offers her cookbook - organized by vegetable since ingredients are the starting point. 

Cooking Forward. Donofrio does not use the term, but the implication is that her mom “cooks forward”. Her mom, I am guessing, is my age. I too tend to cook forward – start with recipe, go to store with shopping list, and follow recipe.

More specifically, my starting points tends to be:

  • what do I / we feel like having? (Influenced by the season, mood, occasion etc.)
  • there’s a new recipe that I want to try

In cooking forward, the blueprint for an imagined outcome is the starting point. This is not to say that I don’t improvise. I have the confidence to go with the flow, handle mistakes, make substitutions, modify methods – but most of the time the starting point is a recipe guiding my cooking journey. 

My forward cooking tendency makes me a poor CSA candidate. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership means that each week you get a bushel basket of whatever the local farmer has harvested. I love the concept, and support “buy local”, but for me CSA is too much pressure. Every week, a bushel full of stuff demanding that I do something with it?! Cook it, freeze it, preserve it. (BTW Batch is a great new book on preserving.)

Let's have a bit of fun with these ideas. It seems to me there are three Cooking Forward (CF) styles:

  1. CF:BTB – start with a recipe and do it "By The Book";
  2. CF:AMS – start with recipe, but Adapt, Modify, Substitute;
  3. CF:CEFT – start with a recipe and/but Change Every F@#$ Thing. (Many food bloggers talk about negative feedback from CF:CEFT cooks, who dare to post a blog comment complaining about the recipe results.)

For Cooking Backward (CB), the starting point is the ingredients – you have them on hand for one reason or another. You either match what’s on hand to a recipe or you use what you know about cooking principles and end up with a dish that you could potentially say you invented. I propose there are types of CB:

  1. CB:OTF – cook with no recipe, “On The Fly”, improvising;
  2. CB:BTR – match ingredients to a recipe, but play and “Break The Rules”;
  3. CB:BTB – match ingredients to a recipe, then follow it “By The Book”.

Trust me to complicate things. I have taken two approaches to cooking, expanded them into 6 styles. Are there more? How about this? When trying to replicate a food memory for which I have no recipe, I juggle playing with ingredients, with cherry-picking ideas from tons of recipes – experimenting until I get it right. Could we call that style “Mash-Up” (MU)? (I proudly managed this with my Almond Rings recipe.)

Lastly there’s the kitchen performance that appears to be “without a net” - when you make something with no recipe in sight, because you are “following” a recipe burned into your memory after years of practice. (It reminds me of the first open house visit to the Grade 1 class of KB son #1. He casually pointed to a book on display and told me “I can read that book without looking!”) Let’s call this last cooking approach LTM (for Long Term Memory.)

In defense of cooking forward – it minimizes wasting food. Every food brought into the kitchen has a known and imminent destiny.

Cooking backward would come in handy in the event of an apocalypse. Imagine all recipes destroyed – you could be that person who can forage and cook and contribute to survival. What? Apocalypse!? You never engage in catastrophic thinking? Crikey, if someone is more than an hour late coming home, my fretting is channeled into planning for disaster – funeral details and so on. (Is this just a mom thing? a female thing? By the way, did you know that the code name of the funeral plan for Winston Churchill was “Operation Hope Not”?)

In addition to its apocalyptic usefulness, I get the feeling that cooking backward is considered to be more creative, so I feel pressure to say that I can handle cooking backward – especially if I can match ingredients to a recipe. But I know I do not come close to many fellow bloggers who perform magic in the kitchen. One that comes to mind is Ginny from The Spicy Eggplant. She has even blogged about “playing with food”, and I have told her that I think her introduction to cooking would make a great movie!

Cooking backward would have ancient roots, and be characteristic of farmers and peasants. It seems like the noble, virtuous way to cook. And yet, there are also early roots to the habit of recipe writing. Wikipedia claims that the oldest cookbook, Apicius, is from 4th / 5th century Rome. Recipes were often closely guarded secrets, as portrayed in the novel by Elle Newark – published as The Chef’s Apprentice (also published as The Book of Holy Mischief). It is set in Renaissance Venice – I am a sucker for any fiction set in Venice. I dare you to name a title I haven’t read [wink].

Is cooking backwards or forwards a style preference or an age-related thing? Is it nature or nurture? I should be good at backward cooking – only two generations removed from peasants and farmers. I grew up in a house where we made sausages and smoked them; where preserving was routine – pickles, pears, peaches, cauliflower, tomato sauce, and plum butter (aka – lekvar). I treasure all the mason jars, but am not doing much to fill them. 

  Mom's basement: Capping gadgets and old beer bottles used for bottling tomato sauce.

Mom's basement: Capping gadgets and old beer bottles used for bottling tomato sauce.

  True. Minutes after finishing this post, nice farmer delivered more squash!! Am not getting ahead. Backwards it is!!

True. Minutes after finishing this post, nice farmer delivered more squash!! Am not getting ahead. Backwards it is!!

On the other hand, my preference for using recipes may be linked to a long history of following instructions – I think, I hope, not in a bad way. I grew up watching my Dad assemble Heathkits. I assembled models – the largest being the USS Enterprise – the aircraft carrier, not the Starship. I made my own clothes – from patterns. I did paint by number. I studied piano following the Conservatory method. The pay-off today? I LOVE assembling IKEA furniture! And yet… something about all this suddenly sounds a bit unsettling, perhaps even psychologically unhealthy and restrictive. Geesh – maybe there’s therapy for these kinds of childhood experiences. Sign me up for “Fun 101”! Or… lead me to a kitchen – forward or backward.

BTW, in case you’re interested, so far my Cooking Backward session yielded the following results: (Curry) Butternut Squash Pear Soup (I played with a recipe from a talented fellow blogger - Maria of She Loves Biscotti - and used up two ingredients!), and Banana Bread, Party Plum Cake, Zucchini Bread, and Festive Kale Salad. I am still trying to decide how to use the pattypan.

Backward Cooks may be more likely to create and play. We know they blog - and some even get cookbook deals. Thanks in advance to the Forward Cooks who, in search of that perfect tested recipe, might visit this site and leave a “Like”.

Click on the word "Comments", below, to share. What style of cook are you? Any recommended Venice books? If you enjoyed this read, please take a second to click on "Like"!

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