When I cook at home, I usually don’t have a recipe on hand. Often I cook by touch, like confidently knotting on the piano without sheet music. But, of course, you need to practice before you can ad-lib.
This menu offers dishes that can be prepared using this approach, although recipes are provided. Many home cooks are already comfortable with customizing recipes or using them as a starting point. But sometimes they are really not necessary. Relying on memory and paying close attention to ingredient attributes can help.
Take this fennel and radicchio salad, for example. It is an easy dish to riffle. Suppose you have two beautiful fennel bulbs from the market and a beautiful head of radicchio. Imagine the possibilities.
A simple preparation simply involves seasoning the sliced fennel with salt and pepper, adding lemon juice, a little grated garlic, and flavorful olive oil, and then tossing with torn radicchio for coat (you can also use curly endive or speckled Castelfranco instead of radicchio). For a more complex version, you can make a tangy dressing with lemon, garlic, and oil, then add chopped anchovies (a little or a lot) and maybe a dab of Dijon mustard, as the sweet fennel and bitter radicchio combo pairs well with a bold dressing.
A typical fish stew, as served in the south of France, is another example of a dish you can take liberties with. Whatever the selection of seafood available, the method remains the same: an onion is softened in olive oil, before adding saffron, garlic, thyme, a touch of tomato. and a grain of pepper. Everything then blossoms to focus. the flavours. Then fish broth or water is added to form a broth and well seasoned. It should taste crisp and full of flavor before the fish and shellfish enter it. Clams and mussels, if used, give it a layer of brine. A good amount of sliced Yukon Gold potatoes makes the stew more filling (and stretches it, if you’re running out of fish and have extra mouths to feed). Potatoes also absorb a lot of flavor: I would dare say you could leave the fish out for awhile and call it a potato stew.
For a last dish and a refreshing dessert, a granita could not be simpler to make with any type of fruit juice. This one uses ruby red grapefruit juice and pulp, for a season-appropriate finish, although any type of citrus can be substituted. Taste the juice before adding the sugar; you may only need a little. Chopping frozen juice is fun and, served in glasses, the granita resembles an elegant snow cone. I like to finish it off with a few drops of orange blossom water or sometimes a dash of Champagne.
All of these dishes have recipes, but if you know where you’re going, you might not need them.
Fish and shellfish stew anytime
Serves: 4 to 6
Total time: 45 minutes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 large sprig of thyme
Pinch of crumbled saffron threads
A pinch of red pepper flakes or a small whole dried red pepper
A little dry white wine (about 60 ml)
2 medium tomatoes, chopped, canned or fresh
950 ml of fish broth or water
900 g yellow-fleshed potatoes, type Yukon Gold, sliced about 0.5 cm thick
6 medium clams with cherry pits, washed
450g boneless skinless cod or halibut, cut into 2.5cm pieces
450g of cleaned mussels
1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large pot or heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the onions and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until softened and lightly colored, about 10 minutes.
2. Stir in the garlic, bay leaf, thyme, saffron and red pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and tomatoes and simmer for 1 minute. Add the broth and bring to a slow boil over medium heat. Add the potatoes and a good pinch of salt. Adjust the heat to high heat. Cook with the lid ajar until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Taste the broth – it should be well seasoned – and adjust if necessary (you can do this up to an hour in advance).
3. While the broth is simmering, add the clams and cook for 5 minutes, covered with the lid ajar. Add cod and mussels on top, cover and cook until mussels are cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the stew steep for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mussels and clams open. Serve in large soup bowls.
Fennel and radicchio salad with anchovies and egg
Serves: 4 to 6
Total time: 15 minutes
3 medium fennel bulbs, garnished and trimmed, fronds reserved for another use
Salt and black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of lemon juice (from 1 small lemon)
¼ tsp grated lemon zest
1 small garlic clove, grated or reduced to a paste
1 medium head of radicchio (about 340g)
3 large eggs (cooked 8 minutes), cooled in ice water and peeled
4-6 anchovy fillets, preferably the best quality you can find, rinsed, drained and halved
1. Using a sharp knife or mandolin, slice the fennel crosswise ⅓cm thick. Place the slices in a large salad bowl and season with S&P to taste. Add olive oil, lemon juice and zest and garlic. Mix everything while coating the fennel well. Taste the salt and adjust (this can be done up to 30 minutes in advance).
2. Remove and discard any wilted outer radicchio leaves. Separate the tender leaves, tearing the large ones into small pieces.
3. To finish the salad, cut the eggs into quarters. Add the radicchio to the salad bowl and sprinkle very lightly with salt. Combine the radicchio and fennel, coating everything well. Top with eggs cut into quarters (yolks should have a moist center). Garnish the eggs with the anchovy fillets.
Ruby grapefruit granita
Total time: 20 minutes, plus at least 4 hours of freezing
6 medium ruby red grapefruits
100g sugar, or less to taste
Orange blossom water, for finishing (optional)
1. Cut the grapefruits in half crosswise and squeeze the juice into a large, wide bowl, dropping all the pulp. Use a teaspoon to remove the seeds or marrow from the bowl.
2. Stir in sugar until completely dissolved. Pour the mixture into a baking dish at a depth of 1.5 cm (an 22 x 33 cm baking dish will do). Place the dish in the freezer for at least 4 hours, or overnight, until frozen. The frozen mixture will look like packed snow.
3. Using a fork, crush the frozen mixture into coarse pieces and transfer to 6 serving glasses. Place the glasses in the freezer until ready to serve. If you wish, add ½ teaspoon of orange blossom water per glass.
© The New York Times