Saturday, July 05, 2008

No Recipe Required

Over the past five or six years I have ripped out a few hundred recipes from the various food magazines I subscribe to (or buy on the newsstand) and the New York Times Wednesday food section. Recipes for meyer lemon gnocci, open-face plum cake, and vegetarian three-bean chili, steamed pork buns, patatas bravas, and spinach salad with warm bacon dressing (to-die-for), and many, many others.

I keep them in plastic sleeves by type – shrimp, potatoes, pork, chicken, drinks etc – in a white three-ring notebook. As of last week, the notebook’s pockets were so stuffed with jagged papers I could barely open it. Some of these recipes I come back to again and again, but I’ve never even tried most of them. Many I have forgotten about. On Wednesday I decided to get organized, and I’ve spent some time every day trimming the pages, sorting through and categorizing the recipes, and deciding which ones I really want to keep. I noticed a few themes – eight recipes for spiced nuts! – and dueling recipes for blue cheese dressing and cucumber-avocado soup. I will test those and report back on the winners.

As I was sorting, I threw out some recipes that didn’t interest me anymore. I also tossed a few for dishes that I wouldn’t need a recipe for, including arugula salad with onions, pecorino, lemon juice and olive oil.

Another recipe I am throwing away is for Chickpea Salad with Provencal Herbs and Olives from the June 2005 issue of Cooking Light. The dish still sounds lovely to me – a healthy side dish and perfect for weekday lunches. But, this is definitely one of those dishes that I don’t need a recipe for, and you probably don’t either.

The trick is to follow a simple formula – beans, an herb or herbs, onion, olive oil, acid, something briny – and mix and match the ingredients that you have on hand. Here are a few of the options:

- One can cooked beans – my favorites are chickpeas or cannellini
- Onion – Scallions and red onion are the best since you’ll be eating the salad raw. Plus they add nice color.
- Chopped garlic – optional
- Something briny – Capers or olives
- Fresh herbs – parsley, sage, thyme, basil, whatever is leftover in the fridge
- Acid – lemon juice, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, for example
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper

Drain and rinse one can of beans. Put them in a medium bowl. Add chopped onions, capers/olives, and garlic if you’re using it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil – start with a tablespoon or so – and about half as much acid. Stir gently and taste. Add more, oil, acid, or salt and pepper as needed. (I usually need to add more acid and salt at this point.) Once you’re satisfied with the flavors, stir in the chopped herbs.

To make this salad well, you need to use your eyes and tongue. Your eyes to measure proportions of ingredients. There’s no set ratio. If you love garlic add a lot; if you’re lukewarm on olives, use just a few or omit them altogether. Your tongue to balance the flavors. Start easy on the salt and acid. You can always add more. I usually need to taste and adjust the flavors two or three times.

And, of course, if you’re nervous about winging it the first couple of times, just use the Cooking Light recipe as a guide.

When I make the cannellini version of this salad, I often crush the beans with a fork and add tuna canned in olive oil, courtesy of a Gourmet recipe I saw years ago. It’s the only tuna salad I like.

For a bean salad with Mexican flavor I use black beans, lime juice, and cilantro – no olives or capers. Chopped avocado adds a creamy note.

Healthy, simple, inexpensive, delicious, and no recipe required.

1 comment:

Petunia said...

People should read this.