We’re giving away a free copy of Sally Schneider’s award-winning cookbook The Improvisational Cook (inscribed by the author if you like), widely viewed as THE book about improvising in the kitchen.
“Schneider gives cooks the know-how to embellish, adapt, change, alter, modify and experiment in their cooking with plenty of encouragement and helpful information. Here are the tools and insights everyone needs to find his or own voice in the kitchen…”
You can “look inside” on Amazon or go to Sally’s website to read reviews and how it came about.
To enter, all you have to do to enter is write a Comment (in the form at the end of this post) telling us of a kitchen improvisation you’ve attempted. Tell us about a dish you’ve made, a unique flavor combo you discovered or even a piece of equipment you’ve rigged. If you’ve been flat-out afraid to improvise, you can enter as well, just tell us the gist. Success or “failure” doesn’t matter, though we’d love to know a few juicy details, what motivated it, what it consisted of, and how it turned out...The winner will be chosen by random.org.
Please make sure that you’ve signed in to the comments section with a valid email address, so that we can contact you if you win. (If you’ve already registered for ‘the improvised life’, you don’t need to worry about it.)
Deadline for entry is Thursday, April 14th. We’ll post the winner on Friday, April 15th.
85 replies on “book giveaway: ‘the improvisational cook’”
For our last office ‘snack day’, I mixed together a 2-liter of lemon-lime soda and a can of limeade concentrate. The tart/sweet cold beverage was a huge hit!
I used to live near a bakery called “Panini” in Somerville, MA, and I was a big fan of their chocolate chip cookies. Unlike the dominant Tollhouse cookie paradigm, these cookies were large and rounded (ie shaped like a hill rather than like a coaster), had a lot more cookie than chips, and had a texture I loved. After moving to a neighboring town, I tried to replicate the experience for myself. I started with a cookie recipe I found in a Maida Heatter cookbook; that recipe was at least for large cookies and so felt like a better starting point than a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe. I then tried to merge it with the standard recipes, as well as my recollection of the Panini cookie (I thought one of its distinctive characteristics was a hint of lemon, so I tried putting in a little lemon zest). The resulting cookies were ok — people who liked chocolate chip cookies liked them — but I never matched the shape or the texture or the flavor of the original.
Made a casserole from an internet recipe out of chickpeas, shallots, herbs, cottage cheese, and lemon. It sounded wonderful, but although I made it carefully, it came out inedibly dry. (I think this might have something to do with the brand of chickpeas, because I was not alone in this result. The blog had a lot of comments about it.)
Dumped the whole thing into the blender with some leftover chicken stock and ended up with a very delicious soup. I’ll never make the casserole again, but the soup version has gone into my recipe file. Easier, too.
Every dinner is a kitchen improvisation – I stick my head in the fridge and see what is there. Every Sunday night I make a quick bread for the week, to pack for breakfast on the run. I had no lemons this week but I did have some yellow grapefruits going over the edge so I supremed the grapefruits and made a grapefruit ginger loaf – surprisingly tasty. I then used the leftover supreme rinds and fruit to stuff my Sunday roast chicken, along with some rosemary from the garden. A subtle variation, not my most brillant, but using leftovers in unexpected ways always pleases me. As does this book, I so covet it!
Improvising with random things available in our kitchen i did a “Rolled chicken slices filled with mango in a bit of a tomato-chili-sauce with a foamy nut covering cooked in the oven”… delicious combination!
I’m just now getting up the courage to improvise. The other day I tried to make a steak salad. I used lemon juice and oil etc. to marinate the steak and broiled it, with the idea that I would top a huge green salad with lovely pieces of steak. All of the component parts turned out well, but I tried to use the cooking liquid as a dressing for the salad (after boiling). It tasted great, but the “dressing” was too watery. No worries, though, I’ll just try something different next time.
we are sans kitchen at the moment (though the poor thing is on the mend – it’s a major remodel) so we have been ‘improvising’ for a month with a microwave, toaster, and electric skillet. i’m currently captivated by ‘texas caviar’ which is something i can make in the skillet. the basic recipe is black beans, black-eyed peas, shoe peg corn, mixed with onion, sweet pepper, jalapenos, vegetable oil, sugar, and vinegar and maybe some cilantro. I mix this stuff up and have it in the fridge for a dip to serve with corn chips (original use) but also to put in scrambled eggs, inside omelets, as a relish in tacos or burritos, on breakfast pizzas, or just a couple tablespoons to add color to a plate.
‘But that is not all. Oh, no. That is not all.’ ~Dr. Seuss
I took a cue from Sally’s sample improv in TIC and listed all the ingredients on a piece of paper and then started substituting ingredients and spices to move this dip from TexMex to Middle Eastern.
olive oil for the vegetable oil
chick peas for the black-eyed peas
honey for the sugar
scallions for the sauteed onion
ground black pepper and paprika and cilantro and maybe cumin for spices
served with toasted pita wedges instead of chips.
i haven’t tried it yet, but sally got me thinking about the possibilities.
Sally, thank you for a wonderful book.
I had gotten whole nutmeg and a microplane grater. I used nutmeg on everything for about a week. But found it was best on spaghetti squash and acorn squash and in coffee with cream and sugar.
I’m not much of an improviser, but I’d like to be, especially with my weekly CSA box and garden. I’m not familiar enough with veggies to come up with creative ideas for eating them all. My most successful improv involved pineapple sage. It has an incredible aroma but I wasn’t sure how to use it. I tried infusing syrup with it and making lemonade. Then I made a mojito-inspired cocktail by muddling the leaves with simple syrup and adding fresh lemon juice, sparkling water, and vodka. I’ll be growing pineapple sage every summer now so I can enjoy these refreshing drinks.
I don’t know if I would call it necessarily improvisational.. but my wife and I absolutely HATE to throw out anything in the kitchen. We just feel like we have missed an opportunity to do something wonderful. so.. we are always on the look out for recipes or alternate uses for items that have.. well… aged past their prime, lets just say. We turn soured milk into a fantastic chocolate cake, actually its become so popular that now people are ordering it for special occasions and we have to be careful not to drink all the milk and let it sour instead. Old bananas can be turned into yummy banana bread. any over ripe fruit can be turned into a quick breakfast smoothie. any type of stale bread product can be turned into french toast. and so on. (yes I realize some of these are pretty common uses for ‘old’ ingredients) I am looking forward to your book and I hope there is some discussion about this topic within those pages.
In high school, every breakfast and lunch was about finding new combinations. One of my favorites was carrots from the garden sliced thin and sauteed in canola oil that had been heated with cumin, a liberal amount of coriander seeds, homemade garam masala, salt and pepper. Now, at college, I bake or cook weekly for my dining co-op of 100 people. My pumpkin oatmeal bread (yeasted) with a swirl of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger was a particular favorite.
Last Easter, I was assigned desserts for the family dinner. Since it was a smallish group, I chose Jacques Pepin’s oeufs de neige — delicate meringues gently poached and served floating in custard. And at the last minute, I picked up some Callebaut chocolate morsels and bits of dried fruit (mango, pineapple, goji berries) from the Bulk Barn with the vague idea of improvising some special little treats if I had extra time.
The meringues took ages, but the most time consuming part of the chocolates was figuring out a unique, attractive arrangement of nuts and fruit on top.
As it turned out, people adored the 15-minute chocolate-fruit-nut treats, gobbling them all up and taking the extras home. And I had about 10 leftover meringues.
I hope I’ve learned my lesson.
I’m always adjusting my granola recipe (originally from Pasta & Co. in Seattle), using different types of oils, sweeteners and ‘dry’ ingredients. I don’t write it down, just flow with it – never the same taste twice.
I improvise every night, grounded in what I learn from you, other cooks, menus, and recipes. Here’s my Trader Joes Mash Up which I highly recommend:
1. Cook one bag of mixed grains medley in water (better yet, in vegetable stock)
2. Add one or two bags of baby spinach (and/or arugula, pea shoots, peas, other veggies that will wilt with the heat of the grains)
3. Stir in one package of cooked wild salmon
4. Add lemon zest, lemon olive oil, a little grated ginger, anything else you may desire that is around
A one pot good-for-ya meal with protein and veggies, and the leftovers taste great, too.
I moved into a new house, and left behind the drawer with built-in silverware dividers. The plastic/wood silverware trays available for purchase don’t hold as many forks, etc. as I have (I like to have parties, and have about 20 of each utensil).
I am using cream cheese boxes, which are one of my favorite containers. Bakeries/restaurants buy cream cheese that comes in 3 pound loaves, and the boxes are long, narrow, and readily available. 10″ x 3″ x 3″
They are ideal for storage. I also use them for miscellaneous kitchen utensils and spices.
I made Laurie Colwin’s black bean soup awhile back which she suggests you finish off with a squeeze of lime juice. I figured that if a little lime was good a lot would be better. So I popped a cut up lime in the pot to simmer. Bad choice. The fresh zing from lime juice was not there instead the soup had a bitter undertone of yuck. I have learned my lesson – when someone says part of a fruit I will use said part. Though even that misstep has not stopped me from playing around in the kitchen, I just try to think it though a bit before hand.
my Mum was an amazing cook and could whip up fabulous meals at the drop of a hat without a recipe in sight, sadly that apple fell far from this tree and I am chained to the recipe. I would love to have the confidence to experiment I am just not sure how to go about it.
I improvised quite alot when we lived in Europe because I couldn’t always find the familiar US ingredient. I even came to prefer some of them to the US original. Best substitute was to use Nutella in place of peanut butter !
This recipe is a riff on Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Sweet Sicilian Sauce recipe, found at this link: http://www.publicradio.org/columns/splendid-table/recipes/sicilian_sauce.html
I make this late in the fall when the tomatoes need to be picked so they don’t freeze, but are a bit green yet. I mix the green-ripening ones with red ones and the result is a more “soupy” sauce than Lynn describes because of all the fresh juices. So I take an immersion blender and blend it to a smooth, creamy consistency.
This is to-die-for sauce for pasta and people beg me for the recipe. The vinegar and sugar offsets the greenness in the tomatoes and the blend of tomatoes gives it a richer flavor than canned ones. It works!
I tried to make polenta without a whisk….you really need a whisk for smooth polenta.
I love sweet potatoes. Once I had a craving but no time to bake one. So I peeled one, grated it on a large hole grater, sauteed it with chopped onions and garlic. Added among other things fish sauce, lime, soy sauce, fresh ginger, cinnamon, 5 spice, a dash of toasted sesame oil and a little coconut jam. Cook till the potatoes are done. It is never the same but always good.
I’m a granola improviser – from basic ingredients to sweetening to ‘seasonings,’ like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cocoa, etc., and then of course the fruit add-ins. A recent hit was chocolate granola with flavored with cocoa powder and vanilla, with chocolate covered raisins and dried cherries thrown in.
I made Sally’s herb salt the other night with garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano and even my sage-hating sister was blown away by the incredible fragrance. I loved the fluffiness of the final mixture and it was outstanding in tomato soup. I will be making this by the truckload once the herb garden gets going.
Credit for this actually goes to my mother, AC Riley, who has done this forever: A toilet paper tutor as cord management for a hand mixer (or anything else with a cord.) When I see it I am brought right back to my childhood kitchen and batches upon batches of chocolate cookies that we made with her old, heavy robin’s egg blue mixer. I’ll send you a picture if you like…
a few years ago, i was preparing athenian chicken for my son’s 8th birthday party – it was his favorite dish at the time and i wanted it to be perfect. it’s roasted chicken covered with kalamata olives, onions, garlic, feta cheese, and oregano. we had a house full of rambunctious guests and i was attempting to entertain, supervise, cook, and clean up, all at the same time. in my frazzled haste, i mistakenly poured a half-cup of dried MINT onto my son’s birthday dinner, instead of oregano. i realized this when it suddenly smelled like there were 100 tubes of crest toothpaste baking in my oven. i wanted to scream, felt like i had ruined everything and wondered what i could possibly do to that chicken to make it edible (and un-minty). i was looking around the kitchen in a panic when i noticed a bottle of blueberry balsamic vinegar that i’d received as a gift and never used. without even tasting, i tore off the wax and poured about a third of it (6 or so oz) onto the chicken, tossed in a handful of the oregano that should have been in it already, mixed well, and broiled for a few minutes. i sliced the chicken, set it out on the buffet, and invited everyone to eat. my son was the first to try the chicken and i was borderline panicked about the verdict, but he took a big bite, then another, smiled at me and said, ‘it’s even better than last time! it tastes so REFRESHING!’ i never did taste it (i am vegetarian) but i was asked for the recipe repeatedly. we now refer to our modified athenian chicken dish as ‘accidental mint.’
I have always considered myself a very cookbook – oriented cook. I came to cooking late in life, my daughter born and me realizing that I was going to have to figure that out. So I did, with cookbooks! Now that daughter is in college and it turns out, a very inspired cook. She loves to tell me of the things she makes like “Hey Mom I made myself vegan pancakes with devon cream” Or telling me she is making homemade pizza or whipping up some scones at 10 at night. I am amazed by this because she didn’t have much interest before. Recently we were talking about her cooking and she said she was becoming more improvisational like I am. “Like I am ? ” I responded. “Yeah, you know so many recipes and then can elaborate or change them.” she answered.
Huh, I guess I do and I never knew that about myself. It snuck up on me I guess. I feel freer somehow, knowing this new bit of information about myself and I think I will just start improvising consciously!
All I know is that I love cookbooks. I read them like other people read novels. But then I close them and go make dinner with what is fresh, afforable, in my CSA box, or about to go bad in the back of the fridge. Cookbooks are inspiration, fun. But dinner is what happens after I close the book.
Once, at a friend’s house, I had to pull together pasta for eight on short notice. I had a package of boneless skinless chicken breasts, a head of broccoli, some cheap parmesan and a can of chicken broth. It was not a masterpiece, but the fact that we stretched the food available to feed everyone (it was grad school, so everyone was poor) felt like a minor triumph.
I’m a firefighter, and regularly cook at the fire station for everybody. We are severly limited in our choices by what stores offer in our district (fresh herbs? what are fresh herbs?), so improvisation rules the day. We also have to be very flexible because we get interrupted during meal prep, often at the worst possible point. Food repair/rescue is my specialty.
Fried or poached eggs on top of just about anything is cheap and delicious! Quick pickled vegetable from our meager garden brighten summer meals. Pork shoulder braised in tomatoes and lime with refried black beans, garden fresh pico de gallo, and fresh corn tortillas from the neighborhood tortilleria. Pan sauces can make the lowliest meal so much more exciting. Soups! Where would I be without soup!?! Fish sauce is the secret to many a great sauce/soup/salad dressing. Thank you Sally (and Lynn Rosetto Kasper!) for all of the inspiration
Just after moving to Paris my best friend came for a visit. While she and I were in the living room talking away my husband (the real cook in our house) was busy preparing some escargot for our aperitif. We don’t own the proper plates or forks for eating escargot, and that particular night we didn’t even have any toothpicks for pulling out the buttery parsley garlic escargot. So what he did was take our box of matches and cut off the ends. He came into the living room with a tray full of escargot and, while she and I were blown away with such a delicious surprise, he was apologizing for the match sticks. We thought his solution was so clever.
Most recently, I turned some leftover sour-cream-based dip into a pasta sauce by thinning it out with the last of the half-and-half. Combined with chicken, broccoli, carrots and leftover spaghetti noodles, it was a perfect late supper.
My favorite in memory has to be turning cucumber salad into cucumber salad dressing with a quick plunge of the hand blender. We had leftover cucumbers in sour cream and vinegar (with onions and herbs that were themselves improvised). After a day, they were perfectly edible but not too attractive. A whirl in the blender made a fresh and delicious dressing for mixed greens.
I love making smoothies, and I change up the ingredients every day according to my whims and whats on hand. While the base ‘most always includes an apple and/or banana and spinach (hardly any flavor! sooo many vitamins), the rest varies: blueberries and mango, pineapple and strawberries, or when I’m craving something decadent, raw cocoa powder and almond butter…. it’s always different and yummy.
My most recent improvisation was making knife sheaths for my very sharp knives. Just cardstock and duct tape. They fit snugly and do not fall off, even if you shake them, and best of all, they turned out looking much better than I thought they would.
Just thinking looking at the book is making me hungry. I love to experiment in the kitchen although I try to minimize it as much as I can because it scares me to ruin a dish. But I like altering the recipe once in a while.
I am a busy, single male, cattle rancher. I have little time to make dinner each evening. As a result, I rely upon my virtual perpetual slow cooker for my nightly forays into food. I usually cook a roast, refrigerate it, and then skim off the fat the following day. I cube the meat and then add tomatoes, peppers, onions, and carrots to make my perpetual stew with lots of spice–cumin, chili pepper, garlic salt, oregano, etc. The pot goes into the refrigerator late evening, after I have dined, and then is brought out the next day, late, when I arrive home, heated back up again to have other items added, such as black beans, frozen peas, corn, brussel sprouts, etc. You get the idea. This perpetual dish lasts for days.
While driving back from a desert camping trip last week, some friends and I pulled over in the middle of farming nowhere and decided to eat lunch. Slim pickings among the leftovers, but we whipped out the mini backpacking stove, starting heating corn tortillas. We opened a can of beans, had some leftover rice, shredded some lettuce and cheese, sauteed some salami, and dolloped some homemade raita that was eaten with dal the night before. Salami Tacos! They were actually really good–the salami was spicy and fatty enough to mimic fresh meat, and it ended up being one of the best lunches ever.
I improvised dinner tonight for our hungry family of four, including two young children. It was the night before grocery shopping and supplies were low. Let’s call it a “savory Russian sauté.” I browned ground turkey from the freezer, drained it, then added garlic, diced green pepper, diced zucchini, and green beans. Then I added v8 juice to make a thick sauce. For seasoning, I shook in some Russian sausage seasoning, white pepper, and sea salt. I served it over a mix of jasmine and brown rice. It turned out well enough to write it down, so here you go!
I will be improvising for the next few months (optimistic) … my kitchen is gutted and awaiting a renovation. Just a fridge, stove, sink, one small counter space and floor boards. And a metal shelf to hold my food. The cookbook looks great. Often I have beans, lentils, rice, pasta and produce on my shelf and could always use help fixing up something new with the basics.
I don’t like keeping my knives in a drawer, and a knife block takes up too much space on the counter. When I got a new work table for my kitchen, I noticed that the edge of its butcher block top butted up exactly with the edge of the counter, leaving a gap just wide enough to slip a knife blade into with the handle protruding above. I also slipped a bench scraper in there, so now everything is within easy reach of my cutting board.
Okay, I have to admit I really want to win this book. I should just go buy it on Amazon and not spend the evening thinking about this, but I want to win the book.
My first thought was this is a breeze. I’m improvising all the time. I have a limited kitchen and often cooking beyond my capabilities.
But when I actually have to come up with improvisational cooking…not so easy.
First I look for disqualifiers…family, friends need not apply. Didn’t see any.
Then there is the question of improvisational and innovative. I’ve thought about this all night. I don’t cook much that is innovative. Mostly derivative. But it is always improvisational. Tonight for example. I used the Bank Tavern brick method to cook country ribs. Instead of cooking them really quickly, I put the heat on low and when they were brown and tender….I had a method of quickly slow cooking them.
I want to win the book. So I have several possibilities.
Years ago I switched from BBQ to deep frying my turkeys. Deep-frying birds is great, but somewhat limited in how you can improvise.
One year after we cooked the turkey, Jake took a Steelhead trout, filleted it and deep fried each piece and then put it back together on the platter. He insisted on frying the head and tail and we put back complete with a watermelon sauce around it. Don’t know where it fits, but it was cool. Of course, Jake could win for this, just send me the book.
Thinking about winning the book and improvising, all I can come up with is my BBQ turkey days. I went through a phase where I grilled turkeys and wanted the entire meal to be in the turkey. I did seafood turkey (stuffed with shrimp, oysters and cocktail sauce), turkey l’orange (cornbread and orange), BBQ turkey and the Thanksgiving turkey with the sweet potato, marshmallow and cranberry stuffing.
And to take it one step further, you can do the Julia thing, butterfly the turkey and go wild with possible stuffings.
And now that I think about it, you could take this to even greater heights riffing on Turducken. Turducken is one of my all time faves, but be forewarned, it’s a lot of work.
But if you really want to know the pinnacle of my improvisational art, it was taking a ramp and putting it into a bottle of bourbon back in the ‘80’s on a trip to Helvetia, WV. I’ve been doing it every year since. It might sound awful, but if you like ramps and you like bourbon, you’ll at least like to smell the bottle.
When we first gave birth to our Little Tomato she was a little high maintenance and desired movement, any kind of movement, at all times.
Although I love my baby carrier, sometimes it just didn’t fit the bill for cooking/baking in the kitchen. Those shots of hot air coming out of the oven (because who doesn’t need peanut butter cookies post birth?) and the sizzling of grease (because who doesn’t deep fry their french toast post birth?) just didn’t seem particularity safe.
So, in order to maintain sanity and get my groove back in the kitchen we jerry-rigged an old car battery to our baby swing.
You see, this we new was my only option for free interrupted movement within the kitchen that would also ensure our little one a good rest all at the same time! We weren’t going to change it to the size C battery gods. When that swing was a movin’ and that girl was a sleepin’ we wanted to keep the momentum goin’!
Although it’s not exactly “kitchen/recipe rigged” It was our best kitchen improvisation yet! it offered us the freedom to be, truly BE, in our kitchen post birth which was a gift in itself to move with ease while knowing that our Little Tomato was experiencing comfort at the same time.
My kitchen is full of small bits of jerry-rigging and improvisaton. A couple favorites:
— Old bourbon bottles from someone else’s recycling bin are excellent oil and vinegar containers, with their cork lids and beautiful labels from eatdrinkchic.com
— Plastic zip ties bind a topply IKEA GORM shelf to an unused fire extinguisher holder
— Unused wall space now holds hanging pots and pans, in descending size order
— I view frittatas as the ultimate playground for improvisation. A little bacon fat with crisp apples? Sure, why not?
I have been a home cooker for 50 years, and lately very tired of cooking at all. but with retirement comes a heavy duty budget and high colesterol. so i more and more have become improvisational…and was overjoyed to see this days events. spagetti and a fried egg…the BEST! my staple though is an improvised recipe for salmon…here goes. you need a piece of fresh salmon, tamari, some wine or broth, onion or scallion, optional garlic and ginger. heat a frying pan with some olive oil, medium high. chop onion or scallion or even better shallot, about 1/2C. this is also the time to add the garlic and or ginger. let it sautee about 2-3min then add tamari, it will sizzle then carmelize. that takes 30 seconds. then add salmon skin side down. let it cook about 2-3 min, med high, then add liquid, the best is wine but broth is okay too. let that cook another 3 min and turn. wait a bit and add more liquid. usually at this time i also throw in about a cup of frozen peas. stir it up. cook a bit more until salmon is cooked through, but watch it you dont want to over cook it. take the salmon out and stir up the stuff in the pan. if you really want to fancy it up add a tablespoon of butter, butter makes everything better, reduce for a minute, dont worry about amounts of this and that, this recipe is failproof.check for salt and pepper, and voila, enjoy.
Although out-of-season tomatoes — pale, hard, flavorless — are generally worse than no tomatoes at all, organic cherry tomatoes are available most of the year and are the basis of many improvised dishes at my house. Roasting them intensifies and sweetens their flavor. What could be easier than dumping a basket of cherry tomatoes onto a baking sheet with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasting them for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are slightly charred and the tomatoes are soft and juicy. Roasted tomatoes all by themselves make a great topping for pasta (okay, you can add some basil and grated romano cheese and some pasta water if you must). Or, stir them into soup stock; combine with other vegetables or legumes; or eat them right out of the pan.
I live in Carmel Valley (that’s the one near Big Sur) along the Carmel River. We have underground water which allows us to have lots of fruit trees – apricot, prune plum, Santa Rosa plum, pluots, white and yellow peaches, Bartlet pears, figs and a large blackberry patch. Most years I grow 8-12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Last year we harvested more than 700 pounds of apples (Fuji, Arkansas Blacks, Granny Smith and red delicious), so I do a lot of canning and have enjoyed improvising unique recipes. T At the end of the summer, there are always lots of green tomatoes that will not ripen. My friends contribute their green tomatoes too and I make green tomato and apple chutney. Every year it is different based on the sugar content of the fruit, but the trick is to let it simmer on the stove or in a crock pot for 3 days tasting it several times a day to adjust the seasonings (allspice, tumeric, cardamom, coriander, red pepper and a lot of fresh ginger and yellow raisins.
My mom was a master improvisor and I am finally starting to come into my own – from whipping up spaghetti/pizza sauces. Another area where I stretch my improvision skills is creating intesesting but filling dinner salads and tasty appetizers with my homemade chutneys and pickles.
2008, sailing along the Croatian coast we anchored late in the day near the Krka estuary to realize that the galley was almost empty (too bad for a sailor!). I just had fished one little mackerel, not enough for 6 people. But some precooked cous-cous, 1 lemon, herbs, two tomatoes were peeping out from the little fridge. Also some good italian olive oil was available, taken from home a couple of weeks before. I marinated the mackerel fillets, thinly sliced, then put everything in a little bowl, making believe the food was abundant 😉
All in all, the crew did not buy the trick but they had to admit the food was incredibly good !!
The Power of Hunger … .
I’m an improviser from way back, but my best improvisation in the past year was my freezer rehab. Stuck with a 20+ yr fridge with top freezer and a gazillion odds and ends in small, random packets, I was forever losing stuff that I knew I had, just when it was vitally needed for yet another improvisation. First I removed the space-hogging ice-maker (who needs ice anyway, and if you need it, it’s easy to use old-fashioned ice trays and keep the ice in ziploc bags). Then I measured the space. I figured that with 2 shelves I could have 3 coated wire bins on each shelf, each of the six more or less dedicated to a particular category of food or ingredient. It took some doing to find the right product, and the bins I ended up with were, I think, intended for something else, but they suited me perfectly. They work like “drawers” – I can just pull one out and paw through it to find what I need. When I get REALLY organized I’ll keep an ongoing visible inventory of each “drawer” facing outward. I was so pleased with this arrangement that I promptly did the same thing with the upper cabinets where I store random pantry items.
I am pretty much always improving when it comes to meals. Growing up not knowing how to cook can often force you to use a variety of ingredients and ideas that other cooks might not have imagined. I’ve created some excellent sauce-less pasta dishes, ribs and so much more by straying from “typical” recipes and going with my gut. Sometimes it’s a failure and sometimes it’s a masterpiece! I think it’s worth the experimentation to taste something amazing! =)
I’ve always been a “by the recipe” cook. For 30 years, I have always needed directions in front of me before I started.
A month ago, after watching “Chopped” on the Food Network, I walked into the kitchen, pulled out some ingredients and said “what can I make with this?”
My most liberating experience in the kitchen!!!
You CAN teach and old dog new tricks!
I’m just now learning how to let loose in the kitchen and improvise a bit. My two friends and I have been sharing recipes through a Google Doc, and because they do not use exact measurements, it’s taught me to do the same! My most recent experiment with improvised cooking happened when I bought of container of pumpkin puree from the local farmers market. Although I’ve never made it, I had decided I wanted pumpkin soup but with so many recipes on the internet, I had no idea which was the right one to make. Instead of leaving it all up to one recipe, I took a few ingredients from each – and it was the best pumpkin soup I’ve ever had!
I was living in Latin America and my boyfriend was visiting for a week. I had decided to cook him baked salmon for dinner, but discovered I’d forgotten to replenish my lemon supply. So foraging ahead with the marinade, I threw together olive oil, garlic, onion, rosemary, salt & pepper….and the only acidic fruit juice I had: passionfruit breakfast juice. I was skeptical, but it turned out well, and my boyfriend loved it.
I wanted to make my dad a quiche when I was roughly 13 yrears old, so I made it and during the mixing process realized I didn’t have Evaporated Milk, so I thought I would improvise and use the Sweetened Condensed milk.
Worst quiche anyone has ever made in the history of food, haha!
I improvise all the time! I love finding new ways to use chorizo, a little bit goes a long ways. My favorite with cheese, salad, fried bits on fish or stuffed into pork chops. Yum!
Improvisation = freedom! I love perusing recipes and blog posts as idea-starters, and once the assorted inspirations have mingled and marinated in my mind, I end up in the kitchen, whipping out odds and ends, mixing and matching and crossing my fingers.
Yogurt in my pancake batter, leftover jams in my glazes, and reincarnated cooked-yesterday steel cut oats as plumping agents in my fruit cobblers….
Liberty and ingredients for all!
My latest improvisations have been in the area of homemade salad dressing. I recently tried to make an asian dressing and used WAAAAY too much fresh ginger. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much soy sauce or too much garlic, but there is definitely such a thing as too much ginger!
I once tried to make a mushroom based bruschetta. I put garlic in, and some parmesan cheese and then what was probably too much balsalmic vinegar. I ended up with something which was essentially balsalmic marinated mushroom pieces, which no one actually ate. I still feel like there is some way to make a mushroomy topping for toasts, but I found that improvising olive tapenade was easier, and haven’t tried again.
I believe in putting poached eggs on anything that isn’t quite delicious on it’s own. My adventures with last year’s CSA got me to try turnips just about every way u can think of. Turns out, I love turnips. I want to be a more intuitive and inspired cook.
This week I harvested the green pods of my nasturtium plants (the part that will turn into a seed if left to do so) as caper-like elements. I put them in a vinegar/salt solution and have been sprinkling them into salads. They are peppery and delicious. I want to try them as a pizza topping too. Free to me and easy. A few hours in the sun harvesting. What a life!
I made spaghetti and meatballs. We didn’t have any Parmesan so I decided to just use a shredded cheese mix.
Well, apparently it was cheese with jalapenos in it. I didn’t notice until it was already melting on the spaghetti. So, Enchilada spaghetti for dinner. Woops.
I improvise almost everything: cooking seasonally & locally makes it necessary most of the time. Usually my improvisations turn out quite well, like the forsythia syrup I made, lamenting my lack of access to lilac blooms:
Sometimes my improvisations are nothing short of disastrous, like the Evil Green Ketchup I made last summer:
Either way, it’s always fun.
I tried to make vanilla infused vodka,…..but…..apparently too much of a good thing…..I left it too long and it turned ou tasting like medicine. I culdn’t bear throwing out “perfectly good” vodka , not to mention the lovely vanilla bean. So I added cinnamon sticks and let the mixture marry awhile longer. Turned out the cinnamon mellowed out the vanilla and it was perfectly delicious….in a holday kinda way.
the most recent dish i made up was inspired by another recipe using sliced brussels sprouts. it’s like magic these things, frilly and light and cabbage-y. i wanted to do something else with them. i had some farro on hand, already cooked. so i browned some pancetta, added a shallot, some mushrooms, thyme, and then added the farro til warmed. and then tossed the shredded brussels sprouts on top with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and some salt and pepper. it’s MAGIC is swear. i eat it at least twice a week.
I love fruit and vegetables, but as a college student, they aren’t too easy on my budget. I’ve found that carrots and onions are about the cheapest vegetables I can get no matter which grocery store I go to, so they seem to make their way into just about everything I make. Most recently, carrot and onion pizza. The carrots get sweet when you bake them with the pasta sauce….delicious!
They say “nothing good ever happens after midnight” yet I have to disagree. My favorite dish to whip up is whatever type of bacon, pancetta, turkey bacon, etc that happens to be in my refrigerator. Sauteed in a little olive oil with shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes. After cooking al dente whatever pasta I have on hand and tossing everything together with a slightly beaten egg, some fresh herbs and lots of freshly grated parmesean cheese! Yum, this does the trick, and it doesn’t matter what time you serve it.
Salad dressings made with any citrus, salt, olive oil – perfect!
We were living in San Miguel for a year. We had zero money and I shopped almost daily because there was little storage space and I rationalized that I loved buying “fresh”. We had an unnexpected houseguest arrive out of the blue one evening who expected to be fed a meal. Too late to hit the markets so I put on a pot of rice and literally walked around the kitchen collecting any canned or fresh food items that caught my eye. The dish I placed before our guest was a beautiful bowl of perfectly flavored rice, fresh corn, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, sliced avocado, and black beans. Perhaps she was on the edge of starvation, but she still talks about that meal-in a good way!
I improvise around beans and greens constantly. Garlic and onion being the usual base, pinch of red pepper flakes, maybe smoked paprika and /or some sort of smoky sausage.
Then cannellini or chick peas, navy beans, whatever is around. Sometimes some tomato, sometimes mixed with pasta, or over rice (especially collards) or next to a small piece of meat. Sometimes the next day with chicken stock for a soup, or even in an omelette.
Simple, healthy, endlessly changeable……
I love the nutmeg with everything comment!!
Last night I had some ground lamb and had to use it before its expire by date. I feel guilty if I let meat go bad.
I cooked it up with some pimenton and salt and threw it over a bed of raw spinach from the farmer’s market, some shaved red onion, a little chopped celery, mint and made a quick tahini dressing with tahini, lemon zest, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. It was heaven!
I feel so proud and resourceful when I improvise successfully.
One Yukon Gold potato, organic white beech mushrooms (found in cut-rate bin – 4 packages for $1.00), two small, fresh, perfectly ripe (from local hydroponic grower) coarsely chopped tomatoes,1/4 sliced red onion, chopped chipotle pepper in odobo sauce, saute over medium heat in butter/olive oil until tomatoes start to carmelize. Crack two (preferable organic or at best free-range) eggs over top. Once the eggs have set up, grate whatever cheese available over all, pour wine and enjoy!! A feast for one.
I am a ceramic artist and I use all types of tools – many kitchen tools work well with clay (carrot peeler, meat tenderizer, graters, to name a few). However there’s one ceramic tool that I can’t be without in the kitchen and that’s the small, metal flexible rib. It’s the best for scraping roasting and baking pans for clean up. Its thin metal blade can get anywhere. It’s also the best for scraping off candle wax drips.
I’ve played a couple of times with making fresh cheese like ricotta and paneer. The first time that I tried to make cream cheese, I goofed and warmed the milk to a temperature that was too high according to the recipe. I decided to proceed. My end product was too runny, but seemed interesting. I used a jelly bag and let the excess moisture drip out. I ended up with the most glorious cream cheese. The flavor was so much more complex and than the usual stuff.
I already own your cookbook. I bought it the first year that I was married. It almost became a Valentine’s day gift for my hubby, but I decided to be totally honest with myself instead. I bought it for me, because I really, really wanted it. The hubby and I both enjoy cooking and I think we are pretty competent. I find that I improve a lot more with my cooking and feel much more confident.
If I won your drawing, I’d give this cookbook to a dear friend.
For many years I have juiced carrots, beets and other vegetables in an effort to contribute to my health and diet. Carrots and beets combine to make a beautiful, sweet drink. So recently, I used both, grated, in my mom’s recipe for carrot cake, and it is similarily beautiful and so tasty!
We hardly ever use recipes in our home. This one isn’t too exciting, but I often improvise muffins. No recipe required. Just throw in a bunch of ingredients and it usually turns out tasty. One of my favorites is dairy free & egg free. Buckwheat flour, beets (shredded), bananas, maple syrup, coconut oil, almond milk, baking soda & powder, cinnamon, mace, salt. Cranberries or raisins if they’re around. Delicious & nutritious!
Whole foods has a deal on rotisserie chickens every Sunday. I like smoked chicken. Last week I combined the two. I broke the chicken into pieces placed it in the smoker (next to the rack of ribs) and let the grill warm up the chicken for 30 minutes. It turned out great. Nice smoky flavor without having to cook it for two hours in the smoker.
I improvise with bread and crackers, using whole grain flours and extra gluten so it will rise. It is often dense but usually is tasty
My daughter wrote this poem for me on my 60th birthday which deftly summarizes my approach to kitchen improvisation:
Listen my friends and listen well
To this tale that I shall tell
About a man whose name was George
His breakfast could not just be porridge
In the morn to the kichen he crept
To see what goods the pantry kept
In the back and in each nook
He’s rummage around for something to cook
The house would awake to a ghastly smell
But what it was, no one could tell.
His family would beg down on their knees
But it’s perfectly good on a bagel with cheese.
Grisly pieces from meats gone by
Even from these he did not shy
Greasy globs of green and yellow
Are just the thing for this fine fellow.
To make the taste more bold
All you need is just a spot of mold.
Old sausage and last week’s pot roast
Just perfect on a bagel to toast.
Smelly fillets of foul fish
Make a splendid breakfast dish
Rubbery blubbery burger bits
Are no morning misfits
When placed on a bagel and fried brown
These tasty niblets are gobbled right down.
Slippery slimy slabs of steak
A tasty treat these morsels make.
Old bacon and raw rancid meat
Are much better than Cream of Wheat.
Crunchy pieces of chicken bone
To start the day on the right tone.
What to do with unknown food
That puts you in a foul mood
You may do with it as you please
But it could find a home on a bagel with cheese.
i recently adapted a whole wheat oatmeal + chocolate chip cookie recipe into a delicious kitchen sink cookie by doubling the vanilla extract and adding dried cherries, coconut, chopped pecans, almonds and dates.
I do a pork shoulder, in a dutch oven, with carrots, half cut potatos, as many different types of peppers (and liots of them) that I have around, garlic, cilantro, chopped toms. ,and olive oil…YUM!!!!
I needed to juice some Key limes for a marinade, but we were camping on the Smith River in Montana and I didn’t have the right tool. I went down to the river and found the perfect rock, pointed at the top with a sharp blade along the edge. It did the job and I still keep it in my kitchen drawer, ready for a juicing emergency and a reminder of that summer.
My improvisation is usually motivated by my lack of money or motivation to go to the grocery store. Lately, I’ve been working through a striking variety of proteins in our freezer. Just a few days ago I discovered frozen goat shanks. I’ve never cooked goat meat, so I just improvised a braising method that works with lamb shanks. I browned the shanks, and then sauteed some carrots, onion, parsnip, and garlic. Then I braised the shanks in a mixture of white wine and chicken broth for several hours with some fresh thyme and hoped for the best. Though the goat was much more delicate than lamb, they turned out excellent.
I never cooked as a child because my mother was such a great cook. So when I had my own family, I read cookbooks and improvised with some dishes I remembered from childhood. My mother never cooked Italian, so I decided that was what I could focus on, and it has turned out well. One of the most successful dishes I make is lasagna. I add sandwish pepperoni to every other layer. It leaches throughout the dish & gives it a little extra spice.
I love improvising– goat cheese, walnuts, hazelnuts are my standards for last-minute dinners. I also have a pantry and freezer full of cherries, roasted tomatoes, homemade saurkraut, etc.
Was making those lovely crab cakes that use pureed shrimp, eggs and cream as the binder for lump crabmeat one evening for a party and realized that I didn’t have anywhere near enough molds to make it in. So I grabbed a narrow loaf pan, buttered it, plopped in the crabcake mixture, put it in a water bath in the oven, and held my breath! It unmolded perfectly into a beautiful crab terrine…instead of a gazillion fussy little crab cakes.
My family calls my cooking “landfill cooking”. I never throw any food away, always use left-overs in creative ways in my recipes. I alter every recipe and use what I have around. I haven’t looked at “The Improvisational Cook” but hope that it takes a similar approach to cooking. Only if we teach people to be more daring and learn to improvise in the kitchen, can we avoid wasting so much food. I believe that we need to teach people how to cook to solve the obesity issues in this country. Recipes empower! Be Daring!
Gabriele, We so appreciate your comment. I’m sorry that The Improvisational Cook giveaway ended. But we hope to run another in the next few months.