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Sans Meal Plan: Experimenting at Brown

By now, we’ve all realized that, at Brown, experimenting to find one’s true self is not only practiced, but also widely encouraged. From experiencing other academic fields to making new friends to trying new activities (and, um, extra-curricular activities), experimentation has long been central to the Brown dogma. So, why stop there? Now it’s time to get freaky in the kitchen!

I’m going to let you in a little secret: playing with recipes and doing what I call “throwing a whole bunch of stuff together and seeing if it tastes good” is one of the most rewarding and therapeutic activities you can do. That, and it is the ultimate time-waster — just sayin’. I’d always been under the impression that while cooking rewards experimentation, baking punishes it. However, after being inspired by some of my favorite food bloggers out there, I decided to go out on a limb and try and create new recipes (for both “real” food and sweets) just for the sake of experimentation. I was met with some major successes and even more epic fails, but hey, it beats that 200 pages of reading I was supposed to do for section today (#SeniorSpring)!

For novice cooks, I find that it’s probably safest to start experimenting with cooking instead of baking. Baking is more of a science than anything, and sometimes that teaspoon of baking soda (or was it powder?) can be the difference between fluffy and moist cake and chocolate flavored flapjacks. Maybe this comes from my father’s tendency to never look at a recipe (EVER) and still have everything turn out amazingly, but I am a firm believer in catering dishes to your own personal tastes.  Don’t like olives? Fine, don’t use them.  Recipe calls for a clove of garlic? Psh, one clove of garlic — that’s preposterous! Put in five (at least!). Once you start feeling more comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll start to realize that recipes are merely suggestions, and that “cook pasta in boiling water for seven minutes” is not a direct order, so put down the timer!

Sometimes, I like to try new ingredients that I’ve never used (or even heard of!) just to see how I like them. For example, I hate rice. I know, I know, how could I possibly hate rice? But, it’s just one of those things that I will only eat if it is in the form of a beating Benihana’s heart (zOMG! What is that stuff made of, crack??) or girdling a bite of raw fish and avocado. I do, however luuurve jambalaya. If eating jambalya at a street fair or in a restaurant, I having nothing to do but suck it up and eat the rice. But, if I’m cooking for myself, I have the ability to make some non-traditional deliciousness that is tailored to my every whim. Now, when I first made jambalaya for myself a few years ago, I noticed that there was some pearl barley in my family’s pantry. I could not recall ever eating the grain, let alone if I liked it, but it appeared to cook in a similar fashion to rice, so I decided to just go out on a limb and make my hot and spicy jambalaya with the barley instead of rice (sorry, Louisiana). Needless to say, I fell in love and now barley and I are BFFLs.

Most of my first baking experiments were sad, sad stories of wasted flour and butter, but they were immensely fun and enlightening. I know now that I am not a seasoned enough baker to create recipes completely from thin air, but I can take other recipes and tweak them to my liking. Sometimes this is as simple as changing all-purpose flour to half-wheat-half-wheat-pastry or using different or extra fill-ins (more chocolate chips, walnuts instead of peanuts, adding Nutella, etc.). Other times, this could involve finding healthier or less-healthy substitutions to make a dessert more decadent or less artery-busting (Paula Deen, I’m talking to you!). One of my favorite substitutions is swapping sour cream for plain yogurt (or plain Greek yogurt if I’m looking to up the protein even more); it tastes exactly the same and is just as creamily satisfying but makes you feel like you can eat whatever you’re making for breakfast (score!).

One of my favorite kitchen experimentations was with my good friend this past summer. She decided she was wanted to try making onion rings, so we made pancake batter, used beer instead of water (beer batter, anyone?), dumped in some Panko for extra crispiness, and fried them in olive oil. Were they as solid and shapely as the Burger King or Jo’s onion rings we’ve all grown to love and cherish? Most definitely not. Were they delicious? We ate two giant onions worth of rings — what do you think? Recipe win!  Other experiments didn’t go as planned (if anyone ever tells you that gluten-free, vegan black bean brownies taste exactly like the dense, fudgey ones we’re used to, they’re lying. They don’t taste bad, but they most definitely don’t taste like brownies: don’t get it twisted). Regardless of how your kitchen tests go, you’re in for a good time while playing around in the kitchen. If they turn out badly, you and your friends will laugh it off and go to Nice Slice. If they turn out amazingly, your friends will love you and you will feel a grand sense of accomplishment.  So, stock up on butter, eggs, chocolate chips, and other pantry staples, and get cooking!

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