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I want to talk about improvisational cooking – something that I just started doing in the last year. I love to cook in large part because of the creativeness of the craft. Following recipes “to the letter” is not fun for me. I like to experiment. I hate to measure things. Besides, often I find a recipe that looks great, but I’m lacking ingredients. Since I live more than 30 minutes from the nearest decent grocery story, I don’t always have the option of popping out and picking up missing ingredients.
Wednesday night I defrosted some chicken thighs, but had no idea what I wanted to do with them. Usually I just marinate them and throw them on the grill. Good, but a bit boring. So I pulled out one of my trustworthy cookbooks: The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. On page 415 I found a recipe called Roasted Chicken legs with Glazed Shallots. Besides the shallots and chicken legs, the recipe called for the following ingredients: olive oil, sugar, 1/2 chicken stock, 1/4 cup dry white wine, chopped fresh rosemary leaves, dried thyme, black pepper and fresh parsley.
I did not have chicken legs (but I had thighs); I did not have shallots (but I had onions); I did not have chicken stock (but I had bouillon); I had no fresh herbs; I had no dry white wine. But I wanted to make this recipe.
This is what I did…
I followed the instructions to heat the olive oil in a skillet, but instead of cooking shallots…I diced up some onions and carrots and cooked them instead. I followed the recipe to add a tablespoon of sugar to the skillet and continued cooking the vegetables until they had caramelized.
I added the caramelized vegetables to a roasting pan and put the chicken thighs on top of them (just like the recipe said to do). Then I decided I wanted to use up some fresh mushrooms I had…so I sliced them up and threw them on top of the chicken.
Next I made the sauce. Instead of chicken stock, I boiled some water and added the bouillon cubes…then I substituted a couple of splashes of balsamic vinegar for the dry white wine, eliminated the rosemary and parsley and instead just used thyme, salt and pepper to taste.
From here on out I followed the original recipe – pouring the sauce over the chicken and vegetables, roasting the combination in a 375 degree oven (covered) for 30 minutes (stirring once); removing the cover and roasting 25 more minutes, turning the chicken pieces twice more.
And you know what? It came out GREAT! The balsamic vinegar gave the sauce a more hearty flavor than just white wine would have…and I never missed the fresh herbs. Furthermore, the carrots and mushrooms added a little more flavor and complimented the dish.
Improvisation is so much fun. If you are a little nervous about doing it yourself, I recommend two wonderful resources:
The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider
The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Both of these books will help you deconstruct a recipe and create your own wonderful dish! Have fun!!