Posts Tagged ‘improv cuisine’

The inspiration for this particular food riff (aka “the egg thing”) came from this recipe: http://www.sassyradish.com/2013/01/gruyere-and-pancetta-quiche-with-hash-brown-crust/
I have made several variations (I rarely make something exactly the same way twice due to on hand ingredients, whim, etc.), and it is a grand and glorious thing, but it is rather labor intensive.  I wanted the same experience of essentially a meal in a slice  – potatoes, eggs, veggies – without quite so much work.
The first egg thing
Grease a 9×13 Pyrex pan with unsalted butter.  Don’t skimp here.  Make sure the pan is well coated.  None of this cooking spray nonsense.  Not only does the butter add a little extra savory yumminess, but it also makes the thing practically hop out of the pan, making it easier to serve and clean up afterwards.
Slice 3 or 4 fist-sized potatoes into ¼” slices.  I am a fan of red potatoes.  And I don’t peel them.  Use pretty much whatever potato strikes your fancy, although I wouldn’t recommend large “baking” potatoes.  Peel or not, as you prefer.
Line the bottom of the pan with the potatoes and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.  (If you grease the pan with salted butter rather than unsalted, skip the salt here.)
Slice up whatever other veggies you want to use.
The first time I did half a medium-sized onion, a small-ish zucchini (maybe 6 inches long), a yellow squash the same size as the, and a handful of small plum tomatoes, layering them over the potatoes in that order.  This last time I didn’t have yellow squash, and I added portabella mushrooms between the zucchini and tomatoes.  I think I sliced up a couple of shallots as well as a small onion, too.  I am a fan of sweeter onions, but any kind will work.  Scallions, too.  Or leeks.  I separated the onion slices into rings.
The layers shouldn’t really reach more than about halfway up the side of the pan.  (If they do, you’ll need more eggs and longer cooking time.)
I haven’t done a meat version, but adding cooked bacon or sausage or prosciutto or ham or pancetta could certainly be a happy thing.
Sprinkle some shredded cheese over the top.  I would say no more than a cup.  A light covering.  Not like pizza topping cheese.  I like to mix a bunch of cheese blends together – parmesan, asiago, romano, mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, Monterey jack.  You could crumble in some feta (and add some olives while you are at it – ooh!  and marinated artichokes – go for that Mediterranean feel) or add dabs of fresh ricotta.  (It’s not a recipe!  It’s a food riff!)
Beat half a dozen eggs together with a good splash of milk (I totally don’t measure – 3 or 4 tablespoons maybe?) and about ¼ cup of sour cream.  (I just scoop out a nice heaping tablespoon – flatware tablespoon as opposed to measuring tablespoon.)  I prefer light sour cream.  You could certainly use whole fat, but I would not recommend fat free.  Also, you could use crème fraiche instead if you like that sort of thing.
The main thing I learned from the quiche with has brown crust recipe is that the sour cream is key to helping the eggs set nicely.  That and beating them thoroughly to aerate them.  I beat with a fork for probably about 90 seconds.  An electric mixer can probably do it in half the time, but then you have to clean the electric mixer.  A whisk works, too.
Add salt and pepper to taste.  If you like herbs and/or spices, add them to the egg mix now.  I like some Bouquet Garni, Herbes de Provence, or an Italian blend.  Fresh basil, rosemary, tarragon, etc. are good, too.  If you like heat, add some chilies or red pepper flakes or a clove of minced garlic.
Pour the egg mixture over the layered potatoes and veggies.  They will not be completely covered.  The eggs will expand and mostly cover them as they bake.  If you are really concerned that there is not enough egg, beat up one or two more and add them.  (I did that the third time, and I don’t think that it turned out quite as well.)
Bake uncovered at 435 (yes, 435 – I like to add 5 or 10 degrees, might just be my oven) for about 35 minutes.  Maybe check at 30 minutes.  Inserted knife should come out clean.
Let sit for 5 minutes or so after removing the pan from the oven.  Cut and serve.
It reheats nicely or could even be eaten at room temperature.  I eat it as is, but you could top with more sour cream or salsa or whatever strikes your fancy.
Have fun!

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If you are going to try cooking without a net (or written recipe), now is the time to do it.  Or at least now is the time to do it in the parts of the world where it is summer and there is abundant, fresh, local produce to be had.

Marketing departments want you to believe that summer is almost over so that you will stock up on school supplies and buy new fall (or even winter) wardrobes, but there are still almost seven weeks of official summer left.  Seven weeks!  And the end of summer actually means the height of harvest for some crops.

One of my favorite summer dishes is the delectably simple insalata caprese: layers of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and leaves of fresh basil drizzled with a little something — usually balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but I tend to just go with Kalamata olive oil and skip the vinegar, but each to his own.  I slice the tomatoes, grind just a little bit of high quality salt over the slices, and let them sit for a few minutes before I add the basil and mozzarella.  Tomatoes *love* salt, but just a touch.  Fresh, ripe tomatoes are delicious on their own, it’s true, but a hint of salt really opens up the flavor without making them taste salty.  (Reading Salted by Mark Bitterman opened up a world of salt possibilities.  It’s amazing how varied one little compound can be.)

I wasn’t quite organized enough to make the mozzarella myself, so I bought it at the grocery store, but the basil and tomatoes came from local farmers.  As I was eating, all I could think was “When real food tastes this good, why did I ever eat processed junk?”  Sure, the industrial food is convenient, and I am quite certain that it is specifically designed to be addictive, but I also believe that real, fresh food (even if it is not necessarily local — I do love avocados, which definitely don’t grow around here) has the power to break that addiction.

But I digress.

This past weekend it was finally cool enough to do some canning, so on Saturday I stopped at a roadside stand selling pickling cucumbers, and yesterday I made pickles.  I had a good handful of fresh dill left over, and I bought a bulb of fennel at a farmers’ market, so I decided to try an improvisational version of what I refer to as “green soup.”  “Official” green soup is actually split pea, fennel, and spinach soup from Vegetarian Times.  I didn’t have split peas or spinach, but I had a bunch of frozen summer squash I have been wanting to use up, so the recipe went something like this:

2 small leeks, halved, rinsed, and sliced crosswise, about 1 cup, maybe a little less
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
10 or so grinds each of salt and pepper
1 medium bulb of fennel, leafy fronds removed, but stalks included, 1 – 1 1/2 cups
4 containers mixed frozen summer squash, probably 5 or 6 cups
The handful of fresh dill left over from making pickles, chopped
Some other miscellaneous seasonings I thought would be a good idea – Sunny Paris and Pasta Sprinkle
Enough homemade turkey stock to cover the lot, somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 6 cups

I used to be obsessed with measurements, but the more that I cook, the more I learn that it is about proportions and balancing flavors — not to mention adjusting to taste.

I sauteed the leeks and garlic in a little olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, adding the salt and pepper along the way.  The fennel went in next, and a few minutes later the squash.  I heated the turkey stock to a simmer before adding it to the pot along with the dill and other seasonings.  Then I brought everything to a boil and lowered to a simmer.  After about 30 minutes of simmering, I pureed the whole batch with the fabulous immersion blender and let it simmer another 30 minutes or so.

At the risk of sounding synesthetic, it *tastes* green — fresh and summery and bright and naturally sweet.

After dinner last night, I have just enough to cover lunches for the entire week, and I think that I will try a different sort of topping or additive each day and see what happens.  Last night — a few dabs of sour cream.  Today – magic cheese.  Tomorrow — perhaps a squirt of citrus or some fresh tomatoes.  From there — who knows?

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It is getting to be farmers’ market season again, and I think that I am even more excited than I was last year.  I signed up for a CSA program in January, which means I get a discount on everything I buy from a particular farm.  It worked out well last year, even though I didn’t sign up as early.  The farmer grows the sorts of things I like to eat.  He has chickens, too, so a couple of weeks ago, I bought a dozen eggs laid by chickens I have actually met.  The eggs were all slightly different colors and sizes, and delicious!

Anyway, with new crops of vegetables on their way, I have been working my way through the last of the frozen vegetables, trying to make sure that nothing gets shifted to the back, hidden and forgotten.

On Sunday, I decided that I should use up the last bits of the Thanksgiving turkey, which I thought were hiding in a corner somewhere, freezer burned and forgotten, and given their state, slow cooked turkey soup sounded like a good plan.  I even considered using the crock pot, but in the end decided I wanted to play a more active roll in the preparation.

When I went searching for said turkey, however, it was nowhere to be found, so someone must have beaten me to it.  Luckily, I had two rather large, locally and organically grown chicken breasts from the same farmer, so turkey soup became chicken soup.

Step one: defrost the chicken.  I was a little concerned about using chicken because raw chicken has a certain squish factor which kind of grosses me out.  Solution: cut up the chicken with a nice sharp nice before it has completely defrosted and then pop the pieces into the microwave for a few minutes to finish the defrosting process.

Step two: start defrosting cubes of turkey stock (made from the carcass of the aforementioned Thanksgiving turkey).

Step three: brown the chicken.  I am not very good a browning meat.  Unless I can do it in one big chunk (like a roast), I don’t have the patience to make sure that the small bits are spread out properly so that they brown instead of steam and then turn them in a timely and coordinated manner so that they brown evenly without burning or cooking too much.  I know that everything tastes better if I do it right, but true to form, after two batches, I just dumped the rest in and sauteed until I didn’t see any more pink showing on the outside and then piled it all on a plate.

Step four: the fabulous mirepoix — onion (sweet this time), carrots, celery and garlic.  Sauteed in the little bit of fat from the chicken and a bit of olive oil, adding white wine to deglaze as needed.  Sauteed might not be the correct term as I use lower heat and longer time.  Added a few grinds of salt and pepper somewhere along the line.

Step five: seasonings.  Look in the pantry or on the spice rack.  Shake in a bit of whatever strikes your fancy. I used a couple of different herb mixtures I like to keep on hand.

Step six: more wine.  I poured in what was left in a couple of open bottle which had been in the fridge for a while, probably about a cup and a half.

Step seven: everything else — a saucepan full of turkey stock (four to six cups), the browned chicken, chopped up green beans (local, organic, frozen at the end of the summer), red potatoes, probably two cups of water to make sure everything was covered and a tablespoon or two or my favorite homemade vegetable bouillon.

Step eight: bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, tasting for seasoning and doneness along the way.

Step nine: enjoy a hearty meal and store the leftovers.  (This recipe makes roughly a vat of soup.  There will be leftovers unless you are feeding many and/or large appetites.)

You could server it over rice or noodles.  You could throw in tiny pasta (or not so tiny pasta, as you like).  Beans would probably work, too.  I am hoping that it freezes well, and I can vouch that it improves as leftovers.

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I am a huge fan of applied knowledge.  I love being able to take something I have learned and use it as a frame of reference to learn or figure out something else. If I am really lucky, the knowledge takes on a life of its own, and I don’t even recognize the extrapolation right away.  Instead there is just a natural flow from known into the unknown, which then turns into the known.  (Beats the unknown unknown any day of the week, if you ask me.)

That sort of extrapolation is exactly what has happened with my cooking, and I find it exciting.  I have reached the point at which I can think about recipes and techniques I have already used and create something new, or, even better, something familiar.  I think that I am even getting to the point at which I can look at a recipe someone did not care for and see why it did not work.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to make lentil soup again.  I make a lot of lentil soup, especially once the weather begins to turn colder.  I make big batches and then freeze individual portions that I take take to work for lunch.

So the time came to make another batch of lentil soup, and, horror of horrors, I couldn’t find the recipe that I usually use (at least as a starting point).  This happened before my discovery of eatyourbooks.com, so I had to search my cookbook collection the old fashioned way.  I checked Moosewood and The Joy of Cooking and Marcella and Julia and a few others.  No luck.  My usual lentil soup recipe was not to be found.

What’s a hungry cook to do?

Improvise, of course.

Ingredients waiting to be chopped

I had the ingredients.  I had the skills and the knowledge.  I just had to figure out how to put the two together.  So I did.

I chopped up the magical trifecta that is mirepoix — celery, onion and carrot — along with a bit of garlic, added salt and pepper, and sauteed the lot in some olive oil, using Lynne Rosetto-Kasper’s recommended method of lower heat and a covered pot for a longer period of time (15 minutes as opposed to about 5).  When things started to stick to the bottom of the pan — an occurrence which I believe to be caused by my preference of using less than the recommended amount of oil for sauteing — I deglazed with a generous splash of white wine.

Chopped ingredients

Any excuse to add wine, right?  Not that you really need one.  Wine is just as powerful a flavor enhancer as stock if you ask me, and I think that it helps all of the other flavors get along.  I have also discovered that, at least for white wine, the specific variety of wine isn’t all that important, as long as it is something you would like to drink.  I have used Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and even flat Champagne (which can be seen in the corner of the ingredients photo), all to excellent effect.

Returning to the lentil soup at hand, while the magical mirepoix was sauteeing, I finished chopping up the rest of the vegetables — mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini.  Then I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste, paprika and some other herbs to the mirepoix and stirred everything until well mixed.

Sauteeing mirepoix

In went the vegetables, a bag of lentils, more wine, and vegetable broth made from homemade vegetable bouillon which I absolutely adore and is so easy to make (basically blend a bunch of vegetables in a food processor with a bunch of salt to preserve it and then put the lot in mason jars and freeze it).  I brought the whole concoction to a boil, reduced to a simmer and, as the saying goes, cooked until done — which I have discovered with lentil soup is always longer than you think that it should be.  Trust me on this one — if you taste the soup and it seems pretty good, tweak the seasoning just a bit more if you want to and the let it simmer another fifteen or twenty minutes before tasting it again.  The result is yummy, hearty, rich, melt in your mouth lentil soup.  Then again, I am not a huge fan of al dente pasta, so if you prefer a bit of toothsomeness to your soup, then you might not be a fan of that extra few minutes which really causes all of the ingredients and flavors to melt together.


So, to sum up: chop up a bunch of ingredients, saute the mirepoix, deglaze with wine, add seasoning, add rest of ingredients and liquid(s) of choice, bring to boil, simmer, sample and season along the way, and voila!  Soup!

P.S.  Just as I did when making the soup, I almost forgot the prosciutto.  I love prosciutto.  It’s less fatty and more delicate than bacon.  If I hadn’t forgotten it, I would have sauteed it briefly in a pan and then added it toward the end of the mirepoix sauteeing step.  But I did forget it until I was at the bring to boil step, so I tossed it in then, and it worked its salty, savory magic just as well.

If you are a big fan of meat, the piggy, savory sorts work well in this soup — ham, kielbasa, linguisa, other sausage (though it probably doesn’t need to be pork sausage).

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As I sat down to eat my tuna salad on tomato slices, I couldn’t help thinking that while tasty, they might be missing something.  Perhaps a salad or a side of steamed vegetables.  Then I thought — eggs!  An egg would be just the thing.  Initially I thought a few slices of warm, hard boiled egg, but then I thought “tuna melt meets eggs Benedict”: toasted English muffin (or stick with the tomato slices), plus tuna salad, plus egg, plus hollandaise sauce and/or Swiss cheese or perhaps pesto, assembled and toasted or broiled until heated through and browned on top.

I’m salivating with curiosity.  Anyone else?  Yes?  No?

Tuna Salad on Tomato Slices
1 Medium to large tomato, sliced crosswise
(Mine was a little smaller than a softball, and I got four probably 1/4-inch slices after cutting off the top.)
1 5-ounce can Wild Planet Skipjack light tuna, *undrained*
1 Rib celery, finely chopped
Mustard to taste
(I used whole grain dijon, probably between 1/2 and 1 tsp.)
Mayo or Miracle Whip to taste
(I used about 2 tsp of Miracle Whip light.)
Small handful magic cheese
Sunny Paris seasoning

Arrange tomato slices on a plate and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper or to taste.

Mix the tuna, celery, mustard, and Miracle Whip in a bowl until well blended.

Sprinkle in the cheese and a few shakes of Sunny Paris seasoning and mix again.

Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.

Pile the tuna on the tomato slices until the bowl is empty.


Food riff: Sprouts, baby spinach leaves, small leaves of lettuce, fresh basil or other fresh herbs of preference could easily be layered over the tomatoes before piling on the tuna.  A thin slice of Swiss or cheddar or Harvarti or mozzarella could be used in addition to or instead of the greenery.  Alternately, the cheese could go over the top and the lot could be toasted or set under the broiler for a few minutes and then perhaps even topped with a touch of marinara or salsa.  As with the salmon salad of a recent post, garlic and/or onions could add a bit of zing and relish a bit of crunch.  Maybe even mix the tuna with pesto rather than mustard and mayo.

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