Wednesday, December 28, 2005


My cookbook collection has grown to two long shelves (which includes Mr. Tart's cookbooks, and he had quite a few when we married), plus all the loose recipes that I've clipped from newspapers and magazines, printed off the web, and photocopied from friends and library books. About a year ago it reached critical mass when I couldn't find recipes I loved and had to call my mother and ask her for the proportions she uses when making crepes.

I clearly needed a better system of organizing my loose recipes. Little boxes of index cards and a three-subject notebook with recipes glued to the pages and folders of clippings wouldn't cut it anymore. So I decided to get a three-ring binder with dividers and plastic sheet protectors. I labeled all the sections and subdivided them into plastic pockets which I also labeled. Thus the "Appetizers" section had a pocket for cheesey concoctions, dips, and "other." "Poultry" had "chicken," "turkey," and "other" (in case we feel like duck or cornish hen some day). In fact, I ended up with lots of "other" in just about every category. "Foreign foods" created quite a conundrum. Where to store fish tacos--with seafood or with Mexican? Should shrimp pad thai fit in with pasta or seafood or Thai? Chicken lasanga: with poultry, with pasta, or with Italian? Do I even really need separate "pasta" and "Italian" sections? And will I remember where I put it two months from now?

One binder soon became too fat, so I graduated to a second one, and then a third, when I discovered that I had clipped so many new recipes that I couldn't find the ones I had made before and liked. So the smaller third binder is devoted to the recipes I've tried and want to keep.

I made all sorts of other discoveries. I tend to clip the same sort of recipe about half the time: vegetarian pasta entrees, roasted vegetables, similar types of soups, recipes for ethnic dishes that often require ingredients unavailable at King Soopers. I don't save a lot of dessert recipes. On the other hand, if it involves cheese, I probably clipped it. Some of the recipes aren't even for food--I seem to think that someday I'll be making my own potpourri, bath salts, drain cleaner, and face paint.

Organizing my recipes into their binders is, of course, a never-ending process, as I subscribe to several food magazines and pick up any freebies I find on the the public library's give-away rack. I troll the Internet when I have a hankering for something specific. I borrow cookbooks and read them straight through like a novel, jotting down page numbers on a post-it note inside the front cover so I can photocopy the ones I want to keep. I take stacks of pages with me on car trips of half an hour or longer so I can use the time to cut and file recipes. And while it seems like I'll never be able to get through them all, I am noticing now that some recipes are pretty similar to each other, so I don't need to hang on to them unless they've got a gimmick that differentiates them notably from something I've already clipped.

The great irony here is that I don't cook directly from my recipes all the time. Often I look in the vegetable drawer and the cheese drawer, intending to make a salad, and then it evolves, maybe adding pasta and pesto to make a main dish or milk to make a soup or canned beans to make a side dish. All the recipes that have piqued my interest swirl around in my mind and I don't know if I'm doing something original with a chicken breast or replicating a recipe I read somewhere or just combining ideas from several recipes I've already seen (chicken piccata...Moroccan chicken with vegetables and couscous...why not chicken with orzo, zucchini, olives, and lemon?). Other times I'll find similar recipes and consciously overlap them, like last week when I wanted a non-starch side dish for empanadas. We had a box of clementines, a leftover red onion, and leftover cilantro, and avocados were on sale (and actually ripe the day I bought one). So I took elements from a guacamole recipe and another recipe that married oranges with cilantro and ended up with a salad of clementine wedges and chunks of onion and avocado, dressed with olive oil, clementine juice, and cilantro.

For a while I started to resent all the time I was spending clipping and filing recipes which for the most part I will never prepare as written, if at all. But Mr. Tart pointed out what joy I seem to take in reading about food and creating meals and even in organizing things in general, and I know I love it when he helps himself to seconds or suggest that I fix something again for his parents or when a friend requests a specific dish for a potluck she's hosting. I'm realizing that taking care of my recipes is a way to help me relax, to pass time in the car, to feel productive when watching tv, to fire up my imagination. I'm not ashamed to admit that my name is Sarah and I'm a recipeholic.

I am curious, though, to find out what techniques other foodies use to organize recipes. What works for y'all? And does anyone ever get around to cooking most of the recipes she owns?


Anonymous sally said...

I had an old aunt who loved to cook and clip recipes. And even when she ended up in a nursing home and had no access to a kitchen, she still cut recipes out of the paper. I guess old habits die hard :)

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I have one overstuffed folder of recipes I've clipped but haven't tried. Sounds like you've got too many for that. :-)

Our most commonly used recipes are in a card file. I've found it helpful to have one card in each category that lists recipes from cookbooks we've liked and want to make again (with cookbook and page, of course). That way looking through the card file covers the cookbooks too, as long as you're only looking for known favorites.

I keep thinking I need to get away from recipe cooking so much. But recipes make grocery shopping easier, and by dinnertime I often don't have the energy to be creative/thoughtful enough to put together something without a written plan.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Hi Sally and Elizabeth! Thanks for chiming in. I like hearing stories about elderly people whose interests last a lifetime--will mine, I wonder?

Great idea about the card file with references to cookbook recipes--it's so easy to forget what you've cooked a year ago or which book it came out of. I've also thought about highlighting recipe titles on the table of contents or index page of cookbooks.

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Lori said...

Since my roommate told me about her mother writing notes in her cookbook about the dishes she makes (:-)), I've tried to take my own notes and to also use a rubric for the dishes in the index. I use "yummy", "needs work", etc. Then I also include the date I made it for the first time; that way I know a recipe must not have been that great if I haven't made it twice in the last 5 years. As for loose recipes, possibly an index system would work as well with cross referencing - - but do you really have enough time and desire to do that?

3:58 AM  
Blogger lis said...

inspired by your organizing, sarah, I finally bought a binder and plastic sheets for my loose recipe collection. I've been thinking about doing it forever. The only problem is that it's required a lot of typing--as most of my loose collection consisted of post-it notes with ingredient amounts and very vague instructions--ideas I've gotten from friends, things I've jotted down from the internet, etc. I tend to cook from recipes quite a bit because without them I tend to cook in the same fashion all the time, variations on the same flavors. Recipes force me to cook outside of myself.

10:07 AM  

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