Do you follow recipes to the letter of the law, or view them as mere suggestions? Are they roadmaps toward a delicious meal, or mandates for culinary recreation?
We tend to either be free spirits in the kitchen, or recipe extremists. Both approaches to cooking have their benefits and downfalls.
Today I hope to urge you from those extremes and into a happier middle ground. Grab your recipes, and let’s commence.
First I want to talk with the free spirits among us. You’re the ones who start out with good intentions and a recipe for quiche. When the quiche (if it can be called that anymore) is served to your family, the only part of the recipe you followed was the oven temperature. You substitute and reinvent, and sometimes with amazing results. Other times, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are suddenly on the menu.
I enjoy using recipes as road maps, and adding my own twists and turns. But my compass fails when my family declares a dish superb, and asks me to cook it again. I still have the original recipe, but I can never remember the changes I made. So I cannot cook the same dish twice, even if I wanted to.
Those of you who are recipe extremists will not stray from the recipe, no matter the cost. You make emergency runs to the store to get the exact ingredient needed for a recipe. No substitutions allowed! Your baked goods tend to be fabulous. Baking is a science, and exact measuring is necessary. But cooking has lost some of its joy, and you feel like scrambled eggs when the recipe is done.
Pulling a photo-op worthy quiche from the oven is rewarding. But the extra $2 spent on a special spice for this recipe, a spice that then sits unused in my cupboard, bothers me.
So what can you do? Learn to read and follow your recipes with an open mind, frig, and cupboard. Let’s go over what parts of a recipe are fungible, and what should be strictly followed.
Look at this recipe with me:
Summer Squash Bake
Recipe adapted from Terra Brownback
3 cups grated zucchini or summer squash
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup onion, minced
¼ cup tomatoes, diced
1 ½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup flour
½ cup milk
1 tsp salt
½ tsp fresh ground pepper
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried basil
Mix all ingredients together, and pour into a buttered 9x9 casserole dish, or 6 single serving ramekins. Sprinkle with more Parmesan cheese and oregano. Bake at 375° for 25 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting.
So, the end result we want is an egg casserole with veggies and cheese in it. For those of you wondering why you would put zucchini in an egg casserole, here’s our rule: no wrinkled noses until you’ve tried it!
Free spirit, you must measure and follow the basic ingredients for creating an egg casserole: Eggs, milk, and flour. Recipe extremists, you can substitute some whole wheat flour for a healthier result.
Mix up the veggies. Try shredding carrots, or dicing whatever veggie in your frig needs to be used. Stick with the onion and garlic. They provide the base flavor for the dish.
Cheddar and parmesan are used because of their strong flavor and melting qualities. Substitute any cheeses you have on hand, but consider the different flavor or texture they will add.
Spices and herbs can be carefully substituted by smell and taste, not color!
Exchanging fresh for dried is an excellent option here. Chop 1 Tb fresh per 1 tsp dried. Exchanging dried garlic or garlic powder for fresh garlic is not a good idea. The flavor and potency are strikingly different. Fresh chiles can be exchanged with cayenne powder or red pepper flakes, but be conservative. You can always add more if it’s not spicy enough.
I encourage you to choose recipes according to food you have on hand. Stick to the basics of the recipe, but substitute with what is available in your kitchen and garden.
Stir-fry, soups, and cobblers are great ways to use up older fruits and veggies. Choose a basic recipe that you trust, and substitute in the food you want to use up.
Recipe extremists, try turning your leftovers into new dishes. For example, leftover ragu can easily become chili by adding beans and a few spices.
Learning which ingredients and instructions are crucial, and which can be fudged will make your recipe experiences more enjoyable and the end results more predictable.