Henri comes out in favor of improv
It has come most unexpectedly to Henri’s attention that a sharp divide exists among his dear readers, that some “get it” and others don’t. Sacre bleu! I thought it fairly obvious.
“That’s crazy,” Colette said, opening a bottle of old-vine zinfandel and pouring a couple of glasses. “I think you’ve been very clear about it.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s not like I’ve been at all ambiguous, or trying to keep it secret. … Nice nose.”
She nodded and took a sip. “Everyone should know that recipes aren’t to be followed literally. They’re suggestions, starting points.”
Exactly. Except for recipes for baking—where a missing or wrong ingredient, or a cooking temperature a few degrees off, can turn a deliciously moist chocolate cake, for example, into a mound of brown goo—most recipes are templates, with infinite possibilities for improvisation. Consider some of the world’s great dishes: paella, gumbo, bouillabaisse, cioppino, minestrone, and other various soups, stews and curries. While they’re all defined by a few key ingredients (rice, seafood, particular seasonings, etc.), much of whatever was in season—from the garden, the sea, or the hunt—was often added into the mix.
Case in point: I recently craved a teriyaki chicken bowl and tracked down a recipe from A Dash of Aloha: Healthy Hawaiian Cuisine and Lifestyle, published by the Kapiolani Community College Culinary Arts Institute in Honolulu. Here’s the recipe.
Ingredients, for the rice:
2 dried shitake mushrooms
1 Tbs. dried hijiki
1/4 cup radish, thinly sliced
2 tsp. vegetable oil
4 oz. carrots, julienned
4 oz. burdock, julienned
4 oz. daikon julienned
4 oz. cabbage, shredded
3 tsp. Aloha Shoyu
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 cups day-old, previously cooked brown rice
2 stalks green onions
To prepare the rice: Soak mushrooms and hijiki in 2 cups hot water for about 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms, squeeze dry, and chop. In large pan, sauté vegetables (except for the green onion and hijiki) until wilted. Stir Shoyu and Worcestershire in with hijiki. Add rice to sauté pan, then pour in hijiki liquid and green onion.
Ingredients, for the chicken:
1 lb. boneless-skinless chicken thighs
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. molasses
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. Aloha Shoyu
2 tsp. Hawaiian honey
1 tsp. sesame seeds
1 tsp. sesame oil
To prepare the chicken: In large bowl, combine 1 tsp. Shoyu and 1 tsp. honey and remaining ingredients, and marinate the chicken for at least two hours. Broil or grill the chicken, and toss with remaining Shoyu and honey, and serve over rice.
Aloha Shoyu is a Hawaiian soy sauce, so substituting with the soy in the fridge was obvious. So was using local honey. But:
1) I couldn’t find: radishes, daikon, or hijiki (a seaweed common in Japanese cooking), but I confess to not looking too hard.
2) I used: a small handful of fresh crimini mushrooms instead of the dried shitakes.
3) I didn’t have: any day-old brown rice lying around, so I cooked up three cups of long-grain white rice earlier in the day and set it aside to cool.
4) I intentionally omitted: the burdock, figuring teriyaki chicken without thistles would be far better teriyaki chicken.
5) I totally forgot: the ginger and the molasses.
6) I added to the rice: One half red bell pepper (chopped), two stalks celery (chopped).
7) I didn’t measure: anything.
8) Nor did I: julienne anything—just chopped.
9) I used: about a third of a large red cabbage (probably quite a bit more than four ounces).
10) I would have added if I’d had it: a tablespoon or so of sake (common in teriyaki dishes).
The results? Absolutely amazing. Colette, who admitted to not being too excited that I was making teriyaki chicken bowls, gushed that it was one of the best meals she’d ever eaten. She raised her glass of pinot grigio. “Here’s to improv.”