I subscribe to two excellent cooking magazines, Cooks Illustrated and Fine Cooking. These two publications refine existing recipes, improving the resulting dish or streamlining the procedure for efficiency. I've made "foolproof yellow cake" and "extra crispy roast chicken" and had success with time-savers like "30 minute Tandoor Chicken" and "Improved Freezer Lasagna." While the precision and ambition of such recipes are inspiring, I sometimes pine for my early forays into cooking, before I came under such exacting influences.
I learned to cook during my junior and senior years of college, when I lived, cooked, and ate at the Vegetarian co-op at Princeton University. It was a rare cooking day when one was able to follow a recipe, let alone think about improving it.
First there was the absence of meat; none was allowed in the kitchen*. Those of us new to vegetarian cooking quickly learned how to soften textured vegetable protein and replace chicken and pork with tofu, tempe or seitan. But replacing meat wasn't the only hurdle; the co-op welcomed members with tough dietary restrictions--vegans (modern day ascetics) and people with all manner of food allergies. It was the spirit of the co-op to provide for those with special needs, so we dutifully concocted onion free, garlic free, mushroom free, and vegan versions of our dishes.
There was also the matter of raw materials--the students who ordered the groceries chose items based on price, nutritional value, and environmental friendliness . We rarely saw white flour-- whole-wheat pastry flour was the preferred replacement. Our legumes came dried in bulk, and we usually had only one or two kind of cheese on hand. While our diet consisted mostly of vegetables, some types rarely made an appearance because of their price--fresh tomatoes for instance, and stone fruit. On the other hand, there were times when we were overrun with beets or eggplant, or butternut squash.
Finally, there were the other cooks. You might arrive at your cooking session to discover that another student had commandeered the pasta you needed. Or you might come determined to make a soup and find that two other members of your group had the same determination.
Under these constraints, cooking became something of a flying leap. Improvisation was the norm. Cinnamon rolls turned into cheese rolls. Homemade eggs noodles were swapped for spaghetti. Cheese cake was made from tofu.
There were some notable failures. I dreaded the appearance of eggplant on the grocery list, as almost no one knew how to cook it. Beets were almost as bad. At one point a zeal for cardamon swept through the co-op and it could be tasted in almost everything, from the lentil stew to the cookies.
But aside from these set-backs, we ate remarkably well. Menus could be uneven and dishes might not achieve the desired texture and taste, but dinners were exciting and usually nutritious. And there was something about the novelty that comes from having so many cooks in the kitchen. One person specialized in making refined vegan deserts while another made terrific Indian dahls. One took on baking bread like an addiction. Another added turmeric to almost everything, making her work identifiable by its bright yellow color. We knew our fellow members by the food they made--which turned out to be as good a way as any and better than most.
*a group meeting was once called because a member drained a can of tuna fish into the sink. The member left the co-op.