Recipes are important, I’m not challenging that. But to cook without a recipe is incredibly liberating. I find it that much more satisfying to use the knowledge I have collected from my experiences to create something unique. The way I see it, the best way to approach cooking is to focus on the basics. Rather than tackling any recipe we can get our hands on, we should repetitively test the elementary takes on our favorite foods. Once an understanding of the function of each ingredient in a dish is established, swapping things in and out becomes more of an adventure than a terrifying experiment. I found this recipe the other week. When a friend came over for dinner, we made a variation of this baked pasta dish, using the same ingredients but altering the amounts and sometimes their forms.
We sauteed one fennel bulb until tender and added a small head of raddichio to cook for just 2 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I can never find large pasta shells in the supermarket. Instead we used 16 ounces of this cool looking lumaconi shaped pasta, cooked it al dente, mixed it with12 ounces of ricotta, 6 ounces of fontina, salt & pepper, the sautéed vegetables, some dried oregano as well as a dash of cayenne pepper and the juice of 1/2 a lemon, and about half a jar of pasta sauce. Threw it in a preheated oven set at 350 degrees F, and baked it covered for 10 minutes and uncovered for 10.
In this recipe, there are a few key aspects. The pasta, the vegetables, the cheese, the sauce, and the flavorings. If you have something to fill each of these categories, you have yourself a meal. The pasta and veggies have to be cooked to just tender before baking, because they will get another round of cooking in the oven. Grab whatever’s in season! Some root vegetables, like beets and turnips, would be delicious here, those dense suckers might take some extra time on the stove though. Ricotta’s a good cheese to start off with because it’s relatively mild and coats everything well, but then add any kind of unique cheese you like (fontina’s tasty and melts excellently). Ideally, I would’ve used homemade tomato sauce, but winter isn’t tomato season, so I would prefer to use my favorite jarred sauce – Trader Joe’s Vodka Sauce! Test spices and herbs with a bit of your cooked veggies to get a flavor combination you approve of, and when it comes to the pasta, think small shapes, rounded to catch all the cheese and veggies.
In the end, it’s all about experience and a bit of bravery. Try and try again, until those methods and ratios are engraved into memory. I feel like the kitchen is the only controlled environment within which you can throw all caution to the wind. Throw in a bit of this, a bit of that, try some elaborate recipe just for the heck of it, and at the end of the day no one was hurt (hopefully), and you got a meal out of it. While there’s always a fear of failing, of the food turning out awful, it’s important to note that there are many factors involved in cooking. One thing goes wrong and it very possibly might set off a domino effect, the only step you can take next is to try it again, focus on what you’re doing, and hope it turns out better this time.
p.s. Just remember kitchen safety:
^ I can’t decide if that’s too morbid or not…