Making Recipes Your Own

People often take recipes too seriously. If you’re trying to make the classic version of a dish you have to make it according to classic technique, but as long as you’re not planning to make claims of authenticity, try variations and see how they turn out.

A couple of years ago a recipe was wildly popular on the Internet that involved baking a block of feta lightly with some cherry tomatoes and olive oil, then stirring the result into cooked pasta, breaking up the feta as you stir. For some reason Internet people swooned over it, but some cooks whose judgment I trust were unimpressed and I never got around to trying it myself because the pictures I saw of it looked mushy. But recently I found myself with some cherry tomatoes and a block of feta hanging around waiting to be used, and decided I would try a variation that I thought I would like better. For two people, I tossed about two dozen cherry tomatoes with some olive oil and roasted them on an oiled piece of aluminum foil at 350 until they were beginning to look shriveled. Separately I chopped up two cloves of garlic and sautéed them quickly in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until cooked through and a bit golden; I kept the garlic separate from the baked stuff because browned garlic is not a good flavor note at all. I then made room on the foil to set down the block of feta, drizzled some more olive oil over the cheese and tomatoes, turned the heat up to 400°, and roasted until the feta was quite brown on the bottom and the tomatoes were shriveled and browning a bit, as you see above. The feta needs to be loosened from the foil with a spatula to get the browned underside loose, but leave behind any bits of tomato skin that got loose and actually burned. Then I broke the feta up into large chunks with a fork, lightly tossed in the sautéed garlic, piled the cheese and tomatoes on two pieces  of toasted baguette drizzled with olive oil, and snipped fresh thyme over the top. Simple as that.
Treated in this way, feta becomes somewhat firmer and the browned surfaces are glorious, crispy and savory and melting on the tongue. The tomatoes are soft and sweet in the middle with almost- but-not-quite burnt skin, and the contrast is terrific. We cook food for a reason, and sometimes cooking it more is better than cooking it less.

Improvisational cooking takes as much thought as following a recipe, if not more, since it’s important to think through what flavor impression you wish to create so that you are not just throwing stuff in at random. I never tire of telling aspiring cooks to read the chapter on improvisational cooking in Richard Olney’s extraordinary cookbook Simple French Food. It’s an old book that can be bought used inexpensively, and it will make you a better cook.


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