Thursday, July 30, 2009

Improvisation, intentional or otherwise

Because most of you who read this blog are friends of mine, I probably don't even have to say this, but I have no training whatsoever as a chef. I'm just a voracious reader of recipes, cookbooks, and all things food related, and I love to eat. After years and years of closely following recipes, I am now branching out into adapting existing recipes that I know well, and am even creating recipes from scratch.

This is, of course, a great experiment - and things don't always turn out the way I want them to. I'm trying to see that as a learning experience, and most of the time I think it is. By making little notes in the margins of recipes and changing ingredients to suit my family's tastes, I'm not only creating new recipes we can enjoy now, but am making a record for Dora to use someday. Perhaps some day she will be glad to replace half the flour in her recipes with whole wheat and remember how I did that, just as I think of my mom when using almond extract in Mexican Wedding Cakes instead of vanilla.

While I was home earlier this week, I made a lot of food for my dad. I made carrot fennel soup, zucchini walnut cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot potato zucchini kugel, and cabbage potato soup. The cabbage potato soup recipe comes from Mollie Katzen's "Enchanted Broccoli Forest". I specifically picked out recipes that would use up the vegetables in our CSA share, but also went for things that would freeze well or could be considered vegetarian comfort food for someone who is recuperating.

I took home a green and a purple cabbage, but in the end I used the purple one for the cabbage potato soup. The green one, though called for in the recipe, was a bit small and I was worried it wouldn't be enough. I made a huge pot of the stuff - probably at least 8 servings - sweating away in the hot kitchen with the oven on to bake the kugel. It turned out very, very purple indeed. But, with onion and caraway seed, it turned out tasting a bit like a very mild sauerkraut. Also, its not often we get to eat truly purple foods - and I know many people (myself included) swear by the theory of eating a variety of colors of vegetables to get all the nutrients we need.

Improvisation can be unintentional, too, such as when you forget an ingredient, or when you discover that the eggs you thought were in the fridge aren't there. Forgetting ingredients is fairly easy when you're cooking with a toddler wrapped around your legs, which is the state of cooking I find myself in often these days. Dora is usually content for a few minutes sitting on the counter, playing with kitchen utensils or stirring flour in her own child-size pots from Ikea. That usually only lasts a few minutes, after which I am either holding her at the stove (a big no-no, of course, but perhaps this way she will learn to be a great cook!) or chopping something at the counter while she stands between me and the cupboard and pushes at my legs. It is under these circumstances earlier this week that I left the vanilla extract out of the zucchini walnut cake I baked for my dad. I remembered right after sliding the pan into the oven.

In spite of this omission (and a few other small changes I made), it really turned out absolutely delicious, and I'm about to make a repeat performance for the double birthday party we're hosting tomorrow for Brian and Dora (recipe postings to follow).

My piano-teaching husband teaches his students how to improvise right away, because he feels like it gives even beginning students the chance to make music immediately, and gets them interested and excited to play. I think the same is true for cooking. I really love reading and following recipes - I probably always will - but branching out into the territory of adapting recipes and making up my own recipes is pretty exciting, and a little scary, too. As with anything worthwhile, it seems like those two seemingly conflicting emotions are breeding ground for some great discoveries, intentional or otherwise. So, here's to improvisation, and making music right away.

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