I recently had lunch with a very dear friend from my Special Olympics International days. I left SOI and Washington, D.C., years ago, but Julie was far too fabulous to lose touch with. She has great style and humor and a gift for making everything special. I’ve always felt like she was my own personal Jackie O.
I’ve been fortunate to see Julie fairly often because she has relatives to visit in Minnesota and we have relatives in Virginia. Julie usually spends a night or two with her college friend Becky, whom I’ve gotten to know over the years, too. Being with Julie and Becky is like getting to hang out with your seriously cool older sister and her seriously cool friend. I always come away inspired to dress better, add artistic touches around the house, and cook more creatively. Becky sent me home this time with a bag of homemade biscotti—and a new favorite salad.
But before I talk about the salad, I want to throw an idea out there and see what you think. Here goes. It seems to me that cooks can be divided into two categories: Bakers and Chefs. Bakers like to follow recipes and are very precise. Which is important because extra salt or baking soda can ruin a batch of cookies. Chefs, on the other hand, don’t need a recipe and are comfortable with being spontaneous and throwing ingredients together to see what happens.
Do you lean one way or the other? I’m definitely a Baker. I always use a recipe and only stray from it if I’m out of something. I love to cook, but just like in most other areas of my life, I prefer flying with a net.
But I want to get away from that play-it-safe, don’t-make-mistakes existence. I’m trying to improvise on the piano and write fiction, even if it means getting really, really messy. I’m so much more comfortable using sheet music and it would be so much easier to write, oh, brochures or something, but as Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper said, “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for.”
So. Becky whipped up a gorgeous salad which she served on beautiful Italian pottery. She had to run another guest to the airport, so she left Julie and me sitting under an umbrella on the deck with cappuccinos (sprinkled with cinnamon) and biscotti. It was all so lovely, and elegant, and intentional.
When I left Becky’s, inspired as always, I decided to make the salad even though I didn’t have the recipe. Pretty wild, huh? I stopped at the store on my way home and bought spinach, red peppers to roast, cucumbers, feta, cous cous, chickpeas, an avocado, and a pre-roasted chicken from the deli. The dressing was harder to remember, but I used olive oil, thyme from my little herb garden, and salt and pepper. I mixed it all together and dug in. And it was good. The dressing was missing a bit of kick—lemon, maybe? (Later, when I asked Julie for the recipe—I know, I know, how very Baker-y—she said that I remembered everything except the lemon and that Becky used oregano instead of thyme. Close enough.)
It sounds so simple, making a salad without a recipe. But for me it was a big deal. I love baking and I do feel that making cookies or frosting a cake is a creative expression, recipe and all. But the idea of venturing further from the kitchen shore is so compelling. And if you think about it, a good cook (whether Chef or Baker) really doesn’t operate all that randomly. She knows she can trust her instincts and rely on all that she’s learned and experienced to create something that will nourish herself and others.