Food News

No Recipe Required

Au pif—the art of cooking with what’s on hand

At the corner of 17th and Summit, John Goode opens the doors of his white van, revealing boxes and boxes of just-picked produce from Goode Acres Farm. Jane Zieha, now in her 16th year at the helm of Blue Bird Bistro, chooses black cherry and heirloom tomatoes, Italian eggplants, and golden ground cherries in their papery husks.

“We cook to the taste, smell and feel of the natural, raw ingredients,” says Zieha. “We cook backwards,” she adds, with a laugh. “We don’t start with a recipe and then get the ingredients. We get the ingredients and then come up with a recipe.”

In other words, she is a practitioner of a lost art: Cooking au pif.

This French phrase means cooking “by the nose,” letting the bland sweetness of the ground cherries, the tanginess of the tomato, or the bitterness of the eggplant dictate how a dish comes together.

Cooking au pif starts with a garden harvest, a haul from the farmer’s market, or what’s in the refrigerator.

Then, you select a familiar template—an egg scramble, a stir-fry, a curry, a chutney, or a recipe like Eggplant Parmesan—and taste as you go, letting the ingredients tell you what else they need to come together in deliciousness. You might create seared salmon topped with golden ground cherry chutney. Or rounds of sautéed eggplant topped with a chicken breast, fresh tomato lemon butter and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

There’s a special satisfaction in au pif cooking: You feel resourceful, creative, and glad you could make the most of what you have.