It is a new world. Optional has at last taken a prominence in recipes I could only have dreamed of. But even more important than what the New Optional means right now may be what will learn from it and how will it change our cooking?
I happen to be sheltering with my wife, Ann Hood, who follows recipes the way one follows instructions for putting together a PAX wardrobe from Ikea — every step and amount executed exactly.
When cooking with Ann, if I suggest doing something that is not in her recipe, it elicits from her a look of bafflement and the words, “But that’s not what the recipe says.” This is invariably followed by a go-away expression I’ve learned to embrace.
Her condition is partly congenital. It manifested early in her perfect comportment and straight A’s at school. And she will not break the line of a crosswalk when crossing a street even if no cars are in sight.
But following-the-recipe-to-the-T has an existential component as well. Rules, laws and recipe ingredients are here for a reason. In words similar to those of Sir Thomas More to a zealot in “A Man For All Seasons” — “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?” — Ann would surely say, “If you take away all the measurements and ingredients in a recipe, where will we hide from the dinner I end up serving us?”
Also, it follows that if you can stray willy-nilly from a recipe, what other rules and laws, in life generally, might you violate? Because from there the world slips inexorably into anarchy. Therefore, if she is making a Chinese stir-fry that calls for a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce, and I suggest that she try using beurre manie (flour and butter kneaded together, a common thickener for western sauces) … well, you’d see me making a hasty retreat from the kitchen.
Shortly after the pandemic locked us down, I contacted three recipe writers I admire to ask their take, generally, on what optional means to them.
Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of Prune in Manhattan and food columnist for the New York Times Magazine, wrote by email, “I’ve never suggested anything as optional in my entire career. I write recipes as if they were directions to my house given to people I would actually like to see arrive.”
Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, feels the same: “When I write a recipe, every ingredient has to earn its place in the recipe. If it doesn’t make a difference in the final product, it goes. Therefore, if I call for two tablespoons of dark rum, it’s there for a reason.”
Former pastry chef and author David Lebovitz, who recently published a book on cocktails called “Drinking French” (Ten Speed Press), tries to keep the user in mind: “I use it frequently when an ingredient is not easily available,” he said by phone from his home in Paris. “Some drinks have a quarter teaspoon of absinthe. But it’s hard to tell someone to buy a $50 bottle of liquor to put a quarter teaspoon in a drink.” If that quarter teaspoon made a substantial difference, however, he would not call it optional.
Perhaps this is why I have such a hard time writing recipes (or cooking with Ann).
It should be obvious by now; I am a rules and recipes questioner. Who made the rule? Why? Toward what end? As far as I am concerned, anything not actually named in the title of the recipe can be considered optional. Which is why I was astonished, and delighted, by the Times’s Asparagus Salad, asparagus optional.
Recipes are not, and cannot be, instruction manuals (though I admire Garten’s rock solid recipes, which come close). In the end, dishes are not put together the way that wardrobe from Ikea is. Recipes are sheet music. The pages can be played with nuance and grace, or not so much — Bach’s cello suites played by Pablo Casals vs. the same sheet music performed by a first-year student.
Knowledge and experience determine the degree of nuance in a given dish. And they also determine how well or badly you can play with the rules. I can change the cornstarch slurry to beurre manie in a Chinese stir-fry because I know that both thicken with starch, and that the butter that separates the granules of flour in beurre manie and allows them to thicken a sauce would also enrich the sauce, which will be good. The slurry has no enriching fat.
“So why don’t Chinese recipes call for beurre manie or roux for thickening, Mr. Anarchist?” Ann might ask.
My guess would be that when and where those cuisines were developing, wheat flour and butter weren’t staples, as they were in Europe. But all I really need to know is that butter enriches, and flour thickens.
This is a culinary fundamental. And if you know just a few culinary fundamentals — how to make a sauce, how much heat to apply to what kind of food, and how to season — and combine them with your common sense, you can improvise on any and all recipes you come across no matter what is in your pandemic fridge and pantry.
I’m hoping that one of the things we gain from the pandemic is a brave new world of cooking.
Adapted from Ruhlman’s book “From Scratch” (Abrams Books, 2019).
Sausage and Spinach Breakfast Strata
This is a great quarantine dish because it is infinitely variable, incredibly flexible, and it will put all that sourdough bread we’re all making to good use.
Make ahead: The strata can be prepared up until baking, then covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days.
- 8 ounces fresh spinach, if using frozen, defrost and squeeze out the moisture
- 2 teaspoons olive oil, or your preferred oil, or more for greasing
- 1/2 Spanish onion (about 4 ounces), cut into large dice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 1 pound breakfast or another mild fresh sausage, casings removed, crumbled
- 6 large eggs
- 3 cups half-and-half or milk
- 2 teaspoons dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 8 cups cubed bread, day-old or dried in a low oven (roughly 14 ounces or 8 to 10 slices)
- 3 cups (9 ounces) coarsely shredded cheddar cheese, divided
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the spinach, pushing down to submerge. Blanch for about 1 minute; then strain into a colander. Rinse the spinach under cold running water until cool. Wring the spinach out well and coarsely chop it.
If cooking the strata immediately, place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Oil or spray a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish.
In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and season with a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring and breaking up the meat as you go, until just browned, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage and onion to a paper towel-lined plate.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, then whisk in the half-and-half, mustard, 1 teaspoon of salt, cayenne and several grinds of black pepper until uniformly combined. (There should be no egg whites visible.) Add the reserved sausage and onions, spinach, bread and 1 cup of the cheese and toss, pressing the bread down so it soaks up the custard. Transfer this mixture to the prepared baking dish. Top evenly with the remaining 2 cups of cheese.
Let the strata sit for at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour before baking, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days before baking.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the eggs are set. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Adapted from “From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes, and Dozens of Techniques You’ll Use Over and Over” by Michael Ruhlman (Abrams Books, 2019).
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 632; Total Fat: 41 g; Saturated Fat: 19 g; Cholesterol: 308 mg; Sodium: 1183 mg; Carbohydrates: 33 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 2 g; Protein: 32 g.