When people find out that I develop and test recipes for a living, they often ask, “What do you like to cook?” Pizza’s a perennial favorite, though my answer often varies depending on my current project.
But if I’m really honest, the cooking that makes me happiest happens when I step away from recipes and improvise with whatever’s on hand. Not everyone’s that way — I recently interviewed a well-known food TV personality and cookbook author who told me she always follows a recipe, even her own. She invests a lot of time in perfecting her recipes, she explained, and following them to the letter allows her to re-create that taste experience every time.
That’s some sound logic, but I think it’s also good to free-range in the kitchen, at least occasionally, even if you’re a habitual recipe-follower. Especially if you’re a habitual recipe-follower.
Improvising in the kitchen is an exercise in being in the moment because you really have to focus on what’s happening in front you. You can experiment with using techniques learned from recipes in different ways. Sure, there’s the occasional dud, but you’ll learn something valuable from that, too. It’s a great confidence builder.
For me, ingredients are usually the inspiration, since I’m often looking to use up what I have on hand. This pasta toss started with some nice tomatoes that arrived in our produce box and a goodly amount of baby spinach left over from a recipe I’d made earlier in the week. Then I started eyeing the jar of emerald green pesto made with basil that also came in the produce box, plus a some Calabrian chile paste (a new favorite ingredient, thanks to Giada De Laurentiis … and in less than 20 minutes, it was a very good dinner.
So, ironically, I’m sharing a recipe here, but it’s really more a guide, a peek into what was thinking as I improvised. You really shouldn’t worry about measuring. A little more or less of these ingredients isn’t going to make a big difference.