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How to Create a Recipe…Plus a Recipe!

October 23, 2009 | Pasta & Pizza, Technique

Friends and cooking class clients often ask me how I create my recipes. This is usually asked with some sense of (undeserved) awe, like coming up with how to combine ingredients is some mystical skill that the average home cook can’t figure out. Well that’s just flat out not true. For the Lamb Meatloaf I made last night, I started out by perusing some of my favorite food blog aggregator sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting, searching for ground lamb recipes. I like these sites because they are photo driven, making it easy to see if something looks appealing or not.

After looking at a number of recipes (meatballs, ragus, shanks, and more), I saw the propensity to use Moroccan or Middle Eastern spices with lamb and I thought that sounded good. Next I came across a meatloaf recipe that had pine nuts and raisins in it, but it was made with beef and a whole slew of other ingredients I didn’t want to use. But I combined those two ideas – Moroccan spices and pine nuts and raisins – to create a lamb meatloaf recipe of my own. From here, I relied on some basic techniques:

  • I always add 1-2 eggs per pound of ground meat for a meatloaf
  • I usually figure no more than a teaspoon of any given spice (or salt) for a recipe that serves 4
  • I know meatloaf needs breadcrumbs (added a little at a time to see what the right consistency is)
  • I know that pine nuts taste better toasted and I guessed that the raisins would be better plumped up a bit in some hot water
  • I usually cook meatloaf between 45 minutes and an hour

From there I ended up with a pretty tasty lamb meatloaf, and learned after tasting it that it would be good with some sauce, so I added those notes in my post. Once you get used to cooking this way – more by technique and instinct than specific recipe – you’ll release your culinary creativity and be surprised at what you come up with!The very first foods that I started improvising with, creating dishes completely without a recipe, were pasta dishes. I follow a few basic techniques as well:

  • pick a meat
  • pick vegetables
  • decide whether I’ll use a cream-based, tomato-based, or broth-based sauce
  • start with some aromatics (garlic and/or onions)
  • brown the meat in some extra virgin olive oil
  • add the vegetables to simmer together with a little wine
  • create the sauce in the pan
  • add cooked pasta and let it simmer in the sauce for a minute
  • finish with some freshly ground Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

For last night’s dinner those choices translated to chicken, spinach and some heirloom yellow tomatoes from last season that I thawed and drained, cream-based, and garlic. Here’s an approximation of what I made translated into a recipe.

Creamy Chicken and Spinach Pasta
Serves 2-4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 boneless chicken breasts, sliced thinly and seasoned with salt and pepper
1 bag of baby spinach
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup diced yellow tomatoes
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 ounces short pasta, cooked and drained
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and cook chicken until most of the pink is gone. Add spinach and garlic, cover briefly to steam, then remove lid and stir together until spinach wilts. Add wine and simmer for 1 minute. Add heavy cream and let simmer for 3-5 minutes to thicken slightly. Add cooked pasta and stir together while simmering for 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in cheese, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

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