Drawing by Roger Cruz
Maybe I’m impatient, or have issues with authority, but I really don’t like to follow recipes when I’m cooking. I know that’s not everyone’s thing. Some people prefer to design their delectables via measurements and procedures written out in an easy to follow format.
How did I get comfortable cooking au natural? Well, to start, I love eating! Specifically, I love to uncover and discover flavors, and decipher what ingredients are used in the dishes I love, and then try to guess how they were made. These flavors inspire my kitchen improvisation. I might start with an ingredient I’m craving or see at the farmers market, or maybe something in my fridge that needs to be consumed before it goes bad. For example, if spinach were my starting point, I think it would be lovely tossed raw in some hot fusilli with ricotta until it wilts. But wait! Some bold flavor would be nice. Since I’m not a meat eater, pancetta or everyone’s favorite, bacon isn’t an option, so perhaps rather than the subtle taste of ricotta, I could use goat cheese or parmesan, add olives, red pepper flakes and fresh herbs tossed with some olive oil to keep it summery, or make a light white wine cream sauce… There is a chance that these flavors could fail. There’s only one way to find out.
I do enjoy reading recipes, and watching cooking shows. I learn a lot, and get inspired. I saw a photo of zucchini gratin the other day, and decided to make a less heavy version in the form of a casserole. Since my casserole skills are a bit amateur, I looked up a bunch of recipes, and went with the easiest one, and then changed it to my liking. I tossed a bunch of zucchini with cheese, fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and placed the ingredients into a casserole dish. I topped it with a small amount of panko breadcrumbs, and placed the dish in the oven. Just before it looked ready with the veggies and cheese bubbling and smelling delicious, I decided to add some more breadcrumbs and freshly grated parmesan, and raised the oven temperature to broil to brown the top. Unfortunately, what I didn’t take into account was the wateriness of the zucchini. I needed to add something to thicken the dish and absorb the water from the zucchini. Next time, I’ll add more breadcrumbs or matzoh meal to that baby and my favorite ingredient, an egg, to thicken it. Cornstarch is also a great thickener, so I might toss some in with the zucchini, cheese and herbs before putting it into the oven. YUM!
A good improviser in the kitchen requires just a few skills: courage, flexibility, a basic knowledge of cooking (which you can acquire by following recipes at first), and a good flavor palette – to know what ingredients go well together. The worst thing that could happen is it won’t come out just right. It’s food! They’re ingredients you already like – so how bad could it be?
Sadly, the same doesn’t go for baking. Baking requires exact proportions, and an understanding how the flour, leavening agents, fats, eggs and sweeteners need to be properly combined and added in exact measurements and in the proper order to achieve the desired result. Once you have that understanding, you can alternate ingredients, and make adjustments – which is what I do to bring you delicious healthy baked goods!
Let me know how you’ve stripped away your cookbook attire and improvised some beautiful dishes in your kitchen!