One thing I’ve noticed, as I have cooked more and more, is that very few recipes are truly original. Most are just variations on a simple theme. Once I have learned the core recipe or technique, it then becomes a simple matter to vary the recipe to suit my tastes, the ingredients I have on hand or the occasion for which I’m cooking.
I keep a notebook of core recipes and techniques I have learned from reading cookbooks, food magazines and food blogs. Whenever I read about or make up a variation I like, I just note it in my notebook under the core recipe. This makes it easy to find all versions of a particular recipe when I feel like making it.
One of my favorite recipes for adapting is chicken salad. Of course, chicken salad is a handy recipe to have in your repertoire anyway. Serve it on a sandwich for lunch, on dressed greens or sliced tomatoes as a light meal or stuffed into cherry tomatoes, endive leaves or hollowed out cucumber slices for an hors d’oeuvre. It works all ways.
Here is my basic, bare-bones recipe for chicken salad:
Basic Chicken Salad
Yields: 2 servings
Time to make: ~5 minutes with pre-cooked chicken
Combine in a bowl:
- 1 cooked (roasted, poached or grilled) chicken breast, diced
- 1 tbsp. onion or scallions, minced
- 2 tbsp. mayonnaise, or to taste
- 1 tsp. mustard
- 1 tsp. lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Basic, but a little boring, right? A recipe like this is like a blank canvas — you can take it in all sorts of directions just by adding a little color and texture. For starters, here are some of my favorite things to throw into the basic chicken salad:
- minced celery
- minced capers, pickles or relish
- diced apple
- sliced grapes
- cubed avocado
- pickled jalapeno slices
- sunflower seeds or nuts
- minced fresh herbs
- sliced tomato
- various seasonings, such as curry powder or herb mix, to taste
And so on from there. There really are no limits but your imagination and tastes.
But wait, there’s more! The basic chicken salad recipe can be transformed into three other dishes just by changing the main ingredient:
- Substitute 1 can tuna, drained, for tuna salad
- Substitute 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped, for egg salad
- Substitute ¼ lb. macaroni, cooked, for pasta salad
Starting with this one basic recipe, you can make an endless variety of dishes. You’ll soon start noticing that recipes for chicken, tuna, egg and macaroni salad in cookbooks are all variations of this simple theme. They can give you ideas for new things to do with this all-purpose recipe, but at the heart, you really only need to know one recipe to make them all.
When you start recognizing the core recipes and give yourself permission to play with them, then you can liberate yourself from the cookbook. I love recipes for helping me think of new ways to make old dishes, but you’re really cooking when you take that recipe and make it truly your own.