A tremendous feeling of freedom came with the simple realization that I did not have to follow a recipe to the letter. I suppose I had done enough cooking to feel confident enough in my knowledge of the fundamentals to expand outside the boundaries that seemed imposed by the recipe. I suddenly felt comfortable with the recipe as a set of guidelines rather than instructions, using it to inspire and get ideas, rather than feeling like I had to follow each step exactly.
With this change in attitude, recipes actually became much more powerful tools for me. They were sources of ideas, new techniques I could try or flavor combinations I hadn’t considered. If I was trying to get dinner on the table quickly, I could radically simplify the recipe I was trying. If I didn’t like the proposed ingredients, I could substitute my own preferences. In the kitchen, I felt like I was actually cooking, rather than following instructions by rote. And my cooking got better as a result (but don’t take my word for it — just ask my husband!).
As an example, recently I was considering a recipe for Green Rice, a Mexican dish. I liked the idea of blending chopped spinach with the rice to create a starch and vegetable side dish all in one. However, the recipe seemed too complicated for my energy level that evening — too many steps and ingredients. I had no fresh cilantro, and besides, I didn’t really want to take the time to make rice. Inspiration struck, and I greatly simplified the recipe to create a decidedly non-Mexican-style Orzo Pilaf with Spinach. Even though the finished product in no way resembled its original inspiration, the two were connected; reading that recipe had led me to create a side dish that I know will become a regular in my rotation, given how easy and delicious it was.
Here is the result. Feel free to riff on this recipe as much as you like.
Orzo Pilaf with Spinach
Time to make: ~25 minutes
Yields: 4 servings
What you need:
- 2 tbsp. butter
- ½ onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup orzo
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 bunch baby spinach, washed, stemmed and chopped
- Melt the butter over medium in a saucepan.
- Saute the onion and garlic in the butter until the onion is translucent.
- Add the orzo and stir around a bit until coated with the butter.
- Add the stock and salt to taste.
- Bring the stock to a boil, stirring once or twice.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 15 minutes, until the orzo is tender and creamy, and most of the liquid has been absorbed.
- Remove from the heat, stir in the spinach, cover and let sit for 5 minutes, until the spinach is wilted.
- Season with salt and pepper and serve.