I love to cook. Maybe it’s because I love to eat. Food has always been something I’ve analyzed. People might say I’m arrogant, but I’ve never seen a recipe I couldn’t alter and make it better at least for me.
I have a favorite chocolate cake recipe. My mother let me make it from scratch all by myself when I was seven. Ever since then, I’ve modified it and baked that cake in at least 30 different flavors. My favorite is wild persimmon.
I’ve got a fudge recipe I’ve adapted to several flavors as well. I made it in mocha recently and it was okay. The next time I’ll double the coffee and it’ll be better.
Simple flavoring is only part of the story. Experimenting with texture can make cakes, cookies and other foods even more interesting. Adjusting the amount of oil or fat changes texture. So does increasing, reducing or eliminating eggs. Avocados often can substitute for cream cheese. A key lime pie can have richer color and creamier texture if you add a couple avocados.
Experimenting with spices opens up a whole new avenue of taste sensations. Some spices just seem to go together. I never use tomatoes without adding a little basil. Even when I drink tomato juice I include a pinch of basil. Fresh is better but dried is still better than nothing.
Garlic is arguably my favorite spice. I include it with any type of meat. People have told me that garlic has no place in North Carolina Barbecue. I beg to differ, and I always add some to mine. Nobody’s ever complained.
My father has always taken pride in his fish chowder recipe. I always add a few spices to it. One of them is garlic. The other is ground bay leaf. If that’s not available ground wax myrtle leaves will do. When I make some for him he always gives me rave reviews and I never tell him I changed his recipe.
Sometimes it’s not even changing an ingredient that’s important. I think pancake texture is improved by not whipping the batter too much. I like to combine the components by gently mixing them with a spoon, leaving lumps in the batter. Letting this mixture stand for a few minutes is the key to tender fluffy pancakes. I save my sifter for cake flour, so I can get that uniform texture.
For those who like to grill, have at it and use your imagination. You can’t go wrong with grill spices. If you like a certain flavor, go with it.
When marinating meat, always remember the rosemary. It’s even great in your jerky recipe. As with anything new, start out by including a small amount and increasing it until it suits you.
I’m a cheapskate nature lover. Tasty spices are everywhere. Wax myrtle leaves are great for steaming shrimp. No early spring salad is complete without bittercress leaves, and the wild onion and garlic greens in your lawn are not poisonous. They’re also pretty good in a salad or sauce.
Have fun with your cooking. Play around. Experimentation is the best way to learn. Sometimes your creations may be a flop, but you’ll never know until you try. Life’s too short not to try new things, especially when it doesn’t cost much.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).