What’s the USP? Sometimes food doesn’t need to be put together using precise measurements and exact times – No-Recipe Recipes is all about the big, flavourful ideas and less fussy about what you need to do and when. Every dish here is described in loose and accessible terms so that the home chef can amble carefree through the cooking process.
Who wrote it? Sam Sifton, the founding editor of The New York Times’ cookery website. His weekly What To Cook This Week column on the site has, since 2015, always featured a No-Recipe Recipe of his own – an easy to throw together sort of a dish that might have been influenced by something he’s eaten in a restaurant, or the passing comment of a chef friend, or simply the desire to combine two flavours and gleefully eat them.
Is it good bedtime reading? On the one hand, there isn’t an awful lot to read besides the short and enthusiastic introduction to each recipe. On the other hand, though, the recipes read so conversationally that they become a genuine pleasure to read in their own right. This is a book that can be taken to bed and flicked through with hungry eyes as you picture yourself breezily moving around the kitchen – a splash of fish sauce here, a generous pinch of oregano there.
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? The entire book is annoyingly vague recipes. That’s sort of the point. Thankfully, Sifton’s bright and engaging writing – he clearly loves being in the kitchen almost as much as he loves food – enables the reader to confidently join him on his quest.
The book’s brief introductory section convincingly champions Sifton’s approach. Cooking without recipes is a valuable kitchen skill, we are told: ‘It’s a proficiency to develop, a way to improve your confidence in the kitchen and makes the act of cooking fun when it sometimes seems like a chore’.
The no-recipe recipes themselves certainly echo the ‘cooking is fun’ mentality. It’s impossible to resent vague instructions when they are written with as much relish as Sifton’s. The frankly obscene Cheese Ravioli with Duck Liver Mousse Sauce calls for a ‘huge amount of unsalted butter’, whilst his Roasted Shrimp Tacos with Cumin and Chile demands ‘a whole mess of peeled and deveined shrimp’.
What’s the faff factor? It would be a bold move to expect readers to create lavish and complex dishes with only the loosest of instructions, so perhaps unsurprisingly the book is filled with nothing but the simplest dishes. The Tomato Sandwich recipe is four sentences long, and calls for only bread, butter, mayonnaise and tomato – but Sifton still manages to make it seem like an unmissable addition to a hot summer’s day. Even the most complex of dishes will come together in under half an hour and create only the most minimal of washing up.
How often will I cook from the book? I have had this book for about a month now and can confidently say that I am cooking from it at least twice a week. It has already become the first book I pull from the shelf when I’m planning my weekly shop, despite being the title that arguably requires the least planning of the lot.
Every one of Sifton’s No-Recipe Recipes is a temptation. They are easy to buy for and fun to cook. Above all else, the gentle thrill of cooking off-book, of trusting your own instincts and finishing, every time, with something genuinely delicious is a real confidence boost for new and old home cooks alike.
What will I love? Though the book is designed to be minimalist and simple, it is still filled with useful information. Dishes frequently come with easy modifications that can be made – either to replace more obscure ingredients, or to offer a different flavour profile. Separate ‘Tips’ sections will help beginner cooks learn key kitchen lessons, or occasionally share Sifton’s own tasting notes (he recommends avoiding chicken or vegetable gyoza for his blasphemous yet irresistible Pot Stickers with Tomato Sauce).
What won’t I love? It’s a small complaint, but the cloth-bound cover isn’t ideal for a book that will see as much use as this one. It picks up all sorts of filth, and thanks to some spilt flour and the eager attention of two cats, my copy already looks a fair bit older than it should one month in.
Killer recipes: It would be impossible to make enough noise about the aforementioned Cheese Ravioli with Duck Liver Mousse Sauce, which must be the most outrageously indulgent dish it’s possible to compile in under twenty minutes. But pretty much every dish in here will inspire at least some level of food lust.
Highlights include Crab Rangoon Burgers, Quick-Broiled Pork Chops with Peanuts and Gochujang, Ham and Radicchio Toast, and Asparagus and Boursin Tart.
Should I buy it? Of course you should. Sam Sifton’s book is not a book about the joy of cooking – it’s an instruction manual that will help you discover it for yourself. This would be a brilliant gift for someone who is just discovering the world of cooking, with bright and easy recipes that feel like an accomplishment once finished. Student cookbooks are so often drab and patronising affairs that, at best, will help someone make a competent but uninspiring lasagne. From now on, let’s send our freshers off with No-Recipe Recipes tucked in their suitcase – I would have eaten a lot less £5 pizza delivery deals if I’d known how easy it was to knock-up Sifton’s Black Bean Tacos or Sloppy Joes.
At the same time, confident cooks who have long since found their footing in the kitchen will still find a wealth of inspiration here – fresh new flavour combinations and easy dishes that can be pulled together quickly when you’re tired after work.
No-Recipe Recipes everything you want from a cookbook – it is simple, irresistible and innovative. But above all else, it reminds you exactly how fun cooking can be.
Suitable for: Beginner and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book
New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes
£20, Ebury Press
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas