March 1, 2024


Welcome to the Food

Cookbook on improvising in the kitchen helps reignite inspiration

Sam Sifton, food editor for The New York Times, encourages his readers to embrace adventure in their cooking, trust their own skill and develop more confidence in their ability to create delicious food without depending upon traditional recipes’ detailed instructions and quantities.

That’s the genesis of his new book, “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes,” which draws on the archive of “no-recipe recipes” he includes each Wednesday in his thrice-weekly “What to Cook” newsletter. The Times’ newsletters are free to all, but access to the recipe archive is subscription-only.

With several bookcases overflowing with cookbooks and the Internet filled with tempting recipes, I admit I rarely indulge in a newly published cookbook. But this spring, heartily tired of my own cooking, I read about Sifton’s new book and was intrigued.

That’s mostly how I cook, I thought, tossing things into a pot, without measuring — at least when I’m not testing recipes for a new food story. But my well of creativity had run dry and I desperately needed fresh inspiration.

I decided to delve deeper and found sample recipes the book’s publisher offered online. One was for fried rice, a dish my husband craves as his favorite comfort food but which I can never get right, and another was an appealing pasta dish. Both looked tasty, quick and easy, my requirements for midweek dinners. I took the plunge and ordered the book.

Since Sifton’s book arrived, I’ve enjoyed reading his casual, lighthearted prose and experimenting with his recipes. These, as he explains in his introduction, are more concepts or templates rather than actual recipes, since they include ingredients and general directions only, but no specific measurements. After dabbling for a few weeks, I called him for an interview.

Sifton, who is as warm and friendly over the phone as his writing suggests, explained that the audience for this book is “people who like to cook, people interested in cooking, people seeking more confidence in the kitchen.”

Like other food writers, he discovered that most “chefs are usually terrible recipe writers. But I can get a pretty good idea just talking to them and get a good outcome from them telling me how to make something. Why can’t I talk to readers that way? It allows readers to make (a dish) how they want it,” he explained.

"The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes" by Sam Sifton and The New York Times Company cookbook cover.

“The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes” by Sam Sifton and The New York Times Company (2021, Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House)

(Ten Speed Press)

But, be warned, this is a book for people who know at least the basics of cooking, who understand how to adjust quantities, aren’t afraid to make mistakes in estimating seasonings and flavorings and know how to compensate for any misfires.

For an experienced cook like me, it turned out to be just what I was looking for to push through my deepening rut of boredom with daily cooking.

Thanks to Sifton, I’m experimenting with new flavors that I hadn’t regularly considered before. Because of my French training and primarily Eurocentric cooking, I’ve always maintained a pantry and spice rack well-stocked with European spices, herbs and seasonings. Since moving to SoCal, I’ve grown to appreciate and incorporate a broad range of Mexican and Latin American seasonings and chiles and now, under Sifton’s influence, Asian flavorings beyond basic soy sauce. New to my cupboards are fish sauce, tamari, miso and gochugang, plus other Asian items as required.

Sifton’s other pantry essentials include sesame oil, honey, maple syrup, molasses, peanut butter, plus nuts for texture and flavor. If you gradually build up your pantry, he explained, then you’ll have the key ingredients to unlock taste sensations when you need them.

In addition to the recipes offered here, I’ve found several delicious new ways to prepare salmon — teriyaki salmon with mixed greens is fast becoming a new standard — and I plan to try other dishes. The book includes wide-ranging chicken recipes using both supermarket-cooked rotisserie chicken and Sifton’s preferred chicken thighs. He features breakfast dishes as well as a variety of appetizers, vegetables and salads, pastas, rice and bean, meats and desserts.

I’ve also taken Sifton’s advice and, for health reasons, deliberately adapted his formulas, radically reducing the quantities of butter or oil he suggests for his recipes and adding favorite ingredients and seasonings.

I asked Sifton why he recommends cooking with so much fat.

“Fat is flavor. One of the joys of ‘No Recipes’ is the use of lots of butter. In restaurant meals, there’s a lot of fat and a lot of salt. One of the real truths of cooking for yourself and your family is, how often do you make pork belly, fried chicken or chocolate cake? Not that often, maybe every couple months,” he explained, so we can afford to indulge occasionally.

Making recipe adjustments, he added, “allows readers to make it how they want it,” enabling readers to transform the dishes into their very own creations.

Sifton came to his current role as assistant managing editor, overseeing culture and lifestyle, and food editor through a roundabout fashion. Previously national editor and restaurant critic, he explained that food and cooking have always played a key role in his life.

A self-described “latchkey kid” — his late father was a distinguished senior federal district judge and his late mother a much-revered book editor and author — he took on cooking responsibilities at home from an early age. He cooked his way through his years at Harvard, working his way up in restaurants from prep cook, garde manger and finally to grill cook, which, he said “set me on my path.” He merged his interests in history and food by becoming a journalist who often covered food and restaurants.

As founding editor of the well-received NYT Cooking, he embraced the entrepreneurial opportunity to digitize and monetize the venerable newspaper’s 150-year-old archive of food and cooking stories.

“I thought we could build that into a searchable product,” which cooking fans can subscribe to apart from a full digital newspaper subscription, he said.

This is his third cookbook, after volumes on “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well” and “See You on Sunday: A Cookbook for Family and Friends.”

Sifton has clearly found his niche, providing inspiration to many cooks hungry for new culinary experiences.

Ham and Cheese Pasta Shells With a Handful of Peas

This dish offers a classic demonstration of the principle that the better quality your ingredients, the better your results. I made this dish twice. The first time, I used what I had in the house, my favorite organic penne rigate and the frozen remains of our delicious cherry-glazed Christmas ham; the second time, with run-of-the mill pasta in the designated shell shape and a bland supermarket ham steak. The first time the recipe wowed me; the second time, not so much. Sifton recommends using unsalted butter and organic peas for greater sweetness. Go for the flavor!
— Nicole Sours Larson

Pasta shells
Swiss cheese

Set a large pot of salted water to boil and add your pasta. While the pasta cooks, cube the ham, and get to work on the next burner, browning the ham in a pat of good unsalted butter in a skillet. Offstage, grate about a cup of Swiss cheese into a large serving bowl. When the pasta has been cooked just shy of the time called for on its packaging, throw in a handful of peas, cook another minute, and then drain, reserving a little cooking water. Toss the whole mess into the Swiss cheese, along with the hot ham, another pat or two of butter, and a splash of the pasta water. Watch as the cheese goes soft and ribbony in the heat, and the fat of the ham mingles with the butter and pasta water, and the shells pick up some of it and grab peas in their valves. Shave some Parmesan over the top. Finish with a little pepper. Don’t you want to eat that right now?

Seared Scallops With Parsley Salad, from "The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes" cookbook.

Seared Scallops With Parsley Salad, from “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes” cookbook.

(Simon Andrews food styling / David Malosh photo)

Seared Scallops With Parsley Salad

The parsley salad base proved an unexpectedly delicious surprise. Use flat Italian parsley for maximum flavor. My scallops didn’t sear well in a nonstick pan, but they did produce generous cooking juices to create a tasty sauce. I enhanced them with several splashes of dry vermouth (or white wine) and Salt Farms sea salt blend No. 37 (Catalina Offshore), recommended for seafood. Next time, I’ll vary the preparation by sautéing sliced mushrooms, a little chopped shallots and minced garlic along with the scallops.
— Nicole Sours Larson

Olive oil
Butter, bacon fat or duck fat

Make a salad of chopped parsley, sliced shallot, a little olive oil, a lot of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt. Then take your scallops, fat as field mice, and pull and discard the little tabs of muscle from their sides. Put a honking big pat of butter or a spoonful of bacon or duck fat into a large pan set over high heat and sear the scallops hard on one side, then turn them carefully and heat through. Serve on or next to the parsley salad.

Tip: If you’re lucky enough to live in the Northeast, October and November generally bring bay scallops to market, sweet and small, roughly the size of the end of your pinkie finger. They’re fantastic for this dish, but do not cook them as I instruct for regular scallops, searing them hard on one side. You’ll overcook a bay scallop that way. Simply warm them through in hot butter and serve.

Watermelon Granita, from "The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes" cookbook.

Watermelon Granita, from “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes” cookbook.

(Simon Andrews food styling / David Malosh photo)

Watermelon Granita

Granitas are one of the best desserts for a hot summer day. They’re generally associated with Sicily, which is known particularly for its lemon, almond and coffee granitas. The icy treat probably originated in China and was brought to Sicily by 9th century Arab traders. You can make granitas from most fruits as well as nuts, vegetables, spices, herbs, wines and spirits, but, unlike this watermelon granita, for most sweet versions you’ll also add water and more sugar and use the “modification” as the preferred freezing technique.
— Nicole Sours Larson


There are a number of ways to make this granita, but my favorite is to cut watermelon into chunks, discard the rind, and put the pieces in a bag in the freezer for a few hours. Then blitz them in a blender or food processor and hit them with a little sugar and lime juice. That yields a super-slushy situation that’s looser than your traditional granita. If you’d like to firm it up, pour the mixture into a shallow dish and put it in the freezer for an hour or so longer.

Modification: Don’t freeze the watermelon in advance; do that after you’ve blitzed it with the sugar and lime juice. Pour the mixture into a shallow dish and put it in the freezer for two or three hours. Rake with a fork every hour or so. Then spoon out the rakings into bowls and serve.

Recipes from “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes,” (2021, by Sam Sifton and The New York Times Company. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House), with added introductions.

Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.