When I cook, I always use a recipe. Always!
The problem is, I rarely follow it.
I view a recipe as a helpful guide, a list of loosely-suggested food combinations accompanied by approximate quantities. Nothing is taken very seriously. I freely (Martin would say recklessly) substitute major ingredients, alter their amounts and cooking times, and change the order in which items are added. Every recipe seems to get modified, somewhere along the line.
Sometimes I do it because my way is just easier and faster. I mean, who wants to spend time boiling pasta, grating cheese, making a red sauce, cooking meat, meticulously layering everything in a dish, and then still have to bake it? That takes way too long! Throw it all into a pot, give the whole thing a stir, and call it done! Time to eat!
Success is, admittedly, varied. Not every recipe survives my careless measurements and sheer bravado.
Take cream puffs, for instance.
I was baffled when mine ended up the size, consistency, and flavor of hockey pucks. Throw one of my cream puffs, and you could reasonably be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Rock hard and virtually indestructible, they would have made excellent patio pavers, had I made enough.
I couldn’t fathom my complete lack of success. I had followed the recipe exactly! Then I learned that apparently you can’t just eyeball the required amount of flour by shaking it straight out of the bag. You have to actually measure it. Who knew? Likewise, you can’t slash the number of eggs by over half in a misguided attempt at being “healthy,” a questionable endeavor in itself, given that I was making cream puffs.
Live and learn.
Despite my cavalier attitude about ingredients and measurements, I do make every attempt to follow the recipe, more or less. So my tinkering is usually along the lines of hastily (Martin would say desperately) attempting to rectify a critical oversight or major mistake. Like not having any butter when making buttercream frosting. Or forgetting to buy tortillas for the enchiladas. Or realizing I just poured a cup of wine vinegar into the red sauce instead of a cup of wine. Uh-oh!
It’s hard to recover from gaffes like that, but it can be done with a little creative (Martin would say brazen) substitutions.
No ground hamburger? Add chopped ham or a can of tuna! It’s all meat, what’s the difference?
Ran out of rice? Pasta, potatoes, and rice are all totally interchangeable! Beef teriyaki over penne; sweet-and-sour pork over potatoes; rice with marinara sauce. Another successful meal!
No cream? Use milk! Or chicken broth! Heck, pour in some wine! They’re all liquids, they’ll all add flavor! Although, I must hastily point out, don’t try any of those substitutions if you’re aiming for meringue. I don’t care how savagely you beat the milk – or the chicken broth, or the wine, for that matter. You ain’t never gonna get stiff peaks.
I know: I’ve tried.
Seriously, I have. It was a mess. I had the mixer on full blast; milk was spattering wildly onto the ceiling, across the cabinets, into my face, and despite really leaning into that mixer (and uttering a few choice words to get my determination across), there was not one hint of a peak, stiff or otherwise, which further maddened me, so – well, we don’t need to dwell on that. It wasn’t pretty. I regret how I treated the mixer; I understand now that it wasn’t its fault.
My new mixer is really nice, though.
I once came across a recipe entitled “Asparagus Tofu Noodle.” I thought it sounded great, except for the tofu part.
Plus I didn’t have asparagus.
Or noodles either, as it turned out.
But why fret over minor details? I happily plowed ahead; with a few substitutions, “Asparagus Tofu Noodle” became “Broccoli Red Pepper With Rice.” See? That’s my version of following a recipe exactly. I followed it faithfully! Except where I completely changed it.
Indeed, who knows what you’ll really get if I offer to bring an apple pie to the potluck. With a few fresh-produce and starch substitutions, the apple pie might transform itself into potato salad. It just sort of happens. Whoops, no apples! Time to substitute! Hey look, I have potatoes! This will work!
Because of this, Martin has learned to fear several sounds when I’m in the kitchen. One is a chirped “Uh-oh!” It usually signals there’s going to be a major change in the meal plan.
The other is the smoke alarm going off. It usually signals that dinner is almost ready.
Either way, Martin creeps uneasily to the dining room table and pushes the food around with his fork.
“What is this, baked chicken?” he asks doubtfully.
“Well… it was supposed to be, but – ”
He swiftly holds up a hand. Stop. Say no more. Don’t want to know.
Sometimes he’s midway through the meal before he notices me eyeing him with a mixture of unusual interest and barely-contained amusement. He freezes. “What?”
“How’s it taste?” I’ll ask as casually as possible.
He instantly sits back, peers suspiciously at his food, gives it a cautious sniff. “What did you do to it?” he demands.
The answer is usually something like, “This might be soup now, but it started as quiche. Ohmigosh, you’ll never guess what happened! I had to make a few adjustments.”
So when I announce that I’m making a “beef and tomato with rice” stir-fry, he takes the news with a grain of salt (or a splash of soy sauce).
Because depending on how things go, he might indeed get a “beef and tomato with rice” stir-fry, or he might equally get a “chicken and cheese with potato” bake instead. Or maybe something else, something wholly unrecognizable.
There’s just no telling until the smoke alarm goes off.