Weekend Cooking: Improvisation

Welcome to Weekend Cooking – a weekly meme sponsored at Beth Fish Reads whichis open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

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!!

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    • Jill on March 6, 2010 at 08:18

    I am SO not an improvisational cook…but I want to be! I’m getting a little better, the more I cook, at deviating from a recipe. I’m going to check these books out!

    • Wendy on March 6, 2010 at 09:03

    Jill, You can do it!! I never used to change up recipes, but now I do it all the time and it is so “freeing” (for lack of a better word). Hope you’ll try it and let me know how it goes 🙂

    • Andi on March 6, 2010 at 09:21

    Amen to improvisation! I love going off on my own with a recipe.

  1. I wish I was better at improvisation! I guess I’d have to learn to be if the closest grocery store was so far away.

  2. Like Jill and Kathy, I’m not very good at improvisational cooking either. (Although I did make something completely original last weekend that I am planning write up for my Weeking Cooking post today.) I’ll have to check out those two books – I’d heard of The Flavor Bible, but not the other one. Thanks for the post!

  3. I often improvise because I like to use whatever I have in the fridge/cupboards. Your recipe sounds great and those books look very good.

    • JoAnn on March 6, 2010 at 11:23

    My pharmacist training is often at odds with creative cook in me! The pharmacist wants to very precisely measure all ingredients – no substitutions! – and follow the recipe to the letter. The creative cook wants to substitute, improvise, and experiment. The pharmacist is losing …

    • Molly on March 6, 2010 at 11:53

    I am an improvisational cook as well!

    I just love the Silver Palate cookbooks.

    • Esme on March 6, 2010 at 17:14

    What a great dish-I have wanted to get that spice book for a while now. looks like lots of us did books this weekend. here is mine


    • Amused on March 6, 2010 at 23:58

    I’m glad you are getting more comfortable at improvising! I too, within the last year have been trying it more and more and so far have it had a lot of good luck! I guess you have to enjoy cooking though and then it really starts to build the confidence!

  4. Yum! This sounds delicious. I improvise a little bit, but not too often. If I’m missing the fresh herbs, I use dried. Good to know about the balsamic vinegar in lieu of the white wine. I always have lots of red wine around, but since I don’t drink white, it’s rarely here when I need it for a recipe. Off to add chicken thighs to my grocery list. I want to make this for dinner this week! 🙂

    • Beth F on March 7, 2010 at 16:36

    That’s me!! I use recipes for ideas not for the exact food. I used to give the New Basics for new cooks, newlyweds, and students getting their first apartment. Now I think I am going give So Easy.

    Anyway, I love to see someone who cooks like I do.

  5. doesn’t it feel great to just go with the groceries on hand. I like recipes, but I also ‘wing it’ many a meal. The recipes give me an idea of how much to flavour and spice.

    • Wendy on March 12, 2010 at 15:04

    Andi: I knew we must have more in common than just the books 🙂

    Kathy: I think the secret is getting comfortable with flavors and start with small changes before you start totally rewriting a recipe 🙂

    Melissa: I need to come over to your blog and look at your original recipe!!! Keep working at the improvisation – it gets more fun as you get more comfortable with it.

    Margaret: I know what you mean – sometimes I just want to use something up before it goes bad.

    JoAnn: I’m glad the pharmacist part of you is losing 😉

    Molly: The Silver Palate books are some of my favorites. Yay for improvisation!

    Esme: The spice book is fantastic!

    Amused: I agree – building one’s confidence in the kitchen makes it easier to go “off the recipe”

    Les: Did you make this recipe? I wonder how it went for you!

    Beth: It is really fun, isn’t it?

    Heather: Exactly!! I love the creative aspect of it.

  6. Haven’t made it yet, but I’ll let you know when I do!

    • Wendy on March 15, 2010 at 17:38

    Les: Thanks – I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it!

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