And yet best thing I learned as a cooking-school-dropout (besides not being afraid of salt) was how to ditch recipes. By the end of the 1st semester, we were only allowed a list of ingredients to complete our assignments--no methods or proportions, just a list that indicated first incorporated ingredient to last.
A well-composed recipe is a useful record of someone else’s attempt, and there’s no better place to start picking up ideas. More often then not, when I look over a recipe, I tend to like some characteristics but not ALL of them.
So what to do? Frankenstein your own recipe.
Think about it--a recipe is just one person’s (or kitchen’s) interpretation of what they want a dish to be. In testing and formulating, they set certain standards and perimeters:
- Who will be making this recipe? Are the prepping and cooking methods accessible?
- Does it utilize ingredients and equipment available to everyone? (How many home cooks own a china cap, or can hop down to the market and find salsify?)
Then, they fix on ideal characteristics of the dish itself, a lot of which are subject to personal preference:
- health consciousness (celebration vs. diabetic recipe)
- texture (crispy vs. chewy cookies)
- flavor balance (sweet BBQ sauce vs. vinegary)
This is not a willy-nilly process; some recipes are more rigid than others (particularly with baking!), and if you don’t understand which ingredients and methods can be tinkered with and which can’t, the whole thing can go kaput.
(Which incidentally isn’t anything to cry about, as most mistakes can be salvaged into edible meals!)
Take a few similar recipes, and read them side-by-side (I tack printouts up on a wall, so I can mark them up). Notice which ingredients, proportions, and parts of the process are constant between all of them, and which ones each recipe decided to take-or-leave. Keep the constants (I circle or star them with a pen), and for the rest, it’s all up to your fits and fancies! Circle the variables you like, nix the ones you don’t, and play with the proportions of the ones you keep.
For example: my ever-evolving thanksgiving stuffing. Stuffing is an ideal dish to practice recipe-cobbling; it’s very forgiving, and the millions of variations available are a testament to generations of folks including and excluding whatever they damn well please. (Since I’m not shoving my stuffing into the business end of a turkey, technically what I’m making is dressing, but I’m calling it stuffing anyway.)
I knew that I wanted a stuffing that included fruit and sausage, so I did quick searches on foodtv.com and epicurious.com, and found about 5 “root” recipes:
1. Sage, Sausage and Apple Dressing. FoodTV Kitchens.
2. Apple and Sausage Stuffing. Bon Appetit, 11/2002.
3. Cranberry, Apple and Sausage Stuffing. FoodTV, Robert Irvine, 2007.
4. Sausage, Cranberry, and Pecan Stuffing. Gourmet, 11/2000.
5. Sausage, Dried Cranberry and Apple Stuffing. FoodTV, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, 2007.
Big recipe engines like these are pretty good about keeping serving size consistent, which makes it easy to keep their proportions/ratios of key ingredients...to be on the safe side, choose a base ingredient to compare and check for consistency. In this case, all five recipes are based on about 6-8 cups (1 lb.) of bread.
I’m not shy about dairy, but I’m looking to the sausage to provide most of the richness; recipe #3 tops out butter at 1 stick and #2 is the least with 2 TBSP. of vegetable oil. I’ll meet them halfway and go with 4 TBSP. (1/2 stick) of butter.
For sausage, all recipes are going for 1 lb. (except for #4, which goes to 1.5 lbs)...a pound it is! All of them begin the recipe by browning the sausage; since I’ll be baking the stuffing the same day I’m prepping it, I’ll opt to only cook it just past pink, and let the time in the oven finish it off.
This is where onions come in...I’m a big fan of leeks, but I want the sweetness of old-fashioned onions, too, so I’ll go half and half: 1 chopped onion, and 1 chopped leek (about 1 1/2 cups).
And on and on it goes...chicken broth vs. milk? (Or both!) Eggs or no eggs? Addition of herbs, dried fruits and nuts...it’s all up to you. A lot of this has to do with trial and error--for instance, removing sausage from casing is a pain, and not all the recipes tell you to do it. But if you don’t do it, your guests will (smilingly) suffer the fate that mine did one year, gnawing through delicious stuffing peppered with chewy little nubbins.
Cooking temps varied from 325 F to 375 F, but it being Thanksgiving, I’d say let the stuffing accommodate whatever else is inevitably cooking in the oven at the same time, so long as it doesn’t top 400 F (i.e. if the Broccoli Gratin has to cook at 350 F, then 350 F it is for the stuffing).
Drizzling the stuffing with melted butter or turkey drippings in the last 20 minutes of cooking makes for a nice, crispy top (of which there is plenty, ‘cause I like to use a shallow baking pan rather than a casserole to maximize the crisp-top-to bread-pudding-bottom ratio).
And because we like to take in strays AND have leftovers, I tend to double the recipe, resulting in two 9x13 inch pans of savory indulgence.
All of this does take a little longer than just following some preconceived notion of stuffing, but does the Food Network or CondeNast know you as well as YOU do? Besides, now you’re one step further from being a recipe-slave...YOU own your cookbooks, not the other way around, dammit!
Apple and Sausage Stuffing with Sage, Walnuts and Cranberries
Adapted by An Effing Foodie
Makes 2 pans (9x13 in)
- 2 lbs. crusty bread, stale or toasted, cut to 1/2 inch cubes
- 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter (plus a little extra for greasing pans)
- 2 lbs. sausage, removed from casing
- 1 medium onion, 1/4-inch dice
- 3 leeks (4 cups), 1/4-inch dice
- 5 apples (granny smith and golden delicious), 1/2 inch dice
- 4 ribs (2 cups) celery, 1/4-inch dice
- 1 tsp. salt
- 4 cups chicken broth (homemade or canned; or 2 cups broth, 2 cups milk)
- 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 2-4 sprigs fresh rosemary (leaves only), chopped
- 2-3 sprigs fresh sage (leaves only), chopped
- 1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- 4 eggs, beaten
If you’re working a day ahead, cut the bread into cubes and allow them to sit out and get stale. Otherwise, toast the cubes on a sheet in the oven or in batches in a skillet. Place all stale/toasted cubes in a large bowl and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chopped walnuts or pecans; it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. Keep them moving to prevent scorching; once toasted, toss them in the same bowl as the bread cubes.
Butter two 9x13 pans (or two 3-quart casserole dishes), and set aside.
Allow 4 TBSP (1/2 stick) of butter to melt in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once melted, brown the sausage, crumbling the pieces with a wooden spatula or spoon. Cook until it’s just past pink, about 5 minutes (you don’t want the sausage too dry). Add sausage and drippings to the bowl with the walnuts and bread.
Melt the remaining 4 TBSP (1/2 stick) of butter in the skillet. Add onion, leeks, celery, apples; sprinkle with the salt and allow to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the broth and bring it all to a boil. Stir in cherries/cranberries, raisins, parsley and fresh herbs, and immediately remove from heat.
Pour this mixture over the bowl of cubes and lightly toss until evenly moistened. Mix in beaten eggs, and season with salt and pepper. (Avoid mixing too aggressively, as it’ll mush the bread.)
Loosely pack this mixture into the 2 prepared pans and bake uncovered until they form crusts, about 30-40 minutes. Remove from oven and drizzle with a couple of TBSP of turkey drippings or melted butter. Return to oven and finish until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.
Serves 15-20 people.
CORRECTION: I forgot to put the cherries/cranberries and raisins in the body of the recipe...fixed now...sorry folks!
Also, after much seasoning and re-seasoning yesterday, I've decided low-sodium chicken broth is a lie. Unless you're concerned for your blood pressure, go with the full-powered salty stuff in a can or homemade stock.