I love cooking, and one of the things I enjoy most is watching how my favourite recipes evolve over the years. I don’t feel that I am ever “finished” with a recipe, even when I believe it is good enough to share or publish. I take great pleasure in adding an ingredient here or tweaking a recipe there, especially when it develops into something even more delicious than when I made it originally.
I remember when I was learning to cook, we were always exhorted to “stick to the recipe” if we wanted to get good results. To be fair, when it comes to baking, until you are very experienced this is definitely a good idea. Baking is like alchemy – if you get the balance of ingredients wrong, failure is just about guaranteed. But once you get the hang of it, even playing with recipes for baked goods can be very satisfying and successful. In terms of recipes for main courses, there is a lot you can get away with in terms of substitution and rather than being discouraged, I feel creativity should be positively encouraged.
My shepherd’s pie recipe for example, which originally was very traditional, is currently evolving. By changing the tomato based gravy I have used for years into one based on beef stock, and adding a tablespoon of tomato paste and a glug of red wine, my recipe has taken on a depth of flavour that is much more satisfying. Similarly, I recently turned a pear tart recipe into a raspberry and almond tart that was much more delicious than its original incarnation. I changed the composition of the crust, incorporating ground almonds in it, and put a layer of jam between the pastry and the filling that was absolutely scrumptious. I also used flaked almonds in the topping. Next time I plan to go back to the pears, but change the recipe as I did for the raspberries. I’m sure it will be an equally successful experiment.
Playing around with a recipe does take courage. There is something particularly awful about trying to cook or bake something and having it not turn out. Even if it means you get taken out to dinner instead, the seemingly wasted time and ingredients can be soul destroying. However, I would argue that neither the time nor the ingredients are truly wasted if it eventually leads to the discovery of a new and different - or better - recipe.
There are, however, two cardinal rules to recipe evolution. The first is never to experiment if it is an important meal, or one that you are serving to guests. This is just way too stressful. In fact, it took more bitter experiences than I would have expected to teach me that you should never, ever prepare a new recipe for the first time in these circumstances. Far better to serve an old favourite to your guests, even if they have eaten it many times before, than risk the public humiliation of the failure of a new one – no matter how high your self-esteem is or how close a friends your guests are. Following on from this is the second rule. Never become so attached to your dish that if it fails, you take it personally. Mistakes are to be learned from in the kitchen just as much as in other areas of life. Just as it is hard to become a well-rounded person without making mistakes, if you never make any mistakes in the kitchen, you are unlikely to develop into the best cook you can be.
Cooking can bring huge pleasure into your life and into the lives of your family and friends when they enjoy the food you have made, but it is hard for you to fully enjoy cooking though if you feel you must follow the recipe to the letter every time and lack the courage to experiment. One of the easiest ways to encourage yourself to experiment, particularly in these difficult economic times, is challenging yourself to create meals with ingredients you already have in your fridge and store cupboard, even if they don’t immediately seem like things that might go together. It’s amazing how a grain like rice or couscous can bring together seemingly incompatible vegetables, or how the addition of an ingredient like basil pesto can lift a meal from ordinary to extraordinary.
One of the things that can interfere with experimentation is the old ideas we have stuck in our heads. I vividly remember an advertisement when I was a child in which the actress said, “I still bake cakes, but I’ve stopped licking the spoon – and look at me!” (She was incredibly svelte, so much so that I doubt she actually ever ate anything she baked. It must have been an advertisement for a diet aid.) As a result, I subconsciously became very careful not to do much tasting in the kitchen, for fear of overeating. Experience has taught me, however, that tasting during the cooking process is incredibly important. You don’t have to taste huge portions, but you must taste what you are cooking at least a couple of times during the cooking process. However, I do have to say that licking the spoon while baking cakes is totally unnecessary (although it can be a great deal of fun) as it really will not give you any idea how the finished product is actually going to taste. In terms of savoury dishes though, tasting is integral.
Old ideas can interfere with your creativity too. If you allow yourself to be caught in the trap of believing that certain foods can never be combined, you will struggle to develop as a cook. Although I cannot profess to be a fan of recipes that push the boundaries too far (I have no desire to taste the bacon and egg ice cream developed by chef Heston Blumenthal for example), I do think you have to think outside the box if you ever want to move beyond the basics in the kitchen. Similarly, it is important not to restrict yourself to serving certain foods at certain times. Salads can be delicious for dinner and sandwiches are definitely not just for lunch anymore. I love recipes like those developed by Rachael Ray – the ones she calls BLD recipes – for things that can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Also, don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut. For example, roast chicken is not just for Sunday dinner, it is actually an easy and delicious meal any night of the week.
I think the key to recipe evolution is not just the courage to experiment, but also the patience to accept that, particularly if you are trying to develop a recipe from scratch, it may take several attempts before you achieve a result you are one hundred percent happy with it. And to be honest, once you really get comfortable in the kitchen, I am sure you will find just as I do that you are never really finished tweaking recipes or playing around with ingredients. After all, that is half the fun of cooking. So go on, get in the kitchen and experiment a bit! You’ll be very glad you did.