It’s a family joke that I am unable to follow a recipe. Not a funny joke but completely true.
I can’t help myself. I tweak the kind of flours and fats, ramp up the spices, toss in a few extra ingredients, adjust the methods used. Yes this approach alters a recipe beyond recognition. But my family will admit the end result usually tastes good even if they like to ask, “Okay, now tell us what’s really in here.” That’s because I’ve been known to put chard in popsicles, beets in dip, and beans in brownies.
Sometimes I try, really try, to follow a recipe to the letter. There’s the real joke. Because when I do the results are awful. The casserole is tasteless, the biscuits are scratchy, and the cookies slump into pools of goo. Clearly improvising is the best route for me.
What I really like about improvisation is facing the challenge our great grandparents faced as they ran frugal households. The same challenge accepted by cooks every day all over the world. Very simply, to use everything well while wasting nothing. This is more about necessity than anything else. It means the cook knows what is in the garden, pantry, and refrigerator at all times. She knows a hard frost is coming, so the rutabagas can stay in the ground but the green tomatoes must be picked. She remembers that the potatoes in the pantry are starting to soften and must be used right away. She knows the lentils made two days ago have to be served or frozen. She finds ways to use carrots going limp and cheese getting dry. She purees leftover soup to make sauce for an entrée and turns yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s enchiladas. In our current economy it’s not a game for many of us. This real life pursuit is more interesting and more rewarding than any competition faced on Top Chef.
I find the creative aspect downright addictive. So tonight, when our dinner guests called to say they were running late I realized I had time to make another dip to serve alongside our homemade salsa. I turned up the music and started pulling out potential leftovers. A few ounces of cream cheese abandoned when the asymmetrical but tasty homemade bagels ran out, a few spoonfuls of leftover canned chile in adobo sauce, a large cooked sweet potato. Probably doesn’t sound like a dip. Except to this recipe heretic.
I warm the cream cheese a little, then mash half the sweet potato with a fork and mix in a bit of the chile in adobo sauce. The texture is awful and the taste is nothing like dip. So I toss it in the blender. Nope, it’s too thick to blend. I add a dollop of sour cream. Blend. Oh, nice orange-y color. Taste? Needs something. I toss in a pinch of dry chipotle powder and a dash of salt. Blend. Taste. Needs more heat so I add a bit more chile in adobo sauce. Blend. Taste. It needs some freshness. I have green tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers but I don’t think I’m aiming for a raw element. Instead I pour off a tiny bit of the liquid from the salsa we canned. Blend. Oooh, it’s good. Still needs something to round off the strong edge. Hmmm. Maybe this sort of spicy will benefit from a little sweetness. I think about putting in applesauce but first try drop of our honey. I give the blender another whirl. Perfect!
The doorbell rings, the dogs bark, and our friends come in bringing lively conversation. My improvised dip is there on the table next to the salsa, waiting to be scooped up with blue chips. The colors are an aesthetic delight and the use of leftover ingredients satisfies my frugal heart. But what’s really a pleasure is watching the whole bowl emptied by friends who rave over the taste even after I confess that it’s made out of sweet potato. In a heavenly kitchen somewhere I hope those great grandmothers nod their approval.
Subversive Cook is now the title of my next book. I’m slow at work on it. See how you can contribute at subversivecook.com or get in touch with me using this site’s contact form.