Do you follow recipes to the letter? Not me. I consider recipes to be general guidance, less GPS and more “head kind of north.”
I fearlessly replace ingredients willy nilly, depending on what’s at hand. Part of this is because I live a 20-minute drive from the nearest supermarket (which is closed from 8 p.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Monday), and my village grocery has excellent fruits, vegetables and cheeses, but not a huge selection of anything else (with even shorter opening hours). Forget about corn tortillas, curry powder or whole-wheat flour.
This post is intended to empower you as a cook. One of the best things you can do for yourself, health-wise and probably otherwise (budget, for example), is to cook your own meals. It’s the only way to know what you are putting in your body. Ideally, it would consist of single-word ingredients, or close to it.
Here’s what we did under less-than-ideal conditions. We recently had some visitors over for short-notice dinner. The plans were solidified late Saturday night for Sunday. That meant no shopping. Increasingly there are supermarkets here open on Sunday mornings, and one nearby town has a Sunday produce market, so if push came to shove, we could run out and buy what we needed. But I wasn’t in a position that weekend to drive around the region.Here’s the menu: Christine’s onion tart (thank goodness for UHT cream!) for the starter; lemon chicken, reminiscent of a dish I had by luck in Nîmes, when the Carnivore and I were driving down to our then-new place near Carcassonne, and we stopped for lunch amid complete havoc in Nîmes, which was in the middle of a feria. We parked where we could and found a tiny bar, every inch stacked to the ceiling with cases of wine, except for two tables. A crusty-looking local was at one table, and we grabbed the other. There were two choices on the “menu,” which was verbal only; the Carnivore of course went for the red meat and I chose poulet au citron, which was divine.
This is of course typical in France, where you can bumble into a situation where everything weighs against eating well, yet you have a meal you dream about 15+ years later. Oh, and it was cheap.
So, lemon chicken, which I kind of but not really followed a mix of three or four online recipes. With locally grown rice from Marseillette. And roasted tomatoes. Because…tomatoes! If I had thought it through better, I would have made a green vegetable, because it would have been a larger palette of colors.
I looked at our larder and was sorely disappointed by the cheese. Our village grocery, as I said, has an amazing selection of cheese, all the more so for a place serving such a tiny population. (Kudos to the good taste of my neighbors, the grocery’s clients.) However, they were closed for the weekend. Rather than serve the decent wedge of a single cheese (skimpy) or a plate of a bunch of already-hacked-into cheeses (tacky), I assembled the ingredients for a cheese soufflé. Super easy, and it would bake during the meal.
private chef kid made individual ramekins of crème au chocolat. As I recall, the reason we didn’t make moelleux au chocolat or something like that was that we didn’t have enough eggs, what with the soufflé. Crème au chocolat is basically ganache–chocolate and cream.We prepared everything in advance and I just had the soufflé to throw together while our guests had an apéro.
Back to the non-recipe. At the Saturday market, I saw some very perky blettes, or Swiss chard, and thought about the little pillows of bliss whose recipe I shared here. However, at least one family member can’t have nuts. Already in the version I had shared, I had replaced very pricey (no, outrageously expensive) pinenuts with almonds. Now I was going to substitute big time.
A whopping 66.66% of the members of our family are beyond horrified by the recent U.N. report on climate change. These family members had already been leaning toward less meat, if not all the way toward meatless. The report made these family members even more committed to reducing waste and to eating less meat, because at least 33.33% of those family members are likely to live far beyond 2030.So I decided to put the vegetables at the center of the plate by replacing the nuts with white beans. I didn’t have any gruyère or parmesan and just used emmental, which is the go-to cheese of the French, put on everything, including pizza. Some supermarkets have an entire aisle just for emmental in all its forms. I also replaced the cream with coconut milk. In fact, it might be easier to say what I didn’t replace: Swiss chard and onions. Oh, and an egg to bind.
The Swiss chard was sold by the bunch, and I got 8 stems for €1.50. It was a lot. So I used two eggs, not one. And I opened a bigger package of UHT coconut milk instead of the cream, but then I didn’t use it all. And I didn’t measure the grated cheese–I just took a couple of handfuls.
Why tell you this? Because unless you are baking a cake or or something, YOU CAN DO WHAT YOU WANT. Baking is special–it’s chemistry, it’s magical, it’s alchemy. You’re turning a liquid into a solid. That is absolutely amazing, don’t you think? But you have to get the proportions just so or you’ll be disappointed.
Everything else is more forgiving, and you shouldn’t sweat the details. It’s always good to do a recipe more or less by the letter the first time, but as you cook, you get less worried about the details, and more interested by the ideas of the flavors. It’s liberating.
One of our recent AirBnB guests told me about a tiny new restaurant in Carcassonne, La Table de la Bastide. She raved about it. “The chef is so creative,” she said. “There was a mix of strawberries with olives! And the olives had a hint of licorice!” That does sound creative. I am not sure whether I would love this particular dish, but I appreciate the exploration of flavors. And you, too, have the right, as someone who eats probably three times a day, to explore flavors. Why not? The worst that happens? You don’t make it again.
I will tell you how I made my white bean Swiss chard pillows of bliss, but I must confess something else. I saw the bound bunches of Swiss chard at Saturday’s market, at the stand of a family who grow everything themselves. Once, years ago, I asked them for some vegetable, I don’t even remember what, and the mother of the clan verbally slapped me upside the head, saying, “That is NOT in season!” Rather than deter me, it made me all the more loyal to their stand.
I had seen Swiss chard lately around the market, but it was a little tired and didn’t inspire me. This Swiss chard was very perky, so crisp I could almost hear it snapping as I walked past. It called to me. So I bought it, dreaming of pillows of bliss.
At home, I found plenty of bug holes. And I was happy. In fact, I rejoice in bug holes, because they are proof that this wonderful family of vegetable farmers doesn’t spray with insecticides. They don’t claim to be bio–organic–which requires a huge amount of paperwork, and when the French complain that something is a lot of paperwork, look out. But, like so many local growers–like so many locals–they are cheapskates who aren’t going to spend money (on bio certification or on insecticides) unless they absolutely have to. A few bugs? So what!
On the other hand, when I dipped the elephant-ear leaves into boiling water, they tended to tear apart where there were holes. So my little bundles of bliss were a bit smaller than I had expected.
I don’t care. I am glad to eat smaller bundles of bliss if it means they are chemical-free. I’ll just eat more of them.
Oh, another thing I didn’t have was chives for tying them up. Nice if you have chives, but if you don’t it really doesn’t matter.
May I add that just after I wrote this (in advance OF COURSE), we experienced high water and invited over some neighbors whose yard and basement had been flooded. They had spent the night of hellish rain hauling their stuff out of the basement and dropping in into the kitchen. I stopped by to see how they were and discovered the situation, so insisted they not have to cook but come for dinner. But what to serve? Totally last minute! Well, we had some animal flesh (the Carnivore is always ready with that), and a beautiful starter of pâté en croute that we had on hand and that the Carnivore arranged, MORE roasted tomatoes (because until there are no more tomatoes, we have a stock!) and … LEFTOVERS. Yes, we had the leftover white-bean-replacement pillows of bliss that I had made the day before. If that isn’t reason to raise your leftovers game, I don’t know…
Meatless Main Dish Pillows of Bliss
a bunch of Swiss chard (this bunch was pretty big)
two onions, diced
20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream or, as I did, coconut milk, because WHY NOT
a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère
two cups (about 800 g total; 500 g (about half a pound) drained) of white beans. I used a can (lazy! or, actually, impetuous and not planning enough ahead to soak and cook dry beans)
1 tsp of oregano
salt and pepper
Optional: chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!
Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit).Chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.
Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and dunk them in cold water. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.
Guess what? When I did this, I forgot to dunk the leaves in cold water and everything was fine anyway. I just set the soggy blobs on a tea towel until I could stuff them.
Beat the egg and the coconut milk/cream/whatever in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the beans and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed. It sets in the oven.
Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito.
Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).
Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.
If you follow a recipe to the letter, it probably will turn out pretty good. But even if you miss a step or two, or substitute ingredients, it probably will turn out pretty good, as long as you aren’t baking, in which case Follow the Directions to the Letter. But for those of us just trying to get something nutritious and not too boring on the table, break loose and don’t worry if you don’t have everything or if you forget a step. Your diners probably won’t know unless you tell them. What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.