I remember my first catastrophic culinary screw up like it was yesterday. I think it was a Super Bowl party, and I was so nervous because I was cooking lots of food that I had never made before for a bunch of people I was hoping to impress. I decided to make this sloppy-joe-ish recipe that was my boyfriend at the time’s absolute favorite thing to eat. His Mom would make it especially for him, and now this cherished dish was going down in flames in my kitchen. Fast.
I followed the recipe exactly. So exactly, in fact, that I dutifully added the 1/2 cup of lemon juice the handwritten recipe called for. Now I’m not sure how many of you eat sloppy joes on a regular basis, but let me tell you. They shouldn’t taste like lemon juice. Even as a very (very) novice cook, I new as I read the recipe that it sounded like an awful lot of lemon juice. But that’s what his Mom’s recipe said, so I dumped it in the pot anyway. And then I promptly had about two pounds of tomato-y meaty lemon juice on my hands. BARF.
I sort of went into melt-down mode. My beautiful Martha Stewart Super Bowl Party was in serious jeopardy, not to mention my one and only shot at replicating my boyfriend’s Mom’s signature dish. Who cares which team wins with grave matters such as this on the line??
Luckily, a friend had come over early to help me get ready, and she is an absolute wiz at winging it in the kitchen. She’s one of those people who never looks at a recipe, yet always turns out amazing food. How does she do it? Supernatural powers? Definite option. Divine intervention? Quite possible. Highly skilled at knowing how flavors work together? Bingo. She took one whiff of that lemon meat and got right to work (she didn’t even have to taste it to know it was awful!). The fridge door flung open and she started doctoring up that pot of food like no one’s business.
The result was far from the boyfriend’s favorite dish, but it was actually pretty good. Or at least by the time dinner was served, everyone was sauced enough to not notice. Happy ending to this story!
But it brings up a good point, and one that people ask me about all the time: how do you get to that culinary zen where you don’t need to follow a recipe, and you can just wing it? Well, it’s not something you learn overnight, that’s for sure. But there are a few things you can do to tweak a recipe into a winner, salvage a broken dish, or anticipate what’s going to work and what’s not:
- Know what flavors you like. If you’re reading a recipe, and it calls for cumin and you hate cumin, you’re probably not going to like the dish. So sub in something else instead.
- Know what flavors play well together. Basil and oregano. Lemon and dill. Ginger and garlic. Pay attention to the flavor profiles in dishes you like so you begin to learn what flavors play well together (and that you like).
- Become familiar with how quickly common ingredients cook. Onions are fantastic when you give them lots of time over moderate heat. Garlic will burn if left in the pan for the same amount of time. Big pieces of broccoli will take longer to cook than chunks of asparagus. Anticipating how long things take to cook will help you add substituted ingredients at the right time – because the best way to do it is rarely all at once.
- Just like on the color wheel, flavors have opposites that mellow them out. The primaries on our flavor wheel are sweet, acidic, and salty. If something’s too sweet, adding a little salt or acid will mellow it out. Too acidic? If it’s a sweet dish, add sugar. A savory dish, add salt.
- Salt added during cooking brings out the flavor of the ingredients. Salt added at the end of cooking just makes things taste salty. So season as you go, and add a bit of salt and/or pepper at each stage of the process. I use finger-pinches to measure out salt – my 3-finger pinch (grabbing salt with my thumb, index and middle finger) is 1/4 teaspoon. My 4-finger pinch is a half teaspoon. (To measure yours, grab a pinch of salt then use a measuring spoon to measure it.) I also use kosher salt when I’m cooking, and I always buy the same brand. Different brands have different salt crystal sizes, meaning my 3-finger pinch can yield 1/3 teaspoon with another brand. Doesn’t sound like a big deal until you stop measuring completely and start winging it and over salt everything because you’re not used to it.
- Experiment with substitutions. If you’re reading a recipe and come across an ingredient that you hate or don’t have in your pantry, think about what you could sub in to make it work instead of scrapping it. Grains are all pretty much interchangeable – rice, orzo, quinoa, cous cous – when cooked, they all can sub in and out for each other without missing a beat. You know what else can sub in? Petite diced mushrooms or eggplant. Grated zucchini even works pretty well. Why? Because they have mild enough flavors that they won’t obstruct the other ingredients in the recipe. And when cooked, they have similar consistency and texture to meat.
- TASTE IT!! I’m always amazed when giving cooking lessons when people look at me and say, is that right? I don’t know! Taste it!! The beauty of cooking is that you can adjust as you go. Baking is a different story. That’s chemistry and stuff. But cooking – you can wing that.
OK! So armed with these tips, let’s look at this Stuffed Peppers recipe. The original recipe called for ground beef, rice, fresh parsley, rosemary, an egg, bread crumbs and feta cheese. It had you mix all the ingredients together raw, and put the filling in the halved peppers, and bake for 40 minutes.
My goal was to sneak in some more vegetables, while eliminating the starch and the dairy. I also wanted to be able to make a big batch of the filling and bake off the individual peppers over a few days. Lastly, I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to love rosemary in this dish.
Instead of the rice, I used grated zucchini, and peeled, fine diced eggplant. Since I was getting rid of my starch, I didn’t really need an egg to bind everything together, so that ingredient was eliminated. To accommodate the multiple days worth of cooking, I decided to cook the filling completely ahead of time, then portion out what I needed into the pepper shells each day. I didn’t want the filling to dry out (which often happens when heating-cooling-heating), so I added a can of diced tomatoes. Then I adjusted the spices to fit my taste – parsley, basil, and some tomato paste. Since my filling was completely cooked ahead of time, I could cut the baking time in half.
So completely different recipe, huh? Well, it’s an extreme example. It’s what I had on hand and what I knew would taste good to me. You could make just one of those substitutions and it would turn out fine, too. The point of the story is to pay attention as you’re cooking so when you want to adjust things, you can roll with the punches. It takes practice to be able to wing it. But as my Dad says (who is a pilot): as long as the plane is in the air, keep flying. Meaning – keep tweaking your lemon meat until you either decide it’s good enough to eat, or it’s so beyond rescue that you call out for pizza! Enjoy!
Click here to print this recipe
Yields: four small or three medium/large bell peppers, halved and stuffed
Time to prepare: 1 hour
1 lb ground beef
1/2 onion, diced
3 small zucchini, grated with a cheese grater
1 small eggplant, peeled and diced to 1/4″ pieces
1 – 15 ounce can diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon each, dried parsley and basil
red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
In a large skillet, brown the onion and beef (along with a 3-finger pinch of kosher salt) until the onions are soft and the beef is cooked through completely. Remove from the pan and discard the majority of the grease.
Add the zucchini and eggplant to the pan, and toss, browning slightly. Add a little olive oil to the pan if needed to keep the vegetables from sticking. Sprinkle with another 3-finger pinch of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and the seasonings and saute until soft and cooked to your liking. Return the beef and onions to the skillet and mix, cooking a few minutes to let the flavors meld. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Slice the bell peppers in half, lengthwise. Trim out the ribs and seeds, leaving the stem intact (it’ll keep the pepper more bowl-shaped than if you trim it out, and will hold more filling). Rub them with olive oil, inside and out. Fill with the meat mixture, and place on a baking sheet or dish, lined with parchment paper, a silpat, or sprayed with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes (20 if you have small peppers, closer to 30 if you use larger peppers). If you like the peppers to have a little bite, cook them for less time, if you prefer mush-ier peppers, leave them in until they start to loose their shape and collapse a bit in the pan.
Use whatever ground meat you prefer – turkey, beef, pork or a mixture would all work well.
Be sure to use a baking dish or heavy baking sheet. If you use a flimsy one that warps as it heats, you can end up flinging your pepper across the oven (not that that actually happened to me…..)
A great addition to this recipe would be some shredded cheese over the filled peppers – you can add it the last few minutes of baking.
The filling can be made in advance and refrigerated up to three days, or frozen. You can also eat the filling in rolls, taco shells, tortillas, or over rice. (Or on it’s own for that matter.)
This recipe would work great in a toaster oven!