When I cook at home, I usually don’t have a recipe handy. Often I cook by touch, as if I were confidently playing the piano without sheet music. But, of course, you need practice before you can ad-lib.
This menu features dishes that can be prepared using this approach, although recipes are provided. Many home cooks are already comfortable with customizing recipes or just using them as a starting point. But sometimes they really aren’t necessary. Relying on memory and paying close attention to ingredient attributes can get you there.
Take this fennel and radicchio salad, for example. It’s an easy dish to riff on. Let’s say you have two nice bulbs of fennel from the market and a nice head of radicchio. Imagine the possibilities.
Simple preparation simply requires seasoning sliced fennel with salt and pepper, adding lemon juice, a little grated garlic and savory olive oil, then tossing with torn radicchio to coat. (You can also use curly endive or mottled Castelfranco instead of radicchio.) For a more complex version, you can make a quick vinaigrette with lemon, garlic and oil, then add chopped anchovies (a little or a lot) and maybe a little Dijon mustard, since the combination of sweet fennel and bitter radicchio goes well with a strong vinaigrette.
A typical fish stew, as served in the south of France, is another example of a dish you can take liberties with. Whatever the selection of seafood available, the method remains the same: an onion is softened in olive oil, before adding saffron, garlic, thyme, a touch of tomato and a peppercorn. Everything then blooms together to focus. flavors. Then fish broth or water is added to form a broth and seasoned well. It should taste crisp and full of flavor before the fish and shellfish get into it. Clams and mussels, if used, give it a briny layer. A healthy amount of Yukon Gold Potato Slices makes the stew heartier (and stretches it out, if you’re running out of fish and have extra mouths to feed). Potatoes also soak up a lot of flavor: I dare say you could sometimes skip the fish and call it a potato stew.
For a final course and a refreshing dessert, a granita could not be easier to make, with any fruit juice of your choice. This one uses ruby-red grapefruit juice and pulp, for a seasonal rendition, though any type of citrus can be substituted. Taste the juice before adding the sugar; you may only need a little. Chopping frozen juice is fun, and served in glasses, the granita looks like an elegant snow cone. I like to finish it off with a few drops of orange blossom water or sometimes a dash of Champagne.
All of these dishes have recipes, but if you know where you’re going, you might not need them.
Receipts: Fennel and radicchio salad with anchovies and egg | Fish and shellfish stew at all times | Ruby Grapefruit Granita