Don’t be afraid to modify a recipe

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.


you can’t go wrong with a real wood fire.

Especially with this kind of setting

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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