I've never really understood people who say they can't cook. After all, as long as you understand how to follow directions in a recipe, you can cook. Once you know the basic techniques, you can read a recipe to make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment and off you go.
Recently I was on a phone interview with Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini, and she mentioned the importance of being able to cook without a recipe. This requires some confidence and some capability. You have a better chance of successful improvisation and creativity if you have a very firm grasp of the basics. Creativity can be inspired in many ways, a meal in a restaurant, a new cookbook, a trip to the market, etc. But improvisation is a different matter.
Improvisation is "a performance given without planning or preparation". So basically you are relying on your brain for inspiration. Sally Schneider's new book, The Improvisational Cook is an exploration into the concept of improvisation in the kitchen and provides some wonderful recipes and ideas along the way. Schneider explains how recipes work in a section called "Understanding", and then various riffs on a single recipe.
How does it work? Here is an example of an idea and recipe--the author begins with a Lemon Oregano Jam that she first tasted at Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo. She explains that the technique of pureeing the whole lemon is crucial and that the addition of oil helps to round out the flavor and creates an emulsion. In addition to the original recipe, her variations include Lemon Lavender Jam, Tangelo Jam, Tangerinesicle Parfaits, and Meyer Lemon Dessert Sauce and Filling.
Just as in jazz, the best improvisations come from the best musicians and Schneider is an accomplished cook who you can trust and will in all likelihood inspire you as well.
Leek "Noodles" with Creme Fraiche and Hazelnut Oil
10 medium leeks
About 1/3 cup creme fraiche, or more to taste
1 teaspoon roasted hazelnut oil, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Trim the vegetables. Trim the roots and tough green tops from the leeks, leaving about 1 inch of pale green. Slice each lengthwise into quarters; then slice each quarter in half again, to make thin strips. Rinse the leeks in several changes of cold water to remove any grit; drain well.
Pan-steam the vegetables. Place the leeks in a large heavy skillet; add enough water to come halfway up the leeks. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover, and cook, tossing occasionally, until the leeks are almost tender, about 6 minutes. Add salt to taste, uncover, and continue cooking, tossing frequently to separate the strands, until the leeks are very tender, a few minutes longer. Holding the leeks back with the lid, tilt the pan over the sink to let any remaining water drain away.
Dress the vegetables with a mellow fat and hazelnut oil. Place the pan of leeks back on the burner over moderate heat, tossing frequently to let any residual water evaporate, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the creme fraiche and continue simmering the leeks, tossing them frequently. At first the creme fraiche will look watery; gradually, it will thicken again to make a luxurious coating on the leeks. Stir in the hazelnut oil and adjust the seasoning, adding freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve at once.
Copyright© 2006 by Sally Schneider. Used by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. All Rights Reserved.