August 11, 2004
Purple Pesto and the Art of Improv

The essence of creative cooking is improvisation. Sometimes that improvisation is a response to a lack of ingredients. Don't have whole milk? Mix cream and skim. Don't have shrimp? Try the recipe with scallops. Necessity has created many an inventive dish from the materials at hand.

And then there are the dishes you make just because you think they sound cool. A year or so ago, we had guests over where every single item on the menu was purple. (I did mention my wife is a patient woman, right?) We started with a leek-potato soup made with Peruvian blue potatoes, moved on to a red onion tart which turns purplish in the oven, and had on hand purple drunken goats cheese. The rind is stained a deep purple by soaking the cheese in crushed wine grapes.

The picture you see (and which you can click to open a larger version) are some of the star ingredients in a dish I wished I'd had at that meal. I took the pesto recipe I posted a week or so ago and substituted these gorgeous purple basil leaves I bought at the Chicago Green CIty Market, and some walnuts, while upping the proportion of nuts to leaves and decreasing the cheese somewhat. The result is a bitter but delicious basil-walnut pesto with a deep dark purple coloring.

I might increase the oil over the original recipe and use walnut oil instead of olive oil next time. I might include some blue cheese as well. Or I might not. I might try tarragon instead of basil or any of a thousand variations.

You get the idea. Experiment. You might very well create something disgusting (in which case, give it to the dog and call for Chinese), but you might also make something new and wonderful. As you experiment you'll figure out how a dish "works" and what you can vary and what you can't.

One caution - this doesn't work so well with baked goods. Freaky magical chemical reactions happen in the oven, involving stuff like glutens and disaccharides and elves. Yes, elves. I haven't seen them, but I know they're there. So expect to be disappointed if you do much more than tinker around the edges of a successful baked goods recipe until you figure out what makes a cake (for instance) do that fluffy lovely thing it does. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but you should be more ready for the laws of chemistry and physics to hate on you. (Why you gotta be a baker-hater?)

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at August 11, 2004 8:00 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Great stuff. I couldn't agree with you more. I love to mess with recipes and make them my own. But when it comes to baking....well perhaps I can mess with a cake mix. Been trying to just improve on homemade buttermilk pancakes and even that is a challenge. I think you must need a background in chemistry or pastry chef experience.

Posted by Amy on August 11, 2004 at 9:06 PM

The chemistry background is probably more useful. For pancakes, the trick is to make them fluffy, which means having enough leavening, which is where most of the chemistry comes in to play--the leavening action is caused by acid+base reactions (normally baking soda and buttermilk), so you can play around with the acids and bases so long as you make sure that the ratio of leavening action to total volume stays the same. I don't know of any good alternate bases, so I usually just play with the acid to change the flavor of things; basically, in terms of acidity, 1 c buttermilk = 1 c yogurt = 2 tsp cream of tartar = 1 tbsp lemon juice = 1 tbsp vinegar = 2 c honey. Natural (light) cocoa, chocolate, brown sugar, and molasses are also all slightly acidic, although I don't remember their relative acidity off-hand. (The other chemistry trick with pancakes is to not overbeat them--leaving the batter lumpy means the glutens aren't overdeveloped (which leads to rubbery pancakes), and since single-action leavening starts as soon as the acid and base are combined with a liquid (as opposed to double-action baking powder, which saves some leavening until heat is applied), less beating means less leavening action wasted.)

(Hmm... dutch cocoa is actually slightly alkaline, so I suppose that it could be used to replace some baking soda in a recipe... a good fluffy cocoa-honey buttermilk pancake seems like it needs to be invented post-haste...)

Posted by Sweth on August 11, 2004 at 10:43 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please be sure you read and agree with our ADVERTISING POLICY before posting.