Recipes and Modifications: Carrot Salad
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.