Thursday, August 22, 2013

Learning Curves Evolve Into Better Recipes

While the flare for culinary creativity is certainly within my genes, it was not until adulthood that I began dabbling in the kitchen.  In fact, when I was first dating Brian, I couldn't cook a thing.  Somehow, between my lifelong love of eating, those inherited skills from a grandfather chef and uncle baker and the sudden realization that I had finally found the man who was destined to become my husband, the interest in cooking that had lain dormant for more than twenty years awakened.  As it turned out, Brian loved to eat, and thus his interest in cooking was stirred also.  So we embarked on learning everything we could about shopping for, preparing and serving up foods from all over the world.  The journey didn't start at the impressive finish line, however.

Like all learning processes, it was a pathway that was started with baby steps.  Soon after our engagement, we resided under the same roof.  My cookbooks began to take over the kitchen shelves and bottles and jars of Asian condiments filled the refrigerator door.  Our brave weekend projects were just that, seemingly epic attempts to recreate a dish that we witnessed being conjured on a television cooking show.  There was no Food Network then; our epicurean education came from the cooking masters of public television: Pepin, the Frugal Gourmet, Nick Stellino and a couple of other big names in classic Italian cookery.  During the harried weekday schedule, however, I played in safer waters of 30-minute menu books and packaged side dishes.  When I reflect back upon the corporate processed noodles in sauce that I used to put on the table, I can't help but to shudder.

Again, just like in all learning processes, as little tidbits of knowledge make it into your memory bank, you begin to put things together.  Oh, if you stir flour into melted butter and then slowly whisk in milk, you get a creamy sauce?  And you mean all I have to do then is add shredded cheese - any kind I want, no less - and that will actually be the very sauce needed for macaroni and cheese?  Over the years, I have figured out how to create just about anything from scratch just by understanding the techniques and the reactions of ingredients under certain conditions.  Such knowledge can also often save a dish from the clutches of ruin when something went wrong.

No longer do I buy any prepared, processed foods.  I have not purchased bottled salad dressing, boxed rice or pasta side dishes or canned soups in ages.  I no longer am intimidated by recipes found in Bon Appetit or Cucina Italiana.  No more rifling through family magazine recipes that call for packaged ingredients.  Use Cool Whip to make a cheesecake?  I think not!  However, I will peruse such recipes for inspiration to create my own rendition from scratch.  Why?  Because I now can!  In fact, I can often take the dish to the next level of delectability. 

Case in point: back in the day, a friend of mine gave me a recipe for a crab and potato salad.  The recipe called for imitation crabmeat, red new potatoes, a cut up tomato, scallions, celery and ... of all things ... a packet of Good Seasons roasted garlic dressing powder to be mixed with mayonnaise and olive oil.  Hey, it seemed good at the time and, frankly, for a beginner cook it taste darned impressive.  A couple of weeks ago, I was poring over the binder where I stashed magazine recipes over the years and came across that very one.  I decided to revisit the idea.  I tweaked the recipe, made some changes and added some things to create a satisfying variation of a salad that I could now feel good about serving.  The result was delicious and I encourage you to try it before the summer season comes to an end.

Crab and Potato Salad with Creamy Garlic Dressing

1 1/2 pounds of premium quality imitation crabmeat*
2 pounds baby Yukon Gold potatoes
1/2 pound green string beans, trimmed
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
4 ribs of celery, sliced crosswise
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced crosswise
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 large cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

In a large bowl, place the lemon juice and saffron threads, then set aside.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Cook the potatoes in the boiling water until just tender, then add the string beans to the pot.  Boil for another 90 seconds and then remove from the stove and drain into a colander.  Cool down the potatoes and string beans immediately under cold running water.

Add the mayonnaise, olive oil, salt and cayenne pepper to the bowl with the lemon juice mixture and stir to combine.  Squeeze the garlic cloves through a garlic press directly into this mixture and then stir until the dressing ingredients are well blended.  Stir in the crabmeat, potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, scallions and celery and toss everything to mix and coat with the dressing.  Serves three.

* Many fishmongers carry a decent quality of imitation crabmeat that doesn't contain a lot of artificial nonsense.  If you cannot find it, opt for 1 1/2 pounds of jumbo shrimp instead and simply add the shrimp to the boiling pot of water with the string beans, draining once the shrimp have turned pink.  Alternately, you can use lobster meat as well.  A good fish market will usually have it already cooked and packed into one-pound containers.

I must mention the fact that, in my continued efforts to keep Brian eating healthier lunches during the week, I segregated one third of the above recipe ingredients.  In that portion, I stirred a vinaigrette that I made with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, cayenne and minced garlic.  The report that came home with Brian the next day was that he liked that variation even better.  Being the creamy-food worshipper that my French genes have dictated, I think I will prefer to stick with my mayonnaise version.  The lesson learned here is that once you have mastered the basic skills and knowledge of cooking, you can transform any recipe into your own version to suit your unique preferences.  Each new version is a new original recipe. 

Another dish that I evolved originated from a thirty-minute cookbook jambalaya recipe that called for brown and serve breakfast sausages, shrimp and very few other ingredients.  A bit of knowledge gained about Cajun and Creole cuisines, plus a trip to the Big Easy, and I soon tossed the brown and serve to substitute the proper Cajun Andouille sausages.  I also added chicken, as the tradition typically calls for and tweaked the seasonings to make it a bit more authentic to this Louisiana fare.  You can find the final recipe, now my recipe, here.  Finally, from a magazine clipped advertisement for Cool Whip and Keebler piecrust complete with a recipe for chocolate peanut butter pie.  The pie had no topping or embellishment and used all processed ingredients that were just opened, heaped into a bowl, stirred, poured into a shell and that was that.  I decided to use chocolate, rather than a chocolate flavored product, real whipped cream and I created an impressive topping that looked almost too tantalizing to eat.  Try my final rendition for frozen peanut butter chocolate mousse pie.

So if you love good food but are seized with fear as you approach a stove with trepidation, there is nothing wrong with starting out simple.  I dont usually condone anyone consuming processed foods that are so full of stuff that you cant pronounce, but if you need to get your feet wet with a crash course of cooking some of these simplified magazine recipes, so be it.  As you come to realize, however, that you actually did manage to get a few meals on the table, and your family didnt spout every excuse to skip dinner that night, then its time to brave up.  Watch some cooking shows, the ones where they actually show you how to cook something.  In the wake of competition show mania, these are fewer and further between, but they are available.  Two of my personal favorites are The Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten) and Giada (De Laurentis).  These two ladies excel at their craft, theyre very personable and non-intimidating and they keep the cooking process realistic and fun.  I have yet to cook a single one of their recipes and have it turn out badly.  Watch and learn, and as you pick up on techniques and food facts, youll be leaving those processed ingredients behind to collect more supermarket dust.  Learning anything is a process.  They key is to enjoy the ride, inevitable bumps and all, and know that you never reach a final destination, because there is always something new to pick up and always something new to feast on.