I’m not a big fan of recipes. My stubbornness and my independence come together in the kitchen for a perfect storm of “no one’s gonna tell me what to do.” (Oddly, this applies only to cooking — I have no objection to measuring out a third of a cup of this and a quarter teaspoon of that when I’m baking.)
My friend Ed gave me a slow cooker a few years ago, and it’s the perfect appliance for my improvisational style, in which I start with an ingredient or two and figure out what else I’ve got on hand that might go with it. Typical dish: chicken thighs and a can of broth (and maybe some cooking sherry or wine); cook till the meat is falling off the bones; remove bones and skin, return chunks of chicken to liquid, add some other stuff (a box of frozen spinach? dried fruit? garbanzo beans? chunks of apple? mushrooms? carrots? all of the above?) and seasoning (curry powder with fresh or dried fruit, or herbs if it’s more veggie-based), and cook that through while I make a pot of brown rice to serve it over. Often tasty, almost always at least edible — especially since I’m not asking anyone else to partake.
Some of these culinary improvs are quite successful — we’re still trying to figure out a good name, or even the exact description, for the stew/chili/glop that I make on the night I cook during the annual week in Cape May — and others, not so much. What they all have in common is that I don’t measure ingredients, which can make the repeatability of my successes a bit tenuous. It’s all very well to think “a bit less liquid would be better” if you’re not sure how much liquid you used the first time.
My most recent experiment was with scalloped potatoes — perhaps the most perfect of all dishes, combining as it does two of my favorite foods, potatoes and cheese. I’d actually tried making them from scratch once, back in the mid ’80s. At that time, my disdain for recipes hadn’t really solidified, so I used one — from James Beard’s American Cookery, if I recall correctly.
It was a disaster. The potatoes weren’t cooked right, and the sauce was too thin, and overall it was just nasty. Scarred by the experience, I went back to scalloped potatoes just like Mom used to make — from a box.
But of late, I’ve seen a bag of Yukon Gold potatoes in the fridge every time I’ve opened the door, and it got me thinking. So I Googled [an option unavailable to me in 1985] “scalloped potatoes recipe” and read a half dozen or so.
And then I winged it.
6-8 potatoes, sliced very thin. (I used Yukon Gold, and I didn’t peel them)
Cup, cup and a half of white sauce (melt ~4 T butter, whisk in ~4 T flour, plus salt and pepper; whisk in a cup or so of milk; keep stirring till it’s thick; add a little more milk if it’s too thick)
3-4 cups shredded cheese (I used about 2 cups sharp cheddar and maybe a cup of pepper jack)
Put about half the potatoes in a casserole dish. Pour about half the white sauce over the potatoes. Add about half the cheese. Repeat.
I cooked it for 80 minutes at 350°, uncovered, and the potatoes were still just a wee bit al dente, and the cheese was a trifle browner/crustier than ideal. Next time I think I’ll do a full 90 minutes, and cover the dish for the first 45 minutes or so. And also use more cheese — I think I was close to three cups, and four wouldn’t be excessive. And maybe a different combo of cheeses — Genuardis sells bags of shredded Gouda, which I’ve used in my improv quiches to good effect.
Chunks of ham also good with this, if you have them, as I did — I added after the white sauce but before the cheese in each layer. (How much ham? Are you seriously going to ask me that question?)