Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.


When I saw Sam Sifton announcing in the NYTimes weekly cooking letter that he was featuring a video by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs on How to Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Without a Recipe, I checked the calendar. Nope, not April 1st.

What could they possibly be thinking? I wondered. Who needs a recipe for grilled cheese? Or am I that out of touch? When all the cooks out there hanker for a grilled cheese sandwich, do they go in search of a recipe? Honestly, I thought it was a spoof.

And I love all parties involved and have great respect for all three mentioned. Sifton has done an amazing job overseeing the expansion of the Times’s food offerings, both in the paper and importantly online. (Did you see the great video on the Times food photographer? Notice how much natural light he uses, I love that; and download the new NYTimes cooking app, it’s lovely). I met Sam for the first time in NYC a few weeks ago and was halted by his energy and enthusiasm, and I’ve always loved his no-nonsense, straightforward writing. Amanda’s reputation precedes her. The work she and Merrill Stubbs do is always first rate.

Moreover, they’re all preaching precisely with this video what I’ve been preaching—we don’t need more recipes, we need technique and common sense. One of the ways I tried to describe the inexactitude of recipes was to write one for Buttered Toast in Ruhlman’s Twenty. But that was to make a point. I trust there are no Google searches for buttered toast recipes.

Or “grilled cheese sandwich recipe.” (Well, I hope not!) Thus my surprise that these esteemed writers and thinkers about food would make such an effort. It’s a lovely video and Amanda and Merrill are engaging as they think out loud, which is the point. To hear the thinking about cooking. And this really is the point and why the videos are valuable. Teaching how to think while cooking.

Their next “without a recipe video” is another example: rice pudding. I love rice pudding, never make it, and probably would, were I to attempt it, look for a few recipes for guidelines. And here were Amanda and Merrill making rice pudding with risotto-style rice, sans measuring. Pouring in sugar till it looked right, for instance. Merrill asking how about honey? Adding liquid by sight—four to one, Amanda guessed. And while the result looked a little soupy, it still looked tasty, and most important, it inspired one to give it a go. And I hope more people do.

Here’s my classic mushroom sauce without a recipe. I made it with a variety of mushrooms from my mom’s green market in West Palm Beach, where we’ve made our annual Spring Break Sojourn. I served them with tilefish, roasted for 15 minutes and basted with thyme butter.

Get a big pan smoking hot, add oil, add cleaned and cut mushrooms so that they cover the bottom of the pan in one layer, and press down on them hard to brown them. Be patient. Let them get as browned as possible. Throw in some diced onion, season aggressively with salt and pepper, then stir or jump them in the pan. Add a good amount of white wine to deglaze. Cook off the wine. Add more wine or water, enough to mount several good gobs of butter as you swirl. Done.

Or is that a recipe? I’m no longer sure, and that’s a good thing.

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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.