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Buckwheat Three Ways – Part One

December 9, 2010

In Which I Struggle To Follow Rules, And Suggest Some Ways to Break ‘Em

I tend to be a stickler for the rules. I firmly believe in stopping at a red light before making an allowable right turn, much to the irritation of my fellow Massachusetts drivers. If something can be recycled in my township, into the bin it goes, no matter how much cleaning and scrubbing I have to do to get it recycle-ready. People who cut in line anywhere, any time (except in dire emergencies) irritate me to no end. I only jaywalk in Philadelphia, where jaywalking is something akin to Pamplona’s running of the bulls – dangerous, yet traditional.

All this being said, there is one area of my life where it’s almost impossible for me to follow the rules: Cooking. We’re not talking about baking, that is way too close to chemistry to fool around with (and I’ve had my metaphorical eyebrows singed off enough to know better), but any other type of cooking seems to bring out the rule breaking rebel in me. I suppose this can generally be a virtue and not a vice, but there are times when I have to actively suppress the ingredient-subbing, spice-adding side of myself and just follow directions. And, if I’m being honest, I must say that even though those are rare times in my life, they are ones that I dislike intensely. It usually only happens when I turn my kitchen into a Whole Grains Test Kitchen, or when Oldways is running a recipe contest. There was one memorably horrific stuffed grape leaves recipe I was assigned to test that irked me from start to finish, but I dutifully followed the recipe and instructions to the letter, all the while knowing it would be a disaster.

Case in point – making this recipe in honor of Buckwheat, our December Grain of the Month. Now, please don’t get me wrong – it’s a great recipe! Buckwheat in a casserole?! Very cool! I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it on my own, and that’s why we adore Culinary Advisors like Lorna Sass, for thinking up new and creative ways to work whole grains into our diets. But looking the recipe over, I knew right away I was going to have issues sticking to the rules. Here’s why…

  • I do not like dill. I don’t like dill pickles, or pickle relish, or really dill anything. I almost never use dill (even though we have some in our spice cabinet), so seeing 1 1/2 tsp. dried dill in this recipe reminded me of the way it feels to drive to the dentist to have a cavity filled. You know it’s going to happen, you know it needs to happen, but there’s nothing about it that you can even partially look forward to.

  • Speaking of spices and herbs, only 1 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper in the entire recipe? And the paprika is only sprinkled on top before baking?! I know everyone’s palate is different, and to some, anything more would make the dish too heavily spiced. And I know we’re supposed to be cutting back on the amount of sodium in our diets and all, but still…

  • I may not be a casserole expert, but aren’t there usually more, I don’t know, things in a casserole? Like vegetables and stuff? I’m a fan of fast, simple, and easy, and there’s a lot to be said for recipes that have short ingredient lists, but for whatever reason, my initial reaction to this recipe’s ingredient list was “Huh, is that all?”

Anyhow, it got me thinking, What do other people feel when they look at a recipe that seems more pitfall than promise? I sometimes feel there’s a big chunk of our population that doesn’t cook on a regular basis, and I know part of this is due to a lack confidence in the kitchen. Goodness only knows I used to be one of you! But it occurs to me that maybe some of those under-utilized pots and pans are gathering dust because, when confronted with a recipe hurdle, people just don’t know what to do. So here are my Top Five Recipe Modification Tips, to help you change a recipe to suit your particular tastes:

1. If cooking grains of any kind, try broth instead of water. Broths and stocks are a great way to add flavor and depth to your over-all dish, and most grocery stores carry a selection of canned, boxed, or cubed broths and stocks to choose from. Whether you’re making a dish that needs to stay low in cholesterol or one for a vegan, you can find something that will impart a little extra flavor during the cooking process.

2. Don’t be afraid of vegetables. Let’s say a recipe calls for green beans, but all you have on hand are some frozen peas. Well, unless you’re making a green bean casserole, no one’s really going to know that you’ve substituted one type of vegetable for another. Same thing for doubling the vegetables in your recipe. I honestly don’t think you can or should limit your veggie intake, so go right ahead and add more than the recipe calls for! You may have to add more liquid or adjust the cooking time depending on what you’re making, but what’s five extra minutes when you’re getting all those vitamins and minerals?

3. Remember your palate is your own. Now, I’m not suggesting you cook a super-spicy meal for the friend who rarely uses pepper, nor do I think you guilt your raw-fish-a-phobe girlfriend into eating the homemade sushi you laboriously rolled by hand. But if a recipe calls for dill and you really, really don’t like dill… Don’t add the dill! Maybe you like tarragon or thyme and can use that instead. Remember to honor your food and flavor preferences. You’ll be so much happier if you do.

4. With cooking, you can always add, but you can’t subtract. This is true for just about every cooking variable I can think of – herbs, spices, cooking time, temperature, liquid, you name it. Once an ingredient is in there, once that timer has buzzed, you’re stuck with whatever the results may be. If you think a recipe is calling for too much garlic, or you aren’t sure if you should really add that much stock to your pot, it’s okay to underestimate and see where that takes you.

5. Taste – and smell! – your recipe frequently. Obviously you don’t want to pull a pot pie out of the oven half-way through its cooking time and start cutting through the crust to taste things. That’s just silly. But you should be tasting that pot pie filling – the mix of milk and flour and spices and herbs – periodically as you’re making it, before it goes into the pot. You should also “sample” the aromas your recipe is giving off on a regular basis. By that, don’t just stand back from the pot or sauce pan and take a hesitant sniff or two, but lean in as close as you comfortably can and take a good, long inhalation through your nose (preferably with your eyes closed). If a great tasting meal is the end result of your efforts, good cooking smells help to keep you on course. If something isn’t blending right, your nose and your taste buds will absolutely let you know.

So those are my Top Five Recipe Modification Tips. I hope they’ve been helpful, and if you have any go-to recipe modification tips, be sure to share them in the comments below! (Kara)

Buckwheat Three Ways is a three-part kitchen adventure series featuring Buckwheat, our December Grain of the Month. Be sure to tune in to Part Two coming a little later in the month!

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