Recently, i was reminded that there are a large number of people who do “performative cooking”. They absolutely need a recipe, which they follow religiously, and have no real idea how the magic incantations and gesticulations produce edible substances to consume. They fear deviation.
Please, don’t be a person like that.
Ok, Baking is physics and chemistry, so it’s a bit less forgiving, but cooking (in the more general sense) isn’t like that at all. Recipes, in those cases, are examples. They’re suggestions of things to do and ingredients to use in order to produce things that the author of the recipe liked. Your palate will absolutely differ. (For instance, i am not a fan of excessive fats. i hate mayo, am fine without all the bacon grease, and don’t pour tons of butter on things. You may be the opposite, and that’s OK. i will not cry if you change a recipe on me.)
i know this because of a discussion i had with some relatives while they made a “low country boil”. They were following an aged recipe in which they carefully measured Old Bay, and were desperate to find where the Bay Leaves were.
i asked them “So, what does Bay taste like?”
“i dunno. The recipe has it.”
This is the wrong answer. Actually, the wrong answer is bay leaves in general since they really don’t give a whole lot of flavor, and the flavor they do give is a mix of tannin. You could get the same effect by adding a pinch of black tea, plus you don’t have to fish the inedible leaves out. i know this because one night i got a bunch of spices, grabbed a pinch and sucked on each of them for a good couple of minutes to understand what the difference between oregano and parsley was (there’s a lot). It was a completely unpleasant experience. Granted, that’s lead to a fun party trick where i can take a mouthful of something and work out most of the ingredients because that night got seared into my mind.
When you make something, you should always be asking “How can i make this taste better?” Knowing what stuff tastes like helps tremendously in that. Likewise, knowing that foods dramatically change flavors when prepared differently also helps. Shrimp tastes different when you boil, steam, pan fry or roast them. (It has to do with how much water you remove, less water, more shrimp flavor.) Same with vegetables, meats, and all sorts of other things. That’s why Mexican and Indian cooks roast their spices, to draw out more of their flavors.
Honestly, their “low country boil” was ok. Basically it was boiled potatoes, onion, corn on the cob, “sausage” (hot dogs), and shrimp. Start by seasoning the water with Old Bay, another seasoning mix that was even more salt, black pepper, parsley and oregano. Boil the quartered potatoes and onions until the potatoes were soft, then add the “sausage” for about 5 minutes, and add the shrimp for about 3 minutes. Strain and serve. It tastes like Old Bay with hints of shrimp and hotdog. Not a favorite.
How would i do it?
i wouldn’t boil, for one.
i’d quarter red potatoes and linguica sausage and convection roast them at 400F while caramelizing some onion. Toss the corn on the grill (husk on, but silk gone), and let that cook up. Be sure to toss the potatoes and sausage so they get semi-evenly cooked. Once the potatoes start showing some nice brown color, pan fry the shrimp, ideally on an iron skillet with no oil (this will let them char nicely). Toss everything together, optionally dust with a mix of Old Bay (or my preference stirred chili powder, oregano, and sage) and serve with a brown mustard and either beer or a good wine and warm bread. The spices will bloom from the steam by the time that everyone is seated. Want it to be even better? Cook the potatoes at least 8 hours beforehand, then re-heat them while you cook the sausage. Yes, this is more work. You get out what you put in. There were a lot of reasons we didn’t do this one, but it definitely gave me ideas on how it could be better next time.
Same ingredients, VERY DIFFERENT flavors. i fully expect that you can come up with an even better version. Make small batches if you’re not sure. Make mistakes, and learn from them. Even burnt stuff can teach you flavors you didn’t know about and may love.
Kitchens are delicious playgrounds.