If you are making whole wheat bread for the first time (or, name it: potato pancakes, chicken piccata, broccoli salad, oatmeal cookies…), you are likely to follow the recipe to a T. You walk consciously through the steps: Do I have everything on the list? Oh dear, I don’t have that kind of pan. How small should I cut this up? Is this the right consistency? What do they mean by “firm”?
But if you cook or bake a thing frequently, after a while you don’t need the recipe anymore. The ingredients, quantities, sequence, timing, temperature, variances and all other factors associated with making it have pretty well lodged in your head. You know what it looks like when it’s done right, what it feels like, what it smells like. You know what will affect it adversely, what doesn’t matter and what might enhance it. When you do a thing often, you get a sense for it. That’s when you can play with it.
For example, I made potato pancakes on Friday night: shredded potatoes, flour, egg, salt and pepper (and ideally a little chopped onion and parsley) mixed up in a bowl and plopped in hot oil until brown on one side, then flipped and browned on the other. In this case
- I forgot the flour (helps bind it a bit, oops, but somehow these were fine).
- A small red onion spoke to me from the pantry like Dory with the sharks in Finding Nemo – “Pick me! Pick me!” I don’t always have red onion in the house and I think it’s nicer than white.
- I was not feeling quite energetic enough to make a salad as well, but my good sense tells me “green is important!” so I chopped up some spinach and added it to the potato pancake mixture.
- I didn’t want to use two pans but I had a bit too much mixture for normal size potato pancakes. You can’t tell so much from the photo, but these are fat and thick, which meant a lower flame and a longer cooking time to make sure all of the potato got cooked through.
This recipe works well with sweet potatoes too. Hmm, how would half sweet potato and half white potato be? What about shallots instead of red onion? What if I added a bit of bacon or ham next time, cooked to crispy and chopped up fine?
The potato pancakes were a side dish to pork chops (though sometimes they are a meal in themselves). I took some applesauce out of the freezer (that I made last fall) because applesauce goes beautifully with potato pancakes and pork chops. I had some apples in the fridge this past week that needed to be used, so I had cut them up small, with skins on, and cooked them till soft. I call this “stewed apples” rather than applesauce, though the difference is technical. Anyway there was a little of this left (not enough for dinner) but the two mixed together became applesauce with a bit more texture than usual. Why not?
I like playing with food. You can play even if you are not the one preparing the dish. Let’s say you like salad and you like quinoa. You go to a restaurant and they have one with a combination of ingredients you would not have thought to put together. Mine this past week at Burton’s Grill came with dried cranberries, finely julienned veggies, roasted beets, candied pecans, shredded cheddar and maple dijonnaise. You know I don’t eat nuts, so they left those off, and once, maybe ten years ago, I had a great quinoa salad with a lemon dressing. One of the other salads on Burton’s menu had a lemon vinaigrette, so I asked if they could use their lemon dressing on the quinoa salad for me. Sure, our server said. It was fabulous!
But prize this week for playing with food goes to last night’s pizza. I have a wonderful book called Pizza Napoletana!* I used it for what Claudia calls “inspirational value.” I would not ordinarily be drawn to a recipe called Pizza Boscaiola all’ Lombardi (Mushroom Pizza). Nor did the intro grab my attention: “In the fall, the forests of Italy are dotted with mushroom hunters. Porcini is on everyone’s mind. Other wild mushrooms, such as shiitakes or morels, may be substituted.”
I assure you, mushrooms are not on my mind in the fall or at any other time of year. They are a bit too earthy for my taste. Like my aversion to nuts, it would be easier to be able to say “sorry, I’m allergic.” I’m not. I just don’t like them. I avoid them routinely.
What caught my eye were two words in the ingredient list: heavy cream. In a pizza recipe??? Mmmm! Oh, yeah! Those two words jumped at me. They were all I needed.
I did not actually have heavy cream in the house, seldom do, but Saturday night’s Airbnb cottage guests (bless them) left an unopened pint of light cream in the fridge. That works, I said to myself. I glanced over the recipe, seemed pretty straightforward. It wants me to sauté the onion in olive oil, add the mushrooms, cook till tender, add the cream, stir in the parsley and thyme, spread on rolled-out dough, sprinkle with cheeses and bake. I didn’t do it that way.
First there was the mushroom problem. What about some other vegetable? Samuel said. Peppers! I had a red pepper. That works. See? My aversion to some foods comes in handy — it forces me to play 😊.
I cut up the equivalent of three medium onions and one red pepper, got them going in the pan with half a stick (4 Tablespoons) butter – yes, the recipe said olive oil, which normally I love, but dairy was calling my name, so butter won that toss-up. There is nothing quite like the smell of onion sautéing in butter.
Then I thought, hey, what about garlic? I finely diced three cloves and added them to the onion and pepper.
Not having heavy cream, which would be heavy enough in and of itself, I decided to make a roux, or white sauce, to ensure a degree of thickness that wouldn’t be runny on a pizza. When the onions were soft and transparent, I added half a cup of flour (in retrospect, this might have been slightly too much) and then the pint of light cream a little at a time. Samuel ground some fresh pepper into it.
In the meantime I rolled out the perfect dough that Samuel had made (there is something about his dough that’s different than mine – better! – and I will figure it out someday!). Having used the recipe only for inspiration, in other words not referring to it as often as perhaps I should have, I then spread the creamy onion mixture on the dough and sprinkled salt and the cheeses on top.
I had parmesan cheese, but not the best kind, and this pizza was going to be good so I wanted to go with superior products. It came into my mind that I had had such luck with the asiago cheese on my pizza last week. So for cheeses I shredded a pound of mozzarella and a chunk of asiago that takes up as much space in your grip as a tennis ball, about 3x2x2”.
After the cheeses were on, I remembered (oops again) there were herbs called for as well. They should have been mixed into the onions and cream. Ah, well, on top they go.
I cannot imagine that mixing the herbs in would have made this pizza better because it was already quite amazing. But I’ll play around with this idea again – get the good, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese maybe, or in the summertime use fresh parsley and thyme out of the garden, or see how heavy cream instead of a thickened light cream compares. In any case, this one’s a keeper!
Pizza Napoletana! By Pamela Shelton Johns, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1999.