Let me start off by saying that recipes are boring. I mean, seriously, is the extent of your cooking creativity limited to opening someone’s cookbook and following step by step instructions that someone else thinks are good? You gotta improvise! Other people’s recipes should be like maps to you – they give you background, history, techniques and general direction, not soul or creativity. Ideally, after enough time spent cookin’ and having fun with food, you can just open your fridge and see immediately what you want to make, given what you have.
Similarly to music, the key to improvisation in cooking stands on understanding of basic theories, techniques, history and constant practice. One needs to learn to play a melody, and play it many times before improvising on the rest of the harmony. Just like you can substitute your chords in jazz or splash some chromatic notes in the middle of a solo, you can play around with substituting flavors or textures in food. As long as you know which ingredients you can use as substitutions. How do you find out? Two ways: read about it, or just wing it and than taste it to see if you got it right! Word of advice: don’t wing it onstage, or in your case, when you have guests over. They might never return.
Below is my improvisation on a Basque Fish Stew, or Marmitako (as it’s known in Basque County). Traditionally it is a very simple stew of Anaheim peppers, potatoes, onion and line-caught tuna, eaten on fishing boats in the Cantabrian Sea. There are many varieties of this dish, some tomato based, some adding garlic, some swapping tuna with salmon.
Basque Fish Stew (Andy way)
Method: Sauté, Simmering, Stewing.
Cookware: Dutch oven, Sauté pan.
4 Anaheim peppers diced
1 Large Bulb of Fennel * diced or thinly sliced
2 Bay leaves
1 Shredded Black Radish *
¼ head of Cabbage * diced
1 Fresh red chilly pepper (like Serrano) sliced in 2 diagonally
1 stalk of lemongrass * cut in 1 inch cubes
3 – 4 large potatoes (Yukon) small cubes
2 lb of fresh Tuna (like Ahi, or Yellowfin) large cubes
1 tsp tomato paste dissolved in ½ cup of water or stock
1 cup white wine
3 cups of vegetable stock (or quick shrimp stock (see tips & tricks), or clam juice)
6-8 threads of Spanish saffron
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp crushed chilly
1 spring of marjoram
3 tbsp of chopped parsley & Juice of ½ lemon.
- * You can substitute Fennel, Raddish & Cabbage for 2 medium Onions (original recipe)
- * You can substitute Lemongrass with Garlic.
Sauté fennel, radish, peppers, cabbage, chilly, bay leaves, lemongrass, saffron in olive oil until peppers are soft and change color. Pour in the wine. Add potatoes, stock, marjoram, paprika, and stew for 20 –25 minutes after bring it to simmer. Brown tuna in a sauté pan, cut in 2 inch cubes and add to the pot and cook for another 10-15 minutes. Garnish with lemon juice and parsley.
Tips & Tricks
- Quick shrimp stock is (1/2 lb) shrimp tails, sautéed in oil, with basil stalks, chopped celery, bay leaves, peppercorns, ½ lemon in 3 cups of water and a splash of wine. Simmer for at least 25 –35 mins,
- Browning: Make sure tuna is dry – too much moisture will not let you brown it right.
- After sautéing the tuna, deglaze the sauté pan with white wine, scrape the blackened bits and pour into the pot. (this does add flavor)
- Do not over cook fish, 10 minutes will cook it all the way through.