Do you want to know one of my favorite tricks for cooking home-cooked meals regularly? Before I ever pick up a knife, or turn on the oven, I read the recipe. I know you have probably heard that advice before, and you’re nodding your heads, saying, yeah, yeah, how about something I haven’t heard!
So, you read your recipes, that’s good; but you may not read them the way I read them. I read them to see how I can hack them.
Now, the first time I cook a recipe, I read it through at least twice, and I cook it EXACTLY as the recipe writer intended. How can I know how it’s supposed to look/taste/perform if I don’t do this? So I do. It gives me a good sense of how long it REALLY takes to prepare the dish; those time estimates are nearly always wrong for home cooks, with slower knife skills and less organized kitchens, and dogs that demand to be taken out in the yard to eat rotten tree bark just as everything’s coming to a boil. It also tells me how well the recipe works. Some recipes have been tested dozens of times by several people, but some have NEVER BEEN TESTED. You heard me. Yeah, they’re published in a book. Means nothing.
Once I have cooked a new recipe, I ask myself one question, well, no, two questions, well, ok, three questions:
1. Do I want to cook this recipe again, as is?
2. Can I make this recipe differently (substitute ingredients, double the amount so there are leftovers, make it easier or faster, make any of it ahead of time)?
3. Can I use PARTS of this recipe in other dishes?
You’d be amazed at how many recipes have components that can be repurposed. I touched upon that a little bit in the Weekend Dinner Projects I recently posted. But with a little creative thinking, you can do this with many recipes. Seasoning blends, sauces, fillings, and techniques can all be hacked to create dishes customized to your family’s tastes, your skill level, your time constraints, and your available ingredients.
As an example, I humbly borrow from Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Chard and Saffron Omelettes.
The CSA shares so far have been abundant with swiss chard, which is not a problem; we all love it here just as it is, simmered in a little salted water until it has wilted, or sauteed in olive oil and garlic until soft and glistening. But I’m always looking for something new to do with our beautiful, local, seasonal vegetables, and Plenty is now the first place I look.
These omelets are deceptively simple, full of chard cooked with potatoes; but the addition of saffron to the cooking water, the minced herbs in the omelet, and the creme fraiche spread on the omelet before filling, elevate this dish to a new comfort food level, with rich, creamy flavors. The recipe makes 4 very generous omelets as written, but both the filling and omelets have to cool before you can work with them, so a final warming in the oven is required before serving.
Our family dynamic regarding meals is unconventional. We have repeatedly tried the whole “everyone eat dinner together at the table” deal, but our eating/sleeping/working/playing schedules just don’t match up, and our time at the table was forced and stressful. We have, instead, embraced our unusual arrangement, and have learned to connect at other times, in other ways. Many evenings, we don’t all eat at the same time. This would usually rule out serving omelets; they’re not good reheated from the refrigerator. But, the second time I cooked this recipe, I realized the filling would not suffer at all if it were made ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Then each omelet could be made “to order”, warming up just the required amount of filling in the microwave for each omelet. They also make a great light lunch, if made with just one egg and about half the usual filling. Making the omelets one at a time, as needed, also means you don’t have to warm them in the oven to serve them, because they will already be nice and hot. The filling would also be delicious inside crepes, with goat cheese or yogurt instead of creme fraiche, or even just plain, for those who prefer simpler flavors.
Here’s the link for Ottolenghi’s Chard and Saffron Omelettes, if you’d like to try them. But really, I hope this post gets you to look at all of your recipes a little differently, to see how you can hack them; pick them apart and put them together again in new ways, to make cooking at home for your family easier and more fun.