Cooking is part skill, part discovery.
Innovation comes with confidence; change a recipe to suit your taste and by chance it evolves into something new. Perhaps it’s more spice or less heat; maybe it’s carrots in place of beets or applesauce in place of bananas. The results become a launching point for more innovation and greater confidence in the kitchen.
A new ingredient is also a chance to expand that base of knowledge. A banana bread recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk expands a baking repertoire. A soup that incorporates squash blossoms for flavor and as a type of thickener becomes a twofold discovery. That squash blossoms come canned at Mexican markets is one revelation that leads to all the wonders at such markets. Imparting the nutty flavor of squash blossoms into other recipes opens more doors.
Glucose sugar in coconut ice requires pulling out the gumshoe fedora.
What is it? Where does one purchase it? The simple sugar, a key ingredient in lollipops, fruit drops and other candies, is available at cake- and candy-making stores. Glucose keeps the sugar in candy from granulating during the cooking process.
Maria Elia, author of “Full of Flavor: How to Create Like a Chef” (Kyle Books, $27.95) offers guidelines for taking recipes further.
These are among her suggestions:
Are the ingredients in season? If not, adapt with a suitable alternative, substituting foods with similar textures and cooking times.
Take the recipe for a flavor journey, for example, substituting Greek influences for an Asian flair.
Lighten up the recipe; change lamb to fish. Adjust cooking time accordingly.
Simplify: Use only part of the recipe.
Vary cooking methods. Cook the roast on the grill instead of the oven.
Now you’re on your way to thinking like a chef!
3 cups sugar
1 cup glucose powder
1 teaspoon butter
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup milk
Pinch of salt
1 cup unsweetened coconut
Red food coloring
Mix together sugar, glucose powder, butter, cream of tartar, milk and salt in a pan. Bring slowly to a boil, then boil for 10 minutes, stirring continuously.
Take off heat and beat in coconut and a few drops of vanilla essence. Stand pan in cold water and beat until it thickens. Pour half into a buttered 8-by-8-inch pan, then beat the food coloring into the other half, before pouring it on top of the uncolored mix. Leave to set in fridge. Cut when set.
This recipe is from “Gran’s Kitchen: Recipes From the Notebooks of Dulcie May Booker,” by Natalie Oldfield (Hardie Grant Books, $29.95).
The candy needs a full 10 minutes at a rolling boil. It also requires a powerful mixer. Cool the cooking pan in an ice bath until the candy thickens, stirring constantly, and then beat in a stand mixer until texture lightens up. Quickly pour into prepared pan and smooth top.
Chile and tangerine braised lentils
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red chile, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup puy lentils
1¾ cups chicken or vegetable stock, heated
Zest of 2 tangerines and juice of 6tangerines
Sea salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the carrot, onion, celery, garlic and chile and cook until the vegetables begin to soften (about 5minutes). Meanwhile, place the lentils in a fine-mesh colander and rinse well under cold water. Drain before adding to the vegetables.
Add the hot stock and about two thirds of the tangerine juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 25minutes or until the lentils are al dente and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add a little more stock if the lentils look a little dry during cooking.
Remove from the heat and stir in the tangerine zest and remaining juice.
Season, then leave to cool a little before stirring through the crème fraîche and parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This recipe is from “Full of Flavor: How to Create Like a Chef,” by Maria Elia (Kyle Books, $27.95). Here are her suggestions for altering the recipes:
Try a different flavored stock, or finish with chopped fresh mint or cilantro.
Replace the lentils with fresh borlotti beans — you’ll need to cook for an additional 30 to 40 minutes, so you’ll will need a little extra stock or water.
Lentils are one of the most versatile ingredients, so try taking them on a flavor journey, from Morocco to the Mediterranean. It’s as easy as adding ginger and spices or a dash of tomato paste, some fennel seeds (optional) and cherry tomato halves. Just cook as indicated above.
Finish with lots of fresh basil and parsley, a squeeze of lemon, and some extra virgin olive oil. Stir through a spoon of ricotta the next day, or serve topped with a little grated Parmesan.
Makes 1 loaf
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
Seeds of 5 cardamom pods
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ cup granulated sugar
1⁄3 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus for greasing
2 eggs, lightly beaten
5 medium-sized overripe bananas
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line a loaf pan with parchment paper. Add all the dry ingredients except the sugar to a bowl and loosely bring together. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar and butter together, then add the eggs. Continue beating and add the condensed milk, and vanilla extract. Stir well, then gently fold in the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. Pour the batter into a loaf pan. Bake for 55 minutes, until golden brown, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
This recipe is from “Kitchen & Co.: Colorful Home Cooking Through the Seasons,” by Rosie French and Ellie Grace (Kyle Books, $22.95).
Change it up by omitting some of the spices or adding coconut or nuts or chocolate chips.
Squash blossom soup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped white onion
12 ounces (about 8 cups) fresh squash blossoms, rinsed, drained, and chopped, or 2(7-ounce) cans squash blossoms, rinsed, drained, and chopped
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt
2 poblano chilies (about 11 ounces), charred, sweated, peeled, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-by-½-inch strips
2 cups fresh or thawed frozen corn kernels
4 cups diced zucchini (about 1½ pounds)
4 cups canned chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
Heat 1 tablespoon each of the butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat until the butter melts and bubbles. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the squash blossoms, sprinkle with the pepper and ½ teaspoon of the salt, and cook until the blossoms have wilted and are tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and 1tablespoon oil in the same pot over medium heat until the butter melts. Stir in the poblanos and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the corn and zucchini and cook for 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened but not mushy. Add the broth and the remaining 1teaspoon salt, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place half of the cooked squash blossoms and the milk in a blender or food processor and purée until smooth.
Reduce the heat under the pot to low and stir the squash blossom purée into the soup (keep the heat low, or the milk may appear to curdle). Stir in the remaining squash blossoms and heat gently for 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed. Serve hot.
Notes: Canned squash blossoms can be found in well-stocked Hispanic markets. Rinse thoroughly before using.
To use fresh squash blossoms, remove the lower part of the stem and rinse them thoroughly. (Little insects appreciate their fragrance as much as we do.) The green sepals can be discared, or left in (they will add crunch).
Char poblanos over an open flame or under the broiler until the skin browns and bubbles. Sweat in a plastic bag and then remove skin.
This recipe is from “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking,” by Pati Jinich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).
This soup pairs the subtle flowery flavors of squash blossoms with the fruitiness of poblanos. Add the sweet crunch of fresh corn and a splash of milk to finish, and you have a summertime hit. After you taste it, you’ll understand why the combination of poblanos, squash, and corn appears in so many Mexican dishes.