Karaoke in the Kitchen
Cooking on the fly has its risks, but can also result in surprisingly tasty culinary creations
Irecently shared a photo of my Brussels sprouts concoction on Facebook. It involved sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, dried sour cherries, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Parmesan, panko bread crumbs and, of course, the star of the show, Brussels sprouts. The dish was magnificent.
Several friends asked for the recipe.
I said, “No.”
That is not because I am a recipe hoarder, but because I do not measure or work from recipes. I improvise. For me, it’s sort of like karaoke in the kitchen. I dance and sing and don’t really follow the exact lyrics or notes. I have a good time and it never sounds — or tastes — the same twice.
On my Brussels sprouts creation, I was able to say definitively that I baked the vegetable surprise in an oil-sprayed Pyrex dish at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. I think.
“How many cups of sun-dried tomatoes?” my friend Melissa asked.
Just enough. I am not being coy, I really don’t know.
This is the holiday season when we cannot show up politely to a family party or friendly gathering empty-handed. And if you make something, you will likely be asked the recipe for whatever irresistible appetizer, side dish, salad or dessert nibble you produce. It’s expected.
Hopefully you are better than me in the sharing-the-recipe part. I do not write down recipes, I do not follow recipes from cookbooks, though I do refer to them.
Luckily I have some culinary skill baked into my DNA — my Aunt Nellie was an astounding cook, and my grandmother as well. Some recipes were passed down, few were written down. So I lack the proclivity to follow strictly recorded tried-and-true paths to the same offering every time.
Not following recipes has its roots for me in cooking on the fly. As a college student living off-campus with my friend Dana, beyond the reach of cafeteria food, we ad-libbed with the staples.
We threw together dinners with jars of spaghetti sauce, pasta, cereal, lunch meat, frozen vegetables, frozen fried chicken or whatever we had in the vegetable bin that hadn’t yet gone bad. I learned to look in the cupboard and the fridge and set about doing the best with what I had.
Fast forward years later with three always-hungry sons, I learned I needed to cook and bake in bulk and sometimes could not keep up with the natural depletion of inventory. I learned I had better quickly improvise with the half-roasted chicken before someone ate it as a snack.
No one complained.
I think this is what emboldened me to try new things and to creatively improvise.
Still, I have learned some caveats in the process. I have also learned that cooking and preparing meals is a lot like dressing up for a big event. You can add just the right accessories, or you can go overboard and end up looking like a fool. There is a reason we call dressing appropriately “tasteful.”
I have learned the hard way — or the inedible way — that adding in one or two spices is way better than adding 10. Some additions do not mix and fight each other in your mouth for attention. While I do not follow the keep-it-simple rule, I do follow, the do-not-add-everything-in-the-refrigerator-all-at-once rule. Think before you dash.
I also need to think before I stir. Capers do not belong in a sweet dish. Even though I love capers and I love sweet potato casseroles, they will not work together. At all. So I try to imagine if I have ever had a similar combination before — at a party or in a restaurant — and then reject the idea or embrace it. There is probably a reason no one combines cinnamon with chicken. Though I hear bacon and chocolate together is pretty good.
Yes, I have had my public failures. Rushing to make an appetizer for a party, I realized I was out of red peppers, the main ingredient. Asparagus was not a good substitute, though I tried anyway. It was left on the buffet table, pretty much untouched.
Recently I went about making roasted cauliflower with Parmesan and was out of bread crumbs. We did have cheddar cheese crackers — you know, the buttery orange kind. So I grabbed a handful and put them in a plastic bag and smashed them. They were now bread crumbs. Better, they were buttery orange cheese bread crumbs that I sprinkled all over the top. I stuck the pan in the oven and wished. It was unbelievably fantastic.
Just don’t ask me how.Edit Module