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Change a recipe? You bet! Here’s an example

August 11th, 2008 · 4 Comments · Cooking tips, Food preparation, recipes

I remember reading an interview with Ruth Reichl in which she expressed shock that people changed recipes that they got from Gourmet magazine, seeing as Gourmet personnel had tested and revised their recipes until they were the best they could be.

I was shocked that she was shocked. (And Ruth, if it wasn’t you, I apologize.) I’m not opposed to following recipes to the letter, but I and most cooks I know look upon recipes as guidelines, not laws. There are several reasons for this:

  • Not everyone’s taste is the same. Duh.
  • Not everyone has the same ingredients available.
  • Some people like to make adjustments for the fun of it.

Marcella and me

Case in point. I recently found myself with a bunch of summer squash and some flat Italian green beans that needed cooking. I was delighted to find that Marcella Hazan, whose cookbook Marcella Cucina I had recently acquired from my father’s estate, adores zucchini and has many recipes for it. Thus I settled on Zucchini, Green Beans, Bell Pepper and Basil. I proceeded to reduce the quantities, alter the method, change an ingredient and serve it not as a side dish but mixed with pasta. It was delicious!

Two versions of ZGBBPB

  • 2 small yellow summer squash (hers: 1 pound young, small zucchini)
  • 1/2 pound flat green beans (hers: 1 1/2 pounds green beans)
  • 1 large mildly hot green pepper of unknown variety; it was about 6 inches long, the width and color of a green bell pepper but it came to a point at the bottom and had about the same heat as an Anaheim (hers: 1 meaty large yellow bell pepper)
  • 1/3 pound fresh ripe firm tomatoes (hers: 1/2 pound of same or 1 cup canned imported plum tomatoes)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, approximately (hers: 1/4 cup of same)
  • 1 medium clove garlic, minced, probably about 2 teaspoons’ worth (hers: 1 tablespoon chopped)
  • Salt (we agreed)
  • Black pepper ground fresh (we agreed)
  • A few basil leaves, snipped into strips (hers: 20 leaves, shredded fine with chopping knife. Who counts leaves?)

Her method

I won’t give you all her method details. Too much typing. Let’s just say I didn’t worry much about soaking the squash for 20 minutes before washing it. I didn’t soak the beans, either. After trying for 30 seconds to peel a tomato with a vegetable peeler per her suggestion, I said, “you’ve got to be kidding” and carried on.

My method

Anyway, my method follows. You’ll note that these steps aren’t in the order of the ingredients. That’s because Signora Hazan used four steps to describe the vegetable prep and then in step 5 started the cooking with the fifth and sixth ingredients. I’d rather see the prep included in the ingredients list, because I prep as I cook. You won’t find me resting while the first vegetables sizzle. I’ll be madly chopping the next ones to have them ready in time. Personal preference, I suppose, or an indication I try to do too much in too little time.

  1. Snap ends off beans and break into 2- or 3-inch pieces. (Her: Keep ’em whole.)
  2. Heat oil and garlic in 12-inch pan over medium heat and cook until slightly soft. (Her: Cook till “pale, pale gold.”) Add beans, sprinkle with salt. Reduce heat to low. Cover, and cook 5 minutes.
  3. Peel the pepper with a vegetable peeler. (Her idea, I did it, and it worked pretty well.) Remove seeds and pith, and cut into 1/2-inch strips. Cut strips into 2-inch lengths. (Her: Leave strips whole.) Add to the beans. Cook 5 more minutes.
  4. Cut squash julienne. Seed and dice tomatoes. Add to pan with several grindings of pepper. Stir and turn ingredients to coat with oil and seasons. Cook uncovered at low simmer, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes. Her: “Taste for doneness—the beans should be firm but tender, and the pepper and some of the zucchini will have partly dissolved. Taste and correct for salt.” OK. No dissolving occurred in my pan, but I don’t care.
  5. Her: “Off heat, swirl in the shredded basil and serve.” Me: Toss with hot cooked pasta (about 8 ounces dry). Sprinkle with basil and freshly grated Parmesan. Serve. Makes about 4 servings.

Net results

As I said, it was delicious, and I loved the zing the hot pepper gave. I combined the vegetables with spaghetti, because that’s what I had, although I think the eating would be better with penne or some other medium pasta, proof that I don’t even follow my directions if the ingredients require adapting.

I don’t know whether Marcella would approve of my ZGBBPB or not, but it worked with the ingredients I had, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing these ingredients this way without her. I’ll probably make it again, too. More or less.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jennifer

    Mmm, that looks great. I’ve got two large zucchinis in my fridge right now, waiting for me to decide what to do with them. This may take care of one of them. It also looks like it’d fit perfectly into Mark Bittman’s idea of less pasta, more sauce (or veggies, in this case).

  • Jennifer (Baklava Queen)

    “I was shocked that she was shocked.” Spot on! I think a lot of people forget that detailed recipes are a fairly recent innovation… anyone look at their grandmothers’ recipes? Common sense and taste should rule the day, once you’ve gotten the basics covered. Good for you, Janet, for coming up with what I have no doubt was a superior variation. :-)

  • Joanne

    Uhh, I think innovation is the best part of cooking. If you know enough to taste the food after you’ve begun making it, you know enough to adjust it to taste as you’d like it! I think too many people are locked into recipes, formulas, and exact instructions these days. What about a little creativity and fluidity?!

  • Janet Majure

    Jennifer #1: Did you try it? What did you think?

    Jennifer (Baklava Queen): I have to say I have trouble following some of those old-timey recipes, but I get and agree with your larger point. I don’t know if my variation was superior, but it sure was good!

    Joanne: Exactly!

    Everybody: In addition, it occurs to me that a general difference in approach may be at work. I look at what raw materials look good and then seek a recipe for using them. Other people may seek an appealing recipe and then go look for suitable food. To each her or his own.