Summer in Pennsylvania, for me, means swimming in my parents’ pond. Or at least hanging out on the dock with the adults and drinking iced tea while the kids swim.
A few of my friends’ and relatives’ kids have waded into the pond sporting inflatable “swimmies” on their arms. Remember those things? The way they pinched your biceps? Do you remember the first time you swam without them? I probably got water up my nose, but before long I felt so light and free. I remember mourning the fact that I could never grow up to be a dolphin.
Over two decades later, when I learned that blogging about food meant I’d need to modify recipes, I felt like a kid about to be thrown into a pond without swimmies. Yes, recipes pinched sometimes, but they kept me afloat. Someone else had already tried these combinations and stamped them “good.”
Some people grow up being able to throw things together in the kitchen. If you ask them to share a recipe, they’ll have to think carefully about what they actually did to create the celestial meal you just devoured.
But I’ve always been a strict recipe devotee. Early kitchen mishaps stole my confidence and my culinary joie de vivre. (I ruined one early dinner by making stuffed shells without boiling the shells first. Boy, was it tricky to get the ricotta in there!) If a recipe tastes less delicious than it looked in the photo, I figure it must have been my fault for not following the recipe exactly.
And yet now I would need to make each recipe I blogged about “my own.” I would have to look at every recipe and think, “Now, what can I change?”
Going “off script” has sometimes ended in disaster. (Maybe around April Fools Day, I’ll blog about what my husband calls “The Seaweed of Death.”) But you know what? Most of these modified meals have turned out really well. And my habits have changed. I can look at a recipe and think about what would make the process easier or the taste richer. I find it easier to use up what I have in the fridge. I can go out to restaurants and think about how to make the meal at home. And feeling free to throw in ingredients of my choice has made it way easier to cook with the seasons.
I hope everyone can feel this freedom in the kitchen. Even if we didn’t grow up to be dolphins, we can grow to become confident, liberated cooks.
Five Tips for Modifying Recipes
1. Learn groups of two or three ingredients that go well together. You can probably already list many: “Basil, Tomatoes, Mozzarella,” or “Ham, Cheddar, and Apple” to name a few. Shape Magazine has a helpful list of “13 Never-Fail Flavor Combinations.” With these in mind, you can start to change up your salads, sandwiches, casseroles and more! You can also start to think “okay, what other foods have similar flavor profiles?” In the recipe below, I used feta instead of mozzarella because I thought mozzarella might be too gooey with eggs. Feta seemed mild but salty, like mozzarella.
2. Know your ingredients. Zucchini, for instance, is 95% water, which can affect consistency and cook time. To dry it out a little, I roasted it before throwing it into the frittata below. Knowing your ingredients is also important for food safety. For instance, did you know garlic should not be stored in olive oil for any length of time (unless you freeze it)?
3. Know what can’t be changed. Winging it in the kitchen is freeing. But some parts of a recipe were made to stay the same. Chicken Marsala, for instance, would not live up to its name without Marsala wine. And some recipes that call for beer really do mean that specific type of beer!
4. Start with what you have. This applies not just to starting with what’s in the fridge and working out a recipe from there, but also to starting with the appliances you have and modifying the recipe to work with them. Wishing for a Dutch Oven? Or a lemon zester? You can totally work around it.
5. Look over someone’s shoulder. Before trying a new flavor pairing, look it up and see if you can find a few other recipes with that combination.
An Easy-to-Modify Recipe
The frittata recipe below was modified from this frittata recipe posted on our blog in 2014. It uses zucchini, fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes (which you can buy OR make at home in an oven or food dehydrator, using all kinds of heirloom tomatoes).
- 8 eggs
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ½ cup cup Feta cheese
- ½ cup snipped sun-dried tomatoes
- ½ cup basil
- 1 medium Vidalia onion, cut into chunks
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- salt and pepper, to taste
- olive oil
- Arrange onions and zucchini in two baking dishes, giving them space so they'll brown nicely. Drizzle them with oil and roast at 400 degrees F for 45 min - 1 hour. Halfway through, pull them out of the oven and flip every vegetable over, then continue roasting.
- Turn the oven down to 375 degrees F.
- Beat the eggs until they're nice and frothy.
- Place butter in a glass baking pan and place in oven briefly until butter is melted.Spread the butter around so it covers the bottom of the pan. Add the eggs and then the vegetables.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the eggs are no longer runny.
- Carefully pull the pan out of the oven, sprinkle with Feta and return the pan to the oven for another 3-5 minutes to toast the cheese.
And then I just had to snatch up some purple potatoes I saw at a market. Here’s a recipe for roasting them.
- 28 ounces purple potatoes
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup fresh basil, snipped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400. Wash the potatoes (no need to peel). Place in a glass baking pan and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle them with garlic, basil and salt and pepper, and then toss to coat.
- Roast 20 minutes. Turn the oven off, stir them, and keep them in the oven 10 minutes more.
Have you modified a recipe recently so you could cook with the seasons? Comment below and tell me what you made!