What are the jazz standards of your kitchen?
December 18, 2013 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm pretty recipe-bound in the kitchen. I'd like to get better at improvising. I'm looking for things to cook that are instantly identifiable and delicious despite major changes in the ingredients list, the culinary equivalent of a jazz standard that can be played a thousand different ways while still being itself. Dishes that have the weird recognisability of Benderick Cumblebatch's name. What have you got?

Where this is coming from:

I was visiting my brother in Newfoundland and it was my night to cook. Newfoundland grocery store options are very different from what's available on the mainland. Seafood is cheap, vegetables are expensive and poor in quality. Bizarrely, chicken that's not de-boned is very hard to find. Between the weird ingredient options and my lack of familiar cookbooks it was a good time to experiment.

One thing I made was a Salad Nicoise, sort of. I substituted salt cod bits for the standard tuna and sardines. I also threw in steamed cabbage, because that's a vegetable that makes sense in a Newfoundland winter. About half the ingredients by weight had no place in a standard Nicoise but it worked out really well and was very recognizably a Nicoise despite the substitutions. It seems that Nicoise is a standard I know how to play.

So, as an example of what I'm looking for, Standard #1: Salad Nicoise
- A salad that eats like a meal and has lots of intense flavors.
- In my mind the main ingredients should be raw tomatoes and lightly cooked vegetables, chilled (e.g. lightly steamed green beans, still fairly firm). There are no standard main ingredients and recipes vary wildly (apparently I'm on the run from the Nice food police because cooked vegetables are not properly traditional).
- There should be a protein component, typically tuna plus wedges of hardboiled egg.
- Something intensely flavored should be in there to spice up every other bite, normally something salty and rich (e.g. anchovies, olives, capers...)
- Dressing may not even be required, but why not? It's hard to go wrong. Vinagrette? Something mustard-based? Small amounts of some sort of garlic mayo thing from the back of your brother's fridge? Anything that will complement the strong flavors and umami of the other ingredients will work.

Guidelines, not blueprints -- that's what I'm looking for.

PS: If you do attempt a Salad Newfoundlandaise, be careful about the salt cod bits. They are not kidding about the salt and it's not just on the surface. I was originally just going to steam them but in the end I needed a combination of boiling them and multiple cold-water baths to get the salinity down to the point where I could use them as a major ingredient.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Pilaf is a dish that you can do in an almost infinite variety of ways. Do it slightly differently and you get a paella or a risotto. Just do fried onions, rice, stock, whatever vegetables you've got around, and meat or seafood if you want.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:17 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You would probably find the books How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart and Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking to be very helpful in your quest.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:28 PM on December 18, 2013 [17 favorites]

That sounds like lasagna. No two cooks ever make it the same way, but it's nearly always delicious anyway.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:42 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

This recipe for tomato-butter sauce sounds like what you're looking for.
posted by Zozo at 4:51 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My version of "ratatouille" is like this: sliced veggies (of any kind!) tossed with oil, salt, pepper and seasonings (of any kind) on a foil-lined baking sheet and roasted in a super-hot oven, then tossed over a starch (noodles, rice, fancy-pasta) and topped with something rich (grated cheese, crumbled chevre, a balsamic-and-butter reduction).
posted by julthumbscrew at 4:51 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Rice and beans has many thousands of delicious, complete protein variations.
posted by rockindata at 4:53 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: Another vote for lasagna. I've been making mine with polenta instead of noodles and what amounts to a wild mushroom ragout in place of the sauce. It still eats like lasagna. As long as you have layers of starch, layers of saucy goodness, and cheese, all baked together, people will accept it as lasagna.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:57 PM on December 18, 2013

Macaroni and Cheese - it amuses me that you can mix any short or decorative pasta with cheese and still call it macaroni and cheese.

Grilled cheese.

Bread pudding - types of bread (I know someone who used bagels), types of liquor or no liquor, types of fruit or no fruit, etc.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:18 PM on December 18, 2013

Greens + pig + oniony thing = collards and bacon, mustard greens and ham, white beans with pork belly and kale, etc.
posted by ldthomps at 5:34 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yer basic vaguely Italian red sauce - fried onions and garlic with tomatoes (tinned, chopped, pureed, whatever you can get, but in quantity enough to make sauce), basil, oregano (never too much), thyme (sparingly), salt, pepper, and preferably some kind of red wine chucked in there at some point - will stand pretty much anything else being put in there also. Mushrooms, mince beef (or other meat), lumps of beef (or any other kind of meat), courgettes, whatever other vegetables you have. Vegetables get fried after the onions and before the garlic. Meat goes in next if you are doing meat. Then tomatoes, then wine, then herbs and seasoning. Use a bay leaf if you have one. Serve with pasta. Or rice. Or spread on a pizza base. Or with whatever is handy. Always tastes better the next day, so make too much.
posted by motty at 5:35 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do many versions of pasta with greens and something-fatty-and-chewy/crunchy. Orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe is basically the model. That leads to kale and bacon, arugula and prosciutto, spinach and walnuts, etc....
posted by neroli at 5:36 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tomato soup! Never the same each time I make it, but always delicious assuming it includes tomatoes, broth, and salt. You can add Worcestershire sauce, basil, wine (red or white), pasta....whatever you feel like.
posted by Pomo at 5:42 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: Breakfast time:
Shakshouka (tomatoes and veggies with an egg poached in them)
• The family of Benedict: a flattish bread thing, with a (typically) poached egg on top, topped with a sauce, and maybe an extra major ingredient (e.g. florentine: spinach). This can go far afield: corn tortilla with a fried egg and a warm salsa [self link] is still in the Benedict family IMO.
posted by xueexueg at 5:48 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by LonnieK at 5:48 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Bready egg thing: take an assortment of bread and cube it in big cube, and put that in a large bowl. You want enough to very, very loosely fill the cooking vessel (I use a 9x13 pan, so maybe like four cups? I never measure. It doesn't really matter.)

Beat some eggs (6?) up maybe with some (2 cups?) milk, or cream, or whatever. Mix in a cup or three of cheese. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Turn it over once.

Add in little bits of cooked vegetables and cooked meat - whatever you have. (You can also go sweet at this point, instead of savory, by adding raisins and cut up apples instead of meat and vegetables.) Turn the whole mixture over a couple of times - you don't want to mix this too much.

Pour the whole thing into your buttered 9x13 pan. Put some more cheese on top (or slivered nuts, if you went sweet. Actually, the nuts would be good either way.)

Cook in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 45 minutes to an hour until the top is brown and springs back when you poke it. Let it cool for a bit before nomming.
posted by punchtothehead at 5:49 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Roasted / sauteed aromatics + root vegetables pureed in stock with the immersion blender = soup.

Leftover grain + aromatics + vegetables fried in the skillet = variations on fried rice. (A shot of lemon juice or vinegar is the secret, plus don't stir it too much—let it get browned on the bottom.)

Leftover grain (barley is good) or beans + vegetables + a zingy vinaigrette = main dish salad.

A cheap cut of meat braised with aromatics and a flavorful liquid = pot roast.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:49 PM on December 18, 2013

Asian stirfry was my first tried and true improv dish.

Start cooking rice in a rice cooker.

Mince ginger and garlic. Set aside

Cube or slice veg. Separate into thin quick cooking vegetable (ie. Cabbage, peas, bok choy greens) and thick longer cooking veg (ie. broccoli, nuts, bok choy stalks). Set aside.

Cube protein. Set aside

Mix some kind of sauce (ie. Soy sauce + water + sugar, or black bean garlic + oyster sauce, or hoisin + rice wine). Set aside.

Assemble seasonings (salt, pepper, other spices like cumin or ground coriander)

Heat pan with oil (peanut or neutral flavored) until hot. Add ginger and garlic.

Cook protein until almost cooked and then scoop out and set aside.

Cook long cooking vegetables until about halfway cooked (a nibble tastes just on the cooked edge of raw)

Add quick cooking vegetables. Stir for a minute or so.

Re add protein. Keep stirring

Add seasonings.

Add sauce.

Let it all come together and serve out of the pan or wok.

With practice, you should be done just as soon as the rice is finished.
posted by bl1nk at 5:54 PM on December 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Frittata: egg and whatever else you have in the kitchen. Nice cold, too.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:41 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Dashy at 6:46 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Quesadilla is enormously flexible, cheese plus wheat tortillas plus anything else savory you happen to have lying around.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:12 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: Risotto and strata (as have been mentioned), and also quiche. Baked oatmeal. Bread pudding (aka, sweet strata).
posted by rebekah at 7:17 PM on December 18, 2013

It is said that the true test of a chef is the omelette (more). Fillings are, of course, region and season dependent - and should be cooked separately! Two reasons - 1) you cannot cook the eggs hot enough for some fillings without ruining them 2) cold fillings will drastically lower the temperature of the eggs, changing their consistency.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:30 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: Mark Bittman's Everything books help train you to think this way - we have How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, but I think the meat version is philosophically similar. Many recipes have multiple suggestions for variations. It's really helped me change my thinking to allow more improvisation.
posted by medusa at 7:37 PM on December 18, 2013

Vegetable soups play into this wonderfully. Well pretty much any soups. Oh and chicken soups, it seems to me sometimes that every culture in the world has it's own version of chicken soup.
posted by wwax at 8:32 PM on December 18, 2013

Response by poster: As long as you have layers of starch, layers of saucy goodness, and cheese, all baked together, people will accept it as lasagna.

That is exactly the sort of thinking I'm looking for. Polenta lasagna? That's very creative and sounds delicious.

aka sweet strata

I had not realized that everything from brunch strata to bread pudding was variations on Bready Egg Thing. Outstanding.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:26 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: I have a fairly well-developed salad philosophy that also might be useful to you. This is for small, separate-course salads, not full meal things like your faux Nicoise:

Greens + something fatty + something sweet [if fatty thing is soft, sweet thing is crunchy; if sweet thing is soft, fatty thing is crunchy]


Greens plus...

blue cheese and apple/pear

avocado and jicama

roasted nuts and dried fruit

bacon and fresh stone fruit

watermelon and feta cheese

posted by neroli at 10:33 PM on December 18, 2013

Best answer: Your method of steaming/lightly cooking the vegies in your niçoise is also the base of gado gado, the Indonesian/Thai/generic Asian dish of lightly steamed vegies + hard boiled egg + satay/peanut sauce. They don't usually include fish, but I don't see why you couldn't add some of those little crunchy dried fishies instead of/in addition to the crispy shallots on top if you really wanted to. Gado gados I have eaten include steamed potato, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans - not necessarily all Asian vegetables but why not! Adding some (non-cooked) cucumber and beansprouts is pretty much de rigueur.

My constant pasta mainstay with variations: green vegie sautéed with garlic and chilli flakes, tossed through pasta with some salt, pepper and lemon zest, top with parmesan. For me this is usually silverbeet/kale/cavolo nero or broccoli/broccolini, but I told a friend about it and she did it with fresh green peas and said it was great. Asparagus could probably work too. Oh, and of course zucchini. This is the number one way to cook zucchini in my book - just grate it on a cheese grater before sautéeing it.

Another variation, which you can combine with the above strategy, is to add toasted pine nuts, goat cheese/ricotta/feta to the pasta instead of/in addition to parmesan. Haven't tried that with the zucchini but it's excellent with broccoli.

Also I am convinced that dumpling-like things (minced meat, usually pork, in a flour-based wrapper of some kind) are a cuisine constant, though cooked in many different ways. Chinese = many many kinds of dumplings but take just siu mai as an example; Japanese = gyoza; Polish = pierogi; Italian = ravioli/tortellini; Mexican = empanadas; I forget what they are all called. I know there's similar things in Russian and Croatian cuisines and probably many others as well.

Similarly wrapping meat in a flattish bread/pancake/pastry with variations on vegetables/sauce is another cultural crossover. Burritos, gyros, souvlaki, shawarma, moo shu pork, rice paper rolls, sushi (ok no bread but similar rolled concept), sausage rolls...
posted by Athanassiel at 1:31 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I make my own basic spice mix which I keep on hand for my wife to use. It is also something that I use in my aoilis, but my aoilis can range anywhere from pesto lime to siracha cranberry. From there I also like to make egg and potato salads. One of the neatest things to do is to try to make a different potato salad for every different type of potato - that means a different aoili, and a different pickle. Pickling is pretty amazing because you can pickle just about everything, from carrot gaufrettes to julliannes of yellow squash and zucchini - and lets of course not forget the cucumber. The biggest component of pickling is of course the gastrique - which the choice of vinegars means even a dill pickle needs not taste like the last dill pickle you made.

While I'm there, just a few onions, the basic spice, a little extra spice, a little garlic, mustard, the remnants of my gastrique, and then a slow drizzle of oil and I've got a great wet marinade and/or basting sauce. This is great for a nice flank steak or chicken - either way I'm hitting the grill with it. Or, I can take the basic spice, and a little extra spice and do a dry rub on the meat, and then just do a cooking mist and finishing baste with the marinade.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:33 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Want to be a master baker or patissier? Here are the four things you need to master: eggs, salt, flour, sugar. Change the ratio and style of any of the above and you go from scone to icebox cookie to wedding cake.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:37 AM on December 19, 2013

Burritos! As long as there's rice, beans, veggies, or cheese in there, it's a burrito no matter what else is in there. (I suppose without one of those things it would be a wrap.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:37 AM on December 19, 2013

Response by poster: Greens + something fatty + something sweet [if fatty thing is soft, sweet thing is crunchy; if sweet thing is soft, fatty thing is crunchy]

This is, to me, the "I know kung fu" of salad. Thanks.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:50 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: For my own reference, I'm putting gado gado on the list of things for me to experiment with. Thanks.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:47 AM on December 19, 2013

Best answer: *ctrl-f "chili"*

returns = 0

wait, what?

seriously. Chili is infinitely riffable. It can go from vegan to paleo, tex-mex to Greek, from mild to holocaust-level spicy, and has infinite variations in between.

All you need is a spice blend loosely based on salt, cumin, garlic, coriander, a pinch of oregano and scads of red chili powder, something smoky/rich (bitter chocolate powder, espresso powder, smoked paprika, beer...), some tomatoes, onions and a "green" vegetable (celery, parsley, green peppers...) a touch of sweet (could be ground carrot, could be brown sugar/molasses, could be sweet corn kernels), a protein (beans, bison, beef, turkey...) and something acidic to "brighten" it. Then you slow cook it to meld everything. The texture can be anything from thin and soupy to "sticks together in a ball on the spoon".

Once you've got the basic kit, there is really no way to fuck up chili.

Curry is similar and also has infinite variety. Basically you need spice, heat, that "classic" curry flavor (that mainly comes from a blend of fenugreek, asafoetida, curry leaves, coriander and salt) or you just use keep commercial curry pastes / powders on hand, "brightness" from citrus, the "green" flavor of cilantro and/or holy basil, and the richness of cream, tomato or fish sauce. Add any protein and a mix of chopped veggies and you're good.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:09 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think any modern dish that's derived from "peasant food" might fit the bill, especially ones focusing on using up odds and ends from other cooking processes. Things like hunter's stew (made from whatever's in the traps that day and whatever root vegetables are in the cellar), cioppino (take whatever fish the dock couldn't sell that day and throw in a pot) are all freeform because of their origins.

My personal improvisational dishes are usually stir fries and "meat and veg" type preparations based on whatever's on sale at the supermarket that week. Stir fry will usually include on-sale meat (more rarely fish or shrimp if it's really cheap), some Asian vegetables like bok choy, and aromatics. Rice or noodles as a base, whatever we have open in the pantry. Sauces usually start with a soy sauce base and are eyeballed from there.

"Meat and veg" dinner is basically as it sounds - meat that's on sale that takes to high heat well (steaks, pork chops), a vegetable of choice (if it can go in the pan with the meat all the better, but I'll steam broccoli if the asparagus or green beans don't look that great), and a pan sauce made from deglazing with wine or stock, some flavorings, and some butter. Maybe a starch, or not.

Oh, and I almost forgot one more - breakfast. We always seem to have half of a dinner left over from the week (either too many vegetables after we've eaten the mains, or some extra cold cuts from sandwiches, or whatever), so those go in a pan to reheat and brown a little bit, add some beaten eggs, top with a little cheese.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:12 AM on December 20, 2013

Take a look at the Tightwad Gazette's Flexible Casserole:

1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”

Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.

It's in her book, but the link I gave is at The Simple Dollar where Trent shows some of the ways his family has used that blueprint.
posted by CathyG at 8:06 PM on December 20, 2013

Response by poster: Gazpacho variations

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2014

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