Reading through the list of my previous posts, I notice it’s been a while since I did a non-music central one. Lest you think I’m holed up in my Ivory Tower endlessly scheming of new ways to incorporate music into my life… well, I guess you’re half right. Most of the rest of the time I’m probably thinking about food. In fact, recently while I was preparing for a musical “salon party” with a friend from out of town, after the fifth or so dish I made she commented, “so you like cooking, huh.” I have about 5 or so staples that if you have ever been to my house, you’ve probably sampled. Most of them began as a written recipe, but along the way I modified it to my own desires. Today I want to talk about improvisation as it pertains to food preparation.
Many of my improvisations stem from a lack of ingredients. I find gathering the correct components to be the most frustrating part of cooking from a recipe. I rarely have almond extract, shallots, or rice flour handy, so when I browse foods of interest to make, I either have to make a special shopping trip or find a replacement from my pantry. Sometimes an easy replacement can be found (honey for brown sugar, oil for butter, cream and water for milk). I remember one time that did not go so smoothly.
I had recently acquired the Creole cookbook Beyond Gumbo by Jessica B. Harris, and there was a recipe for Exquisites, Nahuatl- Style Sweet Corn. It involved some relatively obscure ingredients including a liquor called Pulque and a sprig of epazote, but it gave optional replacements for them as tequila and parsley. For about a month I had it in my mind that I wanted to make this dish, so I finally picked up the corn and one Saturday afternoon, I went to it. As I shucked the corn, I realized that I had forgotten to buy any of the other ingredients besides salt and the tequila, but for some reason I was undeterred. It was only after I realized I was boiling corn in Tequila on a frying pan and that “lovely” aroma of burning tequila was supposed to be my lunch. From the outsider’s perspective, I was an alcoholic who had reached a new low.
My favorite dish to make is also from Beyond Gumbo: Gallo Pinto. If you’ve ever had the fortune of visiting Costa Rica, then you have probably had this ultimate breakfast food. It’s essentially a rice and beans mixture with a few other vegetables thrown in along with a Worcestershire sauce and ground coriander. It’s very tasty, and after visiting Costa Rica years ago, I became hooked. The recipe called for a slab of bacon to be mixed in with it, but being the vegetarian I am, I opted to take that out. Over time, I also realized that it could be made vegan without much trouble. The offending ingredient is Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies. There are plenty of good vegan Worcestershire sauces that you can pick up at Whole Foods. The original recipe called for a tablespoon of the sauce, but I found that wasn’t nearly enough to impart enough flavor on the dish, nor was the teaspoon of coriander. I end up using close to a third of a bottle of sauce each time I make this dish. Finding the right balance of rice to beans took a while also, but I finally got it down. So here it is, the improvised version of Gallo Pinto.
Gallo Pinto ala Dan
1 cup of rice (I use brown basmati, but use whatever you want. Just give it time to cook)
4 cans of black beans (I like the saltless variety)
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 medium yellow onion chopped
1 bell pepper chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsp ground coriander
Lotsa Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste
- Prepare the rice. If you haven’t done this before, boil 2 cups of water, then add the rice. Reduce to low heat and cover the pot.
- In a large pot over medium heat, saute the onion and the garlic in the olive oil.
- When the onions become translucent, add the bell pepper and saute until the pepper is tender
- Drain and rinse the black beans. Add them to the pot and stir.
- Drain any excess water from the rice. Add it to the pot and stir. Reduce to low heat.
- Mix in the coriander and Worcestershire sauce. No, more Worcestershire sauce. I know that bottle isn’t cheap. Put more in. The ideal color of the rice should be a dirty brown, and the flavor should be slightly sweet and floral (that’s the coriander)
- Add salt to taste. I typically add a tbsp or 2.
- Serve in bowls with spoons. To be eaten by mouths.
I often also up the rice and beans components for more servings. I’ve found that I don’t usually have to increase the onion/garlic quantity to match.
Another improvised dish of mine came from an outrageous cookie recipe of the “something stuffed in something else” variety. In this case, Oreo Cookie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies. I saw this and immediately tried the recipe out, but came away somewhat disappointed. Firstly, the cookies ended up shaped like little hats: a regular cookie with a lump of Oreo in the middle. Secondly, and I feel guilty saying this, they were a bit over-the-top. Now, I am all for ridiculous culinary experiences, but after finishing one of these cookies, the typical reaction was not usually satisfaction or even giddiness, but more like exhaustion. There was just too much going on, and the cookies ended up being too big (blasphemy, I know!).
For a while I just made the cookie recipe without the Oreo. It’s one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes on it’s own, which is what tends to happen when you use 2 sticks of butter. Then I started considering how to make a chocolate version of the cookie using unsweetened cocoa powder. However the cocoa powder is a dry ingredient, so you can’t just add it in or it will affect the consistency of the batter. I needed to subtract from the flour and make it up with cocoa powder. After some experimentation (improvisation?) I found that by taking a cup out of the flour and replacing it with cocoa, the batter stays wet enough to form, but dry enough to not ooze everywhere. The addition of white chocolate chips in place of semi-sweet seemed only natural.
After I managed that, a very important question arose: what to fill it with in its chocolate form? After considering Nutter Butters and an assortment of candy bars, I went with a suggestion from my girlfriend Katie: Peppermint Patty. After I made them and the initial group sampling process occurred, they were named Fat Mints, after their kindred Girl Scout Cookie cousin.
2 sticks (1 cup) softened butter (I always use unsalted Plugra)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder sifted
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 of 10 oz bag white chocolate chips
24 Peppermint Patties, wrapperless (unless you like the taste of plastic)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix the butter with the sugars.
- Add the eggs and beat. Do the same with the vanilla.
- In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda.
Now, I usually disregard any instructions to sift, but I find cocoa powder can be very clumpy. So make sure it’s smooth when you add it into the bowl.
- Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture, stirring along the way. Continue to stir until everything is well mixed.
- Add in the white chocolate chips and stir to distribute evenly. You don’t need more than half a bag, since the Peppermint Patties are going to be the main attraction.
- Prepare a baking sheet. I love me my silpats! Then wash your hands, it’s about to get messy.
- Take enough batter to cover a Peppermint Patty, and form it into a ball around it. Try not to use too much batter, as you’ll end up with the hat-shaped cookies that way. Just use enough to make sure the Patty is covered. Then place it on the sheet, keeping them about 2 inches apart from each other.
- Bake for 10-20 minutes, or until cookies are slightly firm to the touch. Remove and let cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes. Then place on a cooling rack.
The best part about Fat Mints is that the chocolate of the Peppermint Patty melts before the batter hardens, which allows the mint filling to distribute throughout the cookie. Sometimes it oozes through the cookie, but it’s usually only 2 or so per batch that do that. And they still taste awesome.
I hope you enjoyed this insight into how I improvise while cooking. As with any improvisation, it takes some knowledge about the medium you’re working in, a creative mind, and the courage to take risks. However, only by risking it all can we reach such heights as an innovative solo, a new invention, or the deliciousness of a Fat Mint. Bon appetit in your own improvisations!