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Recipes and Modifications: Carrot Salad

May 10, 2012

My CSA doesn’t start until June 12. Until then I’ll just need to hit farmers markets to get some of the local spring produce. Last weekend I tried to do just that. I was on my way to the Troy market when someone suggested I check out the Menands one instead. Having never been, and always up for an adventure, I gave it a go.

Turns out that on opening day, the Menands farmers market is more like a flea sale than anything else. It all worked out okay. Albany Jane, John, Little Miss Fussy and I went to Ted’s for fried oysters, but I never got my veggies.

So, where am I going with this?

Well, that means I’m still cooking with carrots, although I am still trying to make them spring-like. And that means carrot salad. I found this recipe for a zesty Moroccan take on this dish online. It’s delicious and easy to make (provided you have some kind of machine to grate the carrots). But more than anything else, I’d like to use this recipe as a launching point to discuss culinary creativity, and the importance of starting with a recipe.

Creativity is great. I encourage it. But I also think creativity can be the most productive in the home kitchen when it’s constrained. Sometimes your creative instincts can be inspired be a recipe. However,  it’s important to make the recipe as it was written, or at least have a solid understanding of what the recipe is before trying to make any significant modifications.

Let’s look at the components of this dish:

1 pound carrots
1/4 cup oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon harissa or cayenne

Now here is where one epicurious.com reader took this recipe, and it serves as a good example of creativity run amok. While it may seem hard to believe, what follows is an actual comment on the actual recipe:

I didn’t have harissa, so I minced a few chili peppers in abdobo sauce. I aslo added pineapple just because I had one. It added a refreshing sweetness to the spicy flavors…I decided to experiment and see if it would work as a carrot soup. WOW! It was amazing! I simmered the salad in about 1.5 cups beef broth and 1/2 cup coconut milk (I had some opened that I needed to use), then pureed the soup in the blender.

My instincts are a little bit different. The only modification I made to the original recipe was substituting dried parsley for the fresh. One can do this, the trick is just to use one third of the amount. So I went with a heaping tablespoon, and it was fine.

After making this recipe and loving it, I realized it could probably be a great framework for a master dish. I needed something to bring to a Cinco de Mayo party last weekend, and I thought that this could easily be adapted to include Mexican flavors.

Lemon gets switched out for lime.
Parsley gets swapped for a little less epazote.
Paprika becomes ancho chili powder.
Cinnamon is omitted in favor of more cumin & chili powder.

That’s it. Now it’s a Mexican-inspired carrot salad with chili and lime.

You see how that works? It’s something tart (citrus or vinegar), something green (dried or fresh herbs), and some complementary spice blend. In theory you could also swap out the carrots for another crisp and crunchy vegetable, like jicama. Then all that you need is a broad understanding of classic flavor combinations.

Make it French with lemon, tarragon and green peppercorns.
Make it Jamaican with lime, thyme and allspice.
Make it Japanese with rice vinegar, shiso and ginger.

I have yet to make these other variants of the dish, but they are as limitless as your imagination/accessibility to ingredients. As it turns out Mrs. Fussy preferred the Mexican-inspired version to the original Moroccan.

Eventually, when you have cooked enough, it’s possible to develop an intuitive sense of proportions. You should also get into the practice of tasting as you go, and become more skilled at identifying what needs to be changed to ultimately make the dish successful. But these skills take time to hone.

This is why recipes help. You don’t always have to fastidiously hold to them and precisely measure ingredients (unless you are baking). But they give you a framework, and a starting place. Once you have a better grasp of the recipe, it’s easy to use it as a launch pad for your culinary flights of fancy.

Just remember, keep it simple. Good food need not be complicated. Find a few great ingredients, put them together, add salt & fat, and try not to mess it up.

If you need help, or a little hand holding, let me know. We’ll get you cooking.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2012 10:54 am

    How do you know that was creativity run amok? Did you taste it? Maybe it was fabulous. Maybe that cook is simply more creative and maybe she made a great dish. You don’t know.

  2. May 10, 2012 3:39 pm

    I want to know where you got your hands on epazote. Fresh, I hope? (I live in the Berkshires, but heck if I won’t drive to get some good food.)

  3. May 10, 2012 5:12 pm

    This basic recipe sounds pretty good and I am going to try it since I have a ton of carrots to deal with. Only thing obviously amiss is the 1/2 teaspoon harissa “or” cayenne. Harissa maybe but 1/2 teaspoon cayenne for 1 lb carrots is going to blow your taste buds away.

    However, I want to sound a cautionary note about recipes found on the internets. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it is any good and in fact some “famous” recipes are pretty terrible and get picked up on many sites without anybody ever actually trying them. Google “Sonny Bryan’s Barbecue Sauce” for a good example.

    If we’re talking to someone who is new to cooking I guess it’s difficult to tell a solid recipe from a fantasy especially if you don’t have a feel for typical proportions. I like to apply what I call recipe forensics http://wp.me/p1S3Ig-1 .

    In your example, the results with harissa vs cayenne (or with chopped green chiles, the third option from the original recipe at your link above) are going to be so different that you have to guess that the author of the recipe either hadn’t actually made it, OR was prone to winging it vs looking for consistent results. Based on your experience we can assume the latter is true… you’ve now spent more time with the recipe than its putative author so we can have some confidence in it. (Though I’m not sure about some of your variations… carrots and shiso? ~shudder~)

  4. christine permalink
    May 10, 2012 7:09 pm

    I think I disagree with you on having to have a recipe… I seldom use a recipe to make anything. What I do is look at several recipes for an unfamiliar dish to see the steps, the mechanics of how to make it…do I need to thicken or do anything imparitive to come out with a great final product? Then, I make the dish with ingredients I like or happen to have on hand. Or, I look at a recipe to just brainstorm and then make the dish using a combination of two or more recipes, using the parts of each recipe I happen to think make sense. And, things turn out pretty good. Am I using a recipe? Maybe, but I never follow one to complete a dish.

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