In this life there are rule-followers and rule-breakers. I’ll never forget the day that Mrs. Murley, my high school A.P. European History teacher, kicked Brian T. out of class for being impertinent. As he was leaving, Mrs. Murley said, “Don’t fall off your motorcycle this summer.” Brian T. replied, “Don’t fall off of your high horse.”
Oof! The rule-breakery of it! This may not come as a shock, but I was the ultimate rule follower growing up. Rules meant structure, they meant a clearly defined path you could follow. Breaking the rules meant casting yourself off into the great unknown.
And yet, as someone who loves to cook, I find myself breaking the rules all the time. With savory cooking (as opposed to baking, where measurements matter), I rarely, if ever, make a recipe precisely as it’s written. That’s because I want to adjust the recipe to my particular taste, to make the recipe my own.
I’m often shocked at how many of my cooking friends follow savory recipes to the letter. Their food always comes out precise and correct but it often lacks the flair that makes great home cooking great home cooking. What’s missing is an injection of their own point-of-view, what writing school teachers might call their “voice.” How do you get your voice into a recipe? You have to break the rules.
The secret, though, is not to think of recipe steps as “rules.” They’re a general set of instructions that are meant to be interpreted. Imagine a dance that you like to do and then writing instructions for someone else to do that same dance. Would you expect their arms to flail at precisely the moment that your arms flail? Absolutely not. The dance is all about getting the gist of the idea and running with it. If the dance is going to be good, it’s got to seem spontaneous, not a carbon copy of something that came before.
The best way to make the dance, or recipe, your own is to read it first, imagining the tastes in your head. The best chefs and cooks have that ability; they can picture a dish–say, eggplant Parmesan–and imagine what that will taste like if you, say, swap the Parmesan for Pecorino. Can you imagine that? I can: Pecorino is sharper and saltier than Parmesan. So Eggplant Parmesan made with Pecorino would be an entirely different thing.
That skill, that capacity to imagine how various adjustments will alter a dish, is probably the single most important skill when it comes to making food your own. Because once you know how to do that (and it only comes by cooking over and over again) you can begin to tweak, to adjust, to alter things to your liking. And your food will taste better when you do that.
So that Eggplant Dirty Rice I just blogged about? I read the recipe and thought that adding the eggplant after browning the other vegetables would make for mushy, flavorless eggplant. So I decided to brown the eggplant first in a separate pan.
Was that a winning idea? Well the resulting Dirty Rice was absolutely wonderful so maybe it was. I also upped the amount of garlic and pepper because I wanted a flavor firecracker and that’s precisely what I got.
And that pea puree that I blogged about before the Dirty Rice, same thing. I didn’t use 1 Tablespoon of chopped preserved lemon rind. God forbid. I eyeballed it, as I did the lemon juice, the olive oil, the Aleppo pepper. I just added and tasted and tweaked until I absolutely loved what I was eating. If I’d just followed the recipe, that pea puree would have been merely “meh.”
Following the rules makes sense when you’re doing things like building a house or detonating a bomb. But when making dinner? Following the rules is as boring as it sounds. So take a chance, be a Brian T. and even if you fall off your motorcycle, chances are you’ll be eating something tasty when you do.