The best meals call for a dash of experience

When forest fires ignited near my Montana home two years ago, I began compiling a list of items to pack once word came to evacuate. My laptop and family photos made the roster, as did a cracked, nine-inch-long box that's priceless to me.

Inside the oak box are cradled four pounds of recipes. Although the collection includes magazine clippings and hand-penned index cards with procedures that have proved reliable, those aren't the recipes I'd mourn losing. My heart belongs to the dog-eared scraps of paper where specific baking times and ingredient amounts are scarce.

Occasionally sporting unapologetic smudges of chocolate or olive oil, these recipes could, at best, be described as sketchy. With their vague guidance to "brown a handful of orzo in butter" or "sprinkle with lots of finely minced garlic," they might qualify as useless to most people.

Scrawled while I observed old-world cooks share techniques they knew by heart, these recipes represent the most important cooking lessons of my life. I gleaned them from women who had acquired their skills by the timeless method of watching an older relative prepare family meals. No one weighed and measured ingredients for my mentors, who never weighed and measured for me.

My watch-and-learn recipes range from Greek, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cuisines to Jewish and Japanese. Yet, the ones I rely on most for a nostalgic taste of my New England past are the home-style Italian specialties I started collecting when I was in fourth grade. To me, they're like trustworthy old friends.

My love for all foods Italian began with my first forkful of spaghetti when I was 7. It escalated two years later when I made friends with Margaret Campoli, a neighbor originally from Rome, who was closer in age to my grandmother than to me.

Still, I'd dash to Mrs. Campoli's house after school to taste whatever simmered in a pot on her stove for that night's dinner or to sample the latest treat residing in her porcelain cookie jar. No doubt the promise of biting into one of her crisp lemon butter cookies helped nourish my budding culinary instincts.

Whenever I joined Mrs. Campoli as she held court in her sunny kitchen, I saw that exact amounts never mattered to her. She certainly didn't measure the hint of cinnamon she sprinkled over her tomato sauce. Without being told, I understood she didn't expect me to measure it, either.

During graduate school, I lived near another talented Italian cook, Rosa Giorgio, who fixed earthy Neapolitan fare.

I often stood by Rosa's side while she butterflied flank steak for braciola and as she stuffed zucchini blossoms she had picked from her garden that morning. As quickly and accurately as possible, I'd guesstimate amounts and jot down techniques. To interrupt this busy lady in the midst of mealtime preparations so I could weigh a mound of grated Parmesan was unthinkable. I'd already learned that lesson at a tender age.

Because Rosa's limited English matched my lack of fluency in Italian, we relied mainly on visual communication. Once, while waiting for her macaroni al forno to emerge from the oven, I did ask in halting Italian, "Quando è finito?" (When will it be done?)

Her answer forever squelched my thinking in those terms again. In heavily accented English punctuated by emphatic hand gestures, Rosa replied: "You look. You smell. You taste. You know."

Afternoons spent with generous-hearted cooks such as Rosa and Margaret taught me that recipes may guide, but they'll never be a substitute for experience. Novices will always have to practice skills, not follow formulas, to learn how smooth and pliant the challah or pita dough should feel when properly kneaded.

If my battered old box had disappeared in flame and smoke, I would have missed it dearly. But I'm happy to report the overstuffed repository still sits in my Montana kitchen. From the shelf where it keeps me company, it continues to dispense ageless advice whenever I raise the lid.

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