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Theme and variations

Do you feel comfortable cooking without a recipe? It took me a long time to reach the point where I had no lingering hesitation about opening the fridge, taking note of what's in the larder, then choosing a few good ingredients and turning them into something delicious for dinner without a road map.

Confidence in this approach comes with experience ... I used to feel nervous about starting dinner without a cookbook at hand, but as time goes by I find myself doing it more and more. The key to confidence is practice, and sufficient experience to be able to predict how the complementary or contrasting flavors and textures of the ingredients you choose will work together.

Looking over my recent wine and table notes in search of a subject for today's FoodLetter, I suddenly realized how often my "home-brewed" creations go back to variations on a few simple themes ... basic dishes that lend themselves to endless tinkering, with results that may seem very different but actually share much in common. Once you understand this principle, it becomes easy to invent new dishes based on the old by fooling around with the central ingredient, the supporting players, the seasonings or any combination of the above. If you like coq au vin, try porc au vin next time. Or kick up your macaroni and cheese with a chunk of Roquefort, and penne in place of elbows.

Hoping to inspire you to similar flights of fancy, let's depart from the usual recipe format today to talk about five basic themes, along with brief notes on some recent variations I've tried. This may be sufficient for many of you to head for the kitchen and try your own improvisations; if you feel the need for closer direction, drop me a note in E-mail or, better yet, post a note to the discussion of this topic in our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, and we'll try to answer your specific questions.

All the following recipes are intended to serve two.

 Fricassees - This traditional cooking method (fricassea in Italian, according to Marcella Hazan) is most often used for cut-up chicken, although it's certainly reasonable to try the technique with other poultry, pork, or just about any protein that can withstand long simmering. Simply put, you start by browning chicken pieces with aromatics like onions or celery, then finish the dish with long, slow simmering in broth or other liquid until the meat is very tender and the flavors of the broth and other ingredients have infused the meat.

In one recent variation, I used four chicken thighs, well browned in butter with a couple of smashed garlic cloves, then finished by simmering in 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth, with minced fresh sage and thyme for flavoring, half of it added at the start of simmering, the rest at the end. For the last 15 minutes of cooking, I stirred in 1/2 cup of orzo pasta and let it cook in the sauce, stirring occasionally, until it cooked up into a pasta equivalent of risotto. It was a great match with a rich Southern Italian white, Feudi San Gregorio 2002 Falanghina Sannio.

 Stir-fries - You don't have to be Chinese to master the art of the wok. Break down just about any stir-fry and you'll find that, much like the Euro-American fricassee, it breaks neatly into the basics: A meat, poultry, seafood or vegetarian protein source, cut into bite-size pieces. A secondary ingredient, often a vegetable - broccoli, bok choy, green peppers or onions, for instance. A flavor mix that may include aromatics like garlic, ginger or scallions; broth or other liquid, and seasonings ranging from soy sauce to sesame oil to hot chile peppers. Stir-fry the protein and vegetables in a wok or large skillet over very high heat, add the liquid and flavoring ingredients, perhaps thicken with a bit of cornstarch, and serve it with rice.

Here's how I recently fashioned a great duck stir-fry. I removed the skin and fat from a boneless duck breast (rendering the fat for later use), cut the meat into bite-size pieces, which I briefly marinated in a little soy sauce and a dash of anise-scented "five spice" before quickly stir-frying and setting aside to keep warm. (In a tasty if non-authentic twist, I used a little of the duck fat in place of the usual peanut oil for the stir-fry.)

Then, using the same wok with the duck fat and browned bits, I quickly stir-fried a little garlic and ginger, sliced celery, onion cut in large chunks, and the white portion of a couple of baby bok choy also cut in large chunks (reserving the delicate green leaves to add at the end). As soon as the veggies were crisp-tender, I poured in 1 cup chicken broth, put back the stir-fried duck pieces, and cooked just long enough to warm through. Check seasoning, thicken with a little cornstarch dissolved in broth, and the dish is done. Excellent with Laurel Glen 2003 "Terra Rosa" Mendoza Malbec from Argentina.

 Cream sauces - Those bored by the finicky frippery of the old classic French haut cuisine like to diss what they call "gloppy sauces," but these old traditions aren't called the "mother sauces" for nothing. A quick roux-based sauce can serve as the base for a startling variety of dishes; I like to use variations on this theme for Alfredo-style pasta sauces that provide just about all the luxury of the original with only a fraction of the fat.

Here's a simple, delicious variation I put together recently, fusing a bit of Mexican flavor into an otherwise Italian-style dish. First, I gently poached four chicken thighs in 2 or 3 cups of water with a chunk of onion, a couple of smashed garlic cloves, a handful of black peppercorns and salt to taste. Simmer for a half-hour or so until the chicken is very tender and the broth is rich, then strain out the solids. Measure out one cup of the hot broth (reserving the rest for another day), and steep a dried chipotle pepper (smoked jalapeño) in the hot broth. When the thighs are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin and bones, and shred the meat. Keep it in a warm place while you make the sauce, meanwhile cooking 4 ounces of penne or other short pasta.

If you get seriously into sauces, by the way, I strongly recommend investing in a good "balloon" whisk and a saucier, a heavy saucepan with a rounded bottom that fits the shape of the whisk. With these tools, it's dead easy to whisk fat and flour and hot liquid into silken smooth sauces. But you can make do with a regular saucepan and a wooden spoon, it just takes a little more attention. For this sauce, I used the cup of warm, chipotle-scented broth, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons flour, and a couple of roasted Italian red peppers from a jar, cut into small, neat squares. Melt the butter over medium-high heat and whisk in the flour until it's fully incorporated. Add the hot broth, a little at a time, until the sauce is smooth and thick, reducing heat to a bare simmer as it thickens. When the pasta is ready, add the chicken pieces and red peppers to the sauce plus salt and pepper to taste, stirring to warm through. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, and serve in warm bowls. The recently featured, excellent value Cartlidge & Browne 2003 California Pinot Noir made a fine match.

In another variation in a completely different style, I made the sauce as a Mornay, melting a mellow-sharp Cheddar, a dash of dry mustard and a dash of cayenne into a simple white sauce made with flour-butter roux and hot milk, then mixed the result with conchiglie baby-shell pasta to make a sort of grown-up version of stovetop macaroni and cheese. The Cheddar and spice made the result plenty hearty enough for a fruity French red, Louis Tête 2003 Beaujolais-Villages.

 Pesto - "Pesto" sounds like "paste," but probably comes from an Italian word meaning "pounded," and either name describes it well enough. The Genovese original is made from fresh basil leaves pounded into a paste with garlic and, optionally, pine nuts, and its intense basil aromas and flavors, released by contact with hot pasta, brings an immediate sense of springtime no matter when you encounter it.

Tradition calls for pounding it by hand with a mortar and pestle, but if you're lazy like me, you'll accept the quick compromise of the food processor. And it doesn't take a think away from the original to consider alternative visions using all sorts of variations on basil. A couple of years ago (May 1, 2003), I featured a pesto-like dish made with pounded or processed walnuts and garlic. I recently came up with a more filling variation, processing 1/2 cup of walnuts with garlic, salt and a tiny shot of hot sauce, then hand-blending 1/2 cup of chopped Sicilian green olives and about 1 ounce of feta cheese into the mix. At serving time, I mixed it with steaming linguine after first blending the waiting walnut-and-olive mix with 1/4 cup or reserved pasta water to make a creamy paste. With the salt used in the walnut paste and the salty cheese, chances are that more seasoning won't be needed. Again, in fashioning your own recipes, it's important to taste and adjust these things as you go. I had a Southern Italian Greco di Tufo white in mind, but my long-suffering spouse called for a red instead, and the hearty Le Pigeoulet en Provence 2003 Vin de Pays de Vaucluse from the Bruniers of Vieux-Telegraphe worked just fine with the earthy flavors of the pesto.

 Quick soups - I could go on and on, and probably will, another day. Let's wrap this one up, though, with a universal recipe for a thick, hearty soup that I often serve as a main dish for a light dinner when there's fresh homemade bread coming from the oven. The basic dish involves cooking potatoes in water, vegetable broth or, if you don't insist on a fully vegetarian option, rich chicken broth, adding green vegetables or aromatics to your liking, and blending the result until you have a thick, creamy puree that can be served as is or enriched with a bit of heavy cream, sour cream or créme fraîche.

To make one recent variation, a healthy, bright-green soupe verte, I simmered 1 large potato, peeled and cubed, with a smashed garlic clove and a sliced rib of celery in 2 cups rich chicken broth until the veggies were very tender, then added 1 bunch fresh watercress and 1 cup chopped flatleaf Italian parsley, cooking just until the watercress wilted. Buzzed with a stick blender until smooth and enriched with a heaping tablespoon of créme fraîche and salt and pepper to taste, it was a great accompaniment to oven-fresh baguettes and went well enough with a fruity red (Domaine Catherine le Goeuil 2001 Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne "Les Beauchières"), although I think next time I'll try a herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Theme and Variations,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Thursday, April 14, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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