“All right, here’s the bet,” says Bill Haverchuck in a scene from the show Freaks and Geeks, “for 10 bucks I’ll drink this much of anything,” indicating that he’ll try about an inch worth of whatever his friends will concoct from the contents of the fridge.
A friend and I did something like this when I was about nine years old. We snuck down to the kitchen, giggling the whole way, and brought odds and ends like maple syrup, orange juice and pickles up to my closet where we proceeded to mix these items into a glass, along with a bunch of smarties leftover from Halloween. We crushed everything up and dared each other to chug. Then, crazed with the sugar rush of maple syrup and smarties, we ran around the house wondering why no one else seemed to find the world as hilarious as we did.
Sometimes the way I cook now feels the tiniest bit like this. I don’t try to induce a sugar rush, nor do I have to dare other people to eat what I make (usually!).
But over the past several years of food blogging, which has required me to modify recipes, I have learned to love the challenge of being able to look in the fridge and decide that I can put these couple of ingredients together and make something that tastes good. It’s a fun improvisation, like being able to play music by ear. I especially enjoy going to the farm market and seeing what looks especially good or what’s on special and then coming home and finding or modifying recipes to work with those ingredients.
However…. and here’s where my New Years resolution comes in…. sometimes my willingness to improvise slips into sloppiness and imprecision, and then my meals don’t turn out as well as they should (and then I can’t offer them to you as a blog recipe!). Sometimes, on a few occasions, they don’t turn out at all. So I’d like to make it a New Year’s resolution to:
- Make more recipes “by the book,” following a recipe to a “T,” at least the first time around. (Okay, but maybe if it only calls for one vegetable, I’ll try to work in two. And maybe sometimes 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon just won’t sound like enough…)
- When I make substitutions, I’ll invest more time into researching whether it’s really a 1 to 1 substitution, or whether other parts of the recipe need to be modified. For instance, what happens to the cooking times if I use almond milk instead of cow’s milk? It’s a shame to put lots of work into a recipe only to have it flop. So a little research beforehand is well worth it.
- Understand more of the chemistry behind cooking. This is my excuse to get back to “winging it” a little more. I figure if I understand what to expect from the ways foods and cooking processes interact, modifying recipes will go even more smoothly. I have four sources in mind for this, two of them by Harold McGee, a world-renowned expert on the chemistry of the kitchen.
One is “On Food and Cooking,” the other “The Curious Cook.” From “The Curious Cook” I’ve already learned why it’s a good idea to add other veggies to guacamole–it keeps the avocado from browning as quickly! The other two sources are “Culinary Reactions” by Simon Quellen Field–which actually provides brief chemistry lessons while explaining cooking processes– and “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat–which shares four basic principles cooks can use to build delicious recipes.
In the meantime, I will also continue make my four favorite “stretchable” recipes–meals that can flex to include whatever ingredients I have on hand:
- Frittata: if you have eggs, cheese, vegetables and maybe some sausage, you’ve got yourself the makings of an amazing frittata!
- Skillet dish: got some eggs and potatoes? Perfect. Now just add whatever greens, cheese, breakfast meat (if you’d like) and other veggies sound good to you.
- Simple bean burgers: this comes from Jill Ahern at Wolff’s – and it’s a great way to use up some of those carrots that have been lingering in the crisper, plus whatever kind of beans you have on hand. All you really need to have are beans, oats, egg, onion, oil. hamburger rolls and your favorite condiments!
- Curry: if you keep basic curry ingredients on hand, you’ve got the makings of a meal that can flex to accommodate pretty much any veggies you want to use.
As I work toward greater precision in 2018, I’m going to make one small change right away. During our move to a new apartment this year, I misplaced my one-cup measuring cup and have been using two half-cups instead. This almost guarantees culinary accidents ahead! It’s time to get a real one cup measure. I think it’s a luxury I can afford!
What are your 2018 cooking resolutions?