Winging it

I was leafing through the new Nigella Lawson book the other day, when I came across this recipe:  Prosciutto-wrapped grissini.  Grissini, as you probably know, are breadsticks. The recipe listed two ingredients – I will leave you to guess which.   The directions were one (1) sentence long. It was a long sentence, because it instructed you not only to wrap the prosciutto around the grissini (gosh! didn’t see that coming!) but also to “arrange them on plates”.

Now I don’t mean to knock Nigella, who admitted – in a headnote 5 times longer than the recipe – “I blush to call this a recipe.” The recipe struck a nerve with me because of a fear of my own – that because I’m always working from cookbooks, I might forget how to ad-lib even the simplest of dishes.  

I like to think that perpetual recipe-testing makes me a smarter, more cosmopolitan cook.  But on those rare days when I “throw something together” like normal folks, my results are mixed.  Sometimes I’m inspired. Other times I’m clueless.

The funny thing is that every year or so,there’s a book that claims it will liberate you from recipes forever.   Indeed, blogger Pam Anderson has basically made a brand out of bookless cooking.  It’s hard for me to believe these books sell…when I see them on the shelf I’m instantly confused – wait – are you telling me I should buy you?  Or not?!

Like most people, I have definite flavor palette preferences when I’m winging it.  I like using Japanese soy and rice products – rice vinegar, mirin, miso – whether or not I’m cooking Asian food.  I like creamy pastas.  I’m comfortable improvising stir-fries and pilafs.  And often these days, I’ll find myself reaching for pistachios and mint and yogurt and saffron faster than you can say “Caucasus”.

What are your go-to flavors when you’re not following a recipe? Do you have a tried-and-true portfolio of fallbacks?  Or do you make it up as you go along? 

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  • PinchOfSalt  on  February 28, 2013

    For me, my choices are guided by classic combinations, then a bit of thought to adjust and complete the dish. For example…

    Made some improve tomato and cannelloni bean soup the other night. Classic flavor guidance: a splash of olive oil, a smidge of chopped garlic, a pinch of dried rosemary, a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes. Let it simmer. It tasted "thin". No depth to it at all. Knew that some simmering would mellow out the tomatoes, but that would not be enough. Hmmm. Lightbulb goes on – what was missing was some umami. Hmmm. Tossed in a few anchovy fillets. Simmered some more. Perfection.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  March 1, 2013

    I don't let myself improvise much these days. But when I do, its very simple food, generally roasted vegetables. Definitely its hit-or-miss. And that, my friends, is why I LOVE cookbooks.

  • Breadcrumbs  on  March 2, 2013

    I have a number of "my recipes" that I've landed on by experimentation over the years. Lasagna is a good example. I created a recipe to emulate a version I was served at a restaurant.

    Sometimes I follow a book to the letter but more often than not (especially since I discovered EYB) I consult a number of recipes for a dish then come up w a preferred version taking a bit of advice from here and there.

    As for favourite flavours. We love tomatoey-garlicky dishes so Italian or Italian-inspired dishes figure prominently. Chilli-lime is another combination I love and it makes appearances in my salad dressings, marinades, noodle dishes etc.

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