Review: The NYT No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton

It’s time for another recipe book collaboration with cooking aficionado Sylvia from @bestlovedcookbooks! This book was her suggestion as a fun way to experiment with intuitive cooking.


Trish: Hmmm. Sounds fun. But that’s not the way I cook. I like recipes. Measuring spoons and a kitchen scale are my friends, right? But when I really think about it, I do cook most nights without any guidance. Scrambled eggs? Add butter, salt and pepper, some sauteéd greens, homemade kimchi. Yum! But I don’t do this with more complex recipes, and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable cooking intuitively for a dinner party.

Cue the complexity and the dinner guests. At least the guests are Sylvia and her husband, who won’t judge! (Actually, we all will sit down and judge, but for these dinners, that’s the actual point of it.) And how wrong can you go with basic ingredients?

Sylvia, what gave you the idea to choose this type of cookbook for our current cook?

Sylvia: I work in a gourmet food shop and it was actually a customer who turned me onto this book. She told me how using this book had boosted her confidence in the kitchen and also made her aware of how much leeway there was to experiment when putting dinner together. As someone who also likes structure when I cook, the idea of cooking this way intrigued me, especially if I were making something that is not normally in my repertoire.

Trish: Sam Sifton is the founding editor of New York Times Cooking and is now an assistant managing editor there for lifestyle and culture. He notes in the introduction to No-Recipe Recipes that since 2015 he’s taken to posting one recipe a week that focuses on this more intuitive approach to cooking. He gives ingredients but few measurements, and instructions without details. Be warned that this isn’t simply putting a protein, carb and veg separately on the plate. Sifton notes that in the past he’d go to the market daily and it felt, “very Parisian, but really all I was doing was assembling meal kits.”

These recipes are more complex but doable, and, in my reading, designed to be flexible and train the home cook to combine key ingredients in order to learn proportions and trust oneself. I had to taste things and adjust! Sifton is clear that while you don’t need a recipe, you do need a good pantry of ingredients if you want to be able to cook like this spontaneously, and he includes this information in the book.

Part of my process was to choose recipes that I’d normally consult a recipe for. There’s sections on sandwiches and breakfasts. I wouldn’t normally use recipes for these, so I focused on things that would seem daunting sans guidance. So: a soup, a pasta, and a composed salad for me.

What was your process in choosing recipes Sylvia? What are you cooking? And are you intimidated?

Sylvia: Like you, I chose recipes that I would not normally make but that I also felt confident would turn out to be edible and potentially delicious! I am making Kielbasa, an Asparagus Tart and Bananas Foster (I hate bananas so this one might be a stretch for me).

Trish: Let’s see if we can get Sylvia to enjoy bananas. My partner Alan doesn’t like them either, so this should be interesting!

Trish’s Recipes:

Roasted Cauliflower Soup with Artichoke Cream

Ah cauliflower! I love it. A first for me was roasting a whole head in the oven, which took about two hours. Put it in the blender with garlic, a can of artichokes and some liquid, add parmesan, and voila, done! But…what size of can of artichokes? What liquid? I had to season it with salt and pepper. It was, sadly, bland and boring. It was everyone’s least favourite dish.

Roasted Sweet Potato Salad

I can roast a sweet potato, but put “a mixture of miso, softened butter, scallions, sesame seeds…” on top and serve? I immediately wanted to google just what ratio of miso to butter every chef out there is using on top of sweet potatoes…as if that’s a thing. It probably is. But I just put some of everything in a bowl with a skeptical mindset. I put “some” on sweet potato halves, served on a bed of lettuce tossed with a measurement-free-to-taste Japanese inspired dressing, and…it was magical!

Fettuccine with Ricotta and a Fistful of Mint

Pasta topped with “a cup or two” of ricotta, some mint, scallion, olive oil and lemon. That's all you get for instructions, really. Alas, it was again a bit bland, but the mint added a nice flavour.

Sylvia’s Recipes:

Asparagus and Boursin Tart

I chose to make an Asparagus and Boursin Tart. I have seen these tarts in books and magazines but have always found them intimidating. I have to say though, I used good quality ingredients and this dish was a real stunner for me. The puff pastry worked beautifully and tart was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.

Hasselback Kielbasa

Since Trish doesn’t normally eat meat but we thought a meat dish would be representative of the book, I chose Hasselback Kielbasa, partly because it seemed doable but also because I wanted to choose a protein that was not too expensive in case it was a bust! It was super simple to prep an tasted really good - we were just missing a spicy mustard to go alongside.

Bananas Foster

The Bananas Foster was a surprise hit for me. I normally dislike bananas and making a flambe caramel sauce on demand was intimidating but honestly, it was simple and so delicious. I was a convert for sure. What about Alan, Trish?

Trish: Even if Alan isn’t a banana convert, he quite liked the Bananas Foster, which is saying a lot! The fun bit happened over dinner. We could kind of tell what had worked and what hadn’t. What needed more seasoning. The soup could use a topper, something crisp…a parmesan tuile? Some salty green pesto?

You had ideas to improve the pasta, right?

Sylvia: I did. The pasta was very simple and had lemon juice already but I thought the zest of the lemon might have made the lemon flavour stand out. I also thought a sprinkling of parmesan on top would have been a nice touch.

Trish: Our cooking experience was way more relaxed than some other cookbooks. There’s something refreshing in just jumping in, trusting that it’ll work or it won't, and that you can adjust to taste or fix it next time you make the recipe. I felt a bit like…a chef!

You do a ton of cooking, Sylvia, What did you think overall of the experience?

Sylvia: I liked it more than I expected. I definitely feel that I know more in the kitchen than I give myself credit for and also found that when I trust my instincts, I get it right more often than not. And I loved that since we did not really have a recipe, we were able to freely discuss what we might do differently next time, allowing for a lot more curiosity and creativity, even after the meal was made. It was a continued collaboration without fear of offense - just a sharing of what might work better next time.

Trish: And we knew when something worked. Those sweet potatoes with miso? Perfect! A keeper, and I will make them again. We had fun thinking up protein additions for them to make a complete meal. The Bananas Foster? Heaven…but what might it be like with apples, or an orange liqueur?

This, I think, is the genius of the book. I’m going to try more recipes, and seek out some of the No-Recipe Recipes that Sifton has published in the NYT.

We highly recommend this fun and different way of cooking new things. Challenge yourself to cook without a recipe and I think you’ll be surprised at what you can create!