4 ways to use a recipe

Since Chefs Collaborative has been working on a cookbook project for our 20th anniversary in 2013, the staff has been giving a lot of thought to the way cookbooks and recipes are used. In the office, we’re all pretty avid cooks with varying backgrounds and styles. We also receive loads of promotional copies of cookbooks in the mail on a regular basis. We decided to each take a cookbook home to play with, choose a recipe, and share the results.

What we found:  four cooks each used their cookbooks and recipes in very different ways.

The Loyalist: Melissa Kogut, executive director.

Her book: Cooking in the Moment, Andrea Reusing.

Her recipe: Green beans with garlic bread crumbs and tomatoes.

Melissa followed her recipe to the letter. Read more…

I’ve been wanting to cook something from Andrea Reusing’s Cooking in the Moment ever since I got my hands on the book. Reusing, who was recently awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast, is best known for the Asian-inflected, locally and seasonally sourced food at her Chapel Hill, NC restaurant, Lantern.This  is not a book of recipes from her restaurant, though. Instead, it’s a year of seasonal recipes ranging from weeknight to special occasion cooking.

I decided to make a recipe in the book I’ve been eying: “green beans with garlic bread crumbs and tomatoes.” I made it to go with redfish, and it was quick, easy and delicious—and a hit. The garlicky bread crumbs were a yummy compliment to the green beans and tomatoes.  After dinner, my friends and I sat around the living room reading the cookbook and exclaiming, “I want that!” I think I know what my next holiday present for them will be. Here’s the recipe:

Green beans with garlic crumbs and tomatoes
Serves 4

½ small loaf of country white bread
1 medium ripe tomato, cored and chopped into ½ inch cubes (I used some plump cherry
tomatoes, because the big ones aren’t quite ready here in Boston)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound green beans, trimmed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

Remove crust from the bread, tear the bread into 2-3 inch chunks, and scatter them on a
baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes until outside is firm and crusty but not browned and
the inside is still soft. Let the bread cool.

Meanwhile, toss the chopped tomatoes with ¼ teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of the
oil and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Tear the cooled bread into ¼ – ½ inch pieces. Measure out one cup and reserve the rest
for another use. Put the bread crumbs in a small skillet and toast over medium-high heat
for 4-6 minutes, until golden. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Blanch the green beans in the boiling water for 3-5 minutes, until just tender,. Drain and
transfer to a warm serving dish. Add the tomatoes and toss, seasoning with a little salt
and pepper.

Heat the remaining one tablespoon of oil in the same small skillet over medium heat, and
add the garlic. Sauté just until it begins to turn golden and is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Quickly add the bread crumbs and toss to combine, sprinkle over the beans.

The Mechanic: Rob Booz, network coordinator.

His book: For Cod and Country, Barton Seaver.

His recipe: smoked bluefish pate.

Rob followed the recipe but decided to change it. Read more…

Here in the office, we’re pretty big fans of Barton Seaver. He’s an impressive chef and a National Geographic fellow, and he just seems like a pretty cool dude. I first heard Barton Seaver on WBUR’s On Point with Tom Ashcroft along with fellow CC member JJ Gonson. Our intern Mallory had the chance to talk with him in person and practically gushed over him.

Seaver’s cookbook, For Cod and Country, is equally impressive. The title is provocative—the suggestion that there should be something patriotic about the way we eat from the sea. The recipes are an inventive blend of gustatory delight and sustainable wherewithal. I was excited to bring the book down for a stay in Cape Cod with my girlfriend’s family. Where better to let the book stretch its legs?

Well, it turns out that my girlfriend’s family are slightly finicky eaters, which made choosing the right recipe tougher. But serendipity hadn’t quite turned its back on me yet. Down the street from where we were staying is the retail location Nantucket Wild Gourmet and Smokehouse in Chatham, MA. I had first met these guys at the Boston Local Food Festival last fall and knew that they had some wonderful line caught, artisanally prepared smoked fish. Smoked bluefish was what I was looking for.

Seaver’s recipe for “Smoked Bluefish Spread with Toasted Bread and Olive Oil” caught my eye. First of all, I’m a sucker for good bread and olive oil and we had just picked up a loaf from Pain D’Avignon. But the recipe was also demure enough to appeal to the whole family and their Scandinavian heritage.

The recipe is as follows:

8 ounces smoked bluefish

3 tablespoons sour cream


1 loaf of crusty baguette, thinly sliced

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon cut into wedges

It’s pretty much what you would expect. Flake the fish, fold in the sour cream, taste for salt, drizzle with olive oil, serve with toasted bread, garnish with lemon.

Okay so it was good. The very fresh smoked fish was unctuous and rather divine, even before I added the other ingredients. Mixed, it was only good, not great. Bluefish is a pretty soft-fleshed oily fish, so the sour cream made the whole mixture a bit greasy, especially when drizzled with olive oil, even with the mitigating lemons.

I’ve lost no love for Barton Seaver but here’s my suggestion: Use crème fraiche instead of sour cream. While a little less sour, creme fraiche can be whipped like cream, which is vital to adding some nice lightness and body to such a spread. Also olive oil is a bit boring unless you can find a particularly grassy, green variety. Try using a spicy chili oil or just some fresh cracked black pepper to add a little piquant note to the smoky richness. Recipes like this are just guidelines, really. Seaver has a good outline but with a little tweaking you can make your own exceptional version.

The Adapter: Leigh Belanger, program director.

Her book: Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, Maria Speck.

Her recipe: It’s complicated. Her ingredient: wheatberries.

Leigh followed directions, but not the recipe. Read more…

Before I had my son a year and a half ago, most free time was spent in the kitchen—making elaborate canapes for parties, baking my brains out for the holidays, or making dishes that took three days to complete. No longer. Free time has narrowed to a sliver and when I have it, I’d rather roll around on the floor with my boy than make chicken pot pie from scratch.

But I still like to eat well, and I still cringe at taking big shortcuts on the way to a tasty meal. Which means I need to do plenty of planning, and rely less on recipes than on ideas. And Maria Speck’s book is long on both. Last weekend, I came into a wealth of wheatberries, so that’s where I started. She only had one recipe featuring wheatberries, in a lamb stew with red wine sauce, which just didn’t scream (or even whisper) August to me. Instead, I focused on the book’s introduction, where Speck’s lucid voice and love for whole grains could inspire even the most cynical health-food skeptic. A reminiscence and recipe for koliva, a traditional wheatberry confection she ate on the day of her Greek grandfather’s funeral, showed the range and integral place of whole grains in Mediterranean and European cuisines.

Further, she gives clear instruction for integrating whole grains into your weekly menu plans and tips for buying, storing, and cooking grains of all kinds. With a mix of inspiration and practical information, I headed to the kitchen and followed Speck’s instructions for soaking, cooking, and storing wheatberries in the fridge until I was ready to use them. Subsequent dishes, like wheatberries with roasted eggplant, chard, and pomegranate molasses, were my own—but I owe their framework to Speck.

The Impressionist: Jen Ede, development and marketing associate.

Her book: Odd Bits:How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, Jennifer McKagan.

Her recipe: Barbequed pork tongue.

Jen…didn’t follow the recipe. Read more…

I have been known to boast – frequently – about my general inability to follow a recipe. I view recipes more as guidelines, and delight in swapping ingredients in and out, depending on what I have available and what’s in season at the time. Yes, I am an arrogant cook, who, most of the time, escapes disaster-by-laxity with sheer luck and high quality ingredients. Every so often, though, I realize that there is still so much about cooking that I don’t know.

The other night I decided to co-throw a dinner party, to get to know new friends better and to use up the copious amount of CSA vegetables which were starting to crowd my fridge. My plan was to grill fish and vegetables and to make a huge grain salad for the side. For the fish, I looked to a CSF – a new community supported fishery, which is bringing shares of local fish to a drop-off point in my neighborhood. I opted for whole fish from Cape Ann, thinking a) it can’t be that hard to filet a fish, and b) it’s so much cheaper to do it myself. So I had redfish from Gloucester, bulgur wheat, onions, kale, zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers. On top of that, I had a whole mess of herbs.

I figured since I was already grilling, it would be the perfect time to bust out my assignment for this post – a recipe for barbecued tongue from Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. But I was already in the weeds with the fileting o’ fish. I had no filet knife, and was struggling to puncture the fish’s spine and separate it from the bones, much like one would when taking chicken breasts off of the backbone. I hacked those fish. In a most unpretty way. I was actually heartbroken to see the amount that I had wasted (the Depression-Era cook in me rolled over in her grave). After a very stressful half hour, the sad little filets went onto a platter with rosemary, lemons, salt, pepper, and oil.

I’d glanced briefly at the recipe for barbecued tongue and thought that I understood the instructions. I mean, barbecue. Tongue. Right? I whipped out the tongues I had in my freezer from a previous jaunt out to Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, dipped them in the marinade, and walked out to the grill. At first, I was totally enamored with the way the tongues were looking. They charred beautifully. I couldn’t wait to  boast (some more) of my kitchen prowess! Then I pulled them off the grill and took them into the house to assess them. I could already taste the tongue, with a little dab of horseradish, deli style.

My delusions of grandeur shattered after cutting into them. The meat was still bleeding on the inside, despite the sexy char on the outside. Nevermind the bleeding, though. This tongue was chewy. Inedibly so. I had skipped an important step for cooking tongue – you’re supposed to poach it ahead of time. And then peel off the membrane that encapsulates it. Had I taken the time to read the introduction to Odd Bits, I would have received many helpful hints from everyone from Thomas Keller to the author’s own mother, about how to best handle this particular piece of offal.

I’ve since actually begun reading Odd Bits and am finding it to be a great resource on how to use those lesser-known, more economical pieces of meat. I have also learned a valuable lesson – when the impulse strikes you to brag about your ability to cook anything without using a recipe, do yourself a favor – read the recipe and bite your tongue.

How do you use a cookbook? Do you read it for ideas and use it as a springboard? Do you follow recipes to the teaspoon? Do you tinker endlessly? Let us know in the comments.

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

2 Responses to “4 ways to use a recipe”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Great post! I’ve been working on a cookbook, and thinking about the balance between precise instructions (see Melissa’s approach!) and providing sufficient info on possible variations and generally teaching skills to help someone learn to open the fridge and make supper.

    Personally, I’m pretty flexible in following recipes. Give me a soup or stew and I’ll probably vary it. Give me a cake/pasta/souffle, and I will measure to the gram. The exceptions, of course, are adapting items to my taste. I do that often.

  2. Justin Says:

    I have been doing private chef work for a while now and have found that many different and varying recipes are critical to my success in pleasing eaters had offering something varied. I tend to cook to the recipe, I am also always looking for and searching for subsitituions within the recipe. I have settled lately by looking for very simple recipes with few Ingredients. I’m looking for flavor of the item I’m cooking rather than the suggested outcome of the recipe. Discovery of different techniques and getting an idea of the kind of mise en place systems I will need to create a dish is also a way I use a recipe.

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