Are you the kind of cook who follows recipes? Or do you wing it?
In professional kitchens, recipes help ensure consistency, even though some cooks might be more exact about measuring than others. Many kitchens go by volume, using scales to weigh dry and wet ingredients; that way, there's less likelihood of losing count of cups or gallons.
Some chefs guard their recipes like they're state secrets, while others are more willing to share. At home, I'm more of a toss-it-together-and-hope-it-works kind of cook. Most of the time I pull it off. Just recently, though, a friend asked me to help come up with some gluten-free recipes for a promotion run by a sausage company she works with. (May, in case you hadn't heard, is Celiac Awareness month.) Sure, no problem. I'm always happy to play with meat.
But I'd never done gluten-free cooking before, so this required some research. I had to chuck the notion of an Italian sausage sandwich-inspired calzone because the gluten-free dough recipes I found sounded quite complicated.
So, I made an adjustment, and decided to try grilling the Italian sausage with peppers and onions and serving it over polenta—but you've got to get special cornmeal, because most of it is processed in the same facilities that process wheat. Bob's Red Mill make a gluten-free polenta, but I couldn't find it on the supermarket shelves in my neighborhood.
OK, onto Plan C—as in cassoulet. I had just bought some dried cannellini beans at the farmer's market and there was some duck fat in the fridge. A very good start. I seared the chicken Italian sausage and in a separate pan, and sautéed one chopped onion in a heaping tablespoon of that rendered fat. Then, I added the beans, which I had slow-baked with three cloves of garlic, seasoning simply with salt and pepper toward the end, a little chicken stock, some diced tomatoes, a handful of chopped, fresh oregano—and this recipe was starting to take shape.
But I forgot that the crowning glory of my version of a cassoulet is homemade herb breadcrumbs. So my cassoulet became a souped-up franks and beans. It was tasty, but not exactly what I wanted.
My final attempt was so super simple, I'm not even sure it qualifies as a recipe. I made a Choucroute garnie with an Italian accent by sprinkling fennel seeds on the sauerkraut, serving some potato salad on the side. It emerged the winner.
This exercise gave me a whole new appreciation for the challenges faced by people who suffer from celiac disease. And I've got a long way to go before I'm going to start writing my own recipes. It's fun to play around, but a lot bigger challenge when you have to consider the dietary restrictions of others.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".