Welcome to Recipe Off-Roading, where the recipe isn’t in charge—you are. In this series of articles, we’re celebrating how cooks take liberties in the kitchen, whether that’s substituting an ingredient, adapting a technique, or doubling the salt (because you’re wild like that). So buckle up and let’s go for a ride.
Melissa Clark is a food columnist for The New York Times and the author of dozens of cookbooks. That means she’s written thousands of recipes, many of which just so happen to be some of our favorites. Case in point:
But when it comes to cooking at home, does Clark follow recipes? Not exactly. For our Recipe Off-Roading Series, I chatted with her about playing around in the kitchen, go-to weeknight meals, and the buckwheat cookies she can’t wait to make again.
EMMA LAPERRUQUE: How often do you make other people’s recipes at home?
MELISSA CLARK: Maybe once a month. Whenever I follow a recipe, I think, “Well, I want to do it my way!” [Laughs.] So, I’ll start following a recipe, but then I won’t see it through. If I follow a recipe from start to finish, I really put my mind to it—say that’s what I’m going to do and I’m going to stick with it. But most of the time, I look to recipes for inspiration, and then go my own way.
EL: Are you more resistant to change a baking recipe?
MC: No, I understand the chemistry pretty well, so I feel comfortable changing a baking recipe. I made cookies the other day and was determined to stick to the recipe—and I did—but it was a big effort. Then they turned out great, so I was happy I did.
EL: What was the recipe?
MC: It was from Food & Wine—Lemon-Buckwheat Shortbread—and I want to make them again. When I was following the recipe, I thought: This seems like it’s going to be too much buckwheat. But it wasn’t.
EL: How does your recipe development affect your weekly dinner plans?
MC: I cook dinner most nights without thinking about a test. But if I do something that I really like, then I’ll go back and develop a recipe around it. Usually I’ll just start cooking. If I’ve been cooking all day, developing recipes, we’ll repurpose those and eat a lot of leftovers. Like today, I was working on this grilled pork shoulder with whole spices. So we have some of that and there’s some rice and beans from another meal and I’m going to put it all together: Chop up the pork real small, sauté until it’s very dark, add the rice and beans, probably some stock—oh, I have some mushrooms, I’ll throw those in—and create a whole new dish.
EL: That sounds so good.
MC: That reminds me, I need to take those mushrooms out of the fridge so I don’t forget to use them.
EL: When we were emailing, you mentioned three templates that you turn to again and again for weeknight dinners: sheet-pan, pasta, frittata. Could you walk me through those?
MC: With the sheet-pan dinner, you have your protein (tofu or fish or chicken) and your vegetable (cherry tomatoes or chunks of zucchini or mushrooms or potatoes). The trick is, you want the cooking times for everything to be the same. So, the faster-cooking your protein, the smaller the vegetables need to be chopped. But that’s the only thing you have to coordinate. Everything gets seasoned separately, then it all goes on a sheet pan and into the oven. I usually roast at 400°F or 425°F and it always works out. That’s one thing I do a lot.
For the pasta, one of my favorite things to do is an anchovy-based vegetable sauce. I’ll chop up anchovies and garlic. Sometimes I’ll throw in parsley or basil or other herbs. I’ll sauté that in tons of olive oil, then I’ll add a vegetable because I want a one-pan meal. Spinach or mushrooms or peppers or broccoli or broccoli rabe—that’s a favorite in our house. Cook until it’s stew-y and soft, while the pasta is cooking. Add the pasta, some pasta water, lemon zest, parmesan. It’s so variable.
EL: Do you have a go-to shape for when you make a pasta like this?
MC: I like something short—campanelle, penne, orecchiette.
EL: And what about the frittata?
MC: I love to do the frittata whenever I have leftover sautéed vegetables—cooked, seasoned, ready to go. I’ll heat those up in a skillet with olive oil or butter, then I’ll pour my egg mixture on top and bake it. Maybe some cheese goes in there. That’s a really great shortcut meal, but you have to have well-seasoned leftovers. But you can put anything—anything!—in a frittata. You can put leftover pasta in there. I’ve even put leftover pasta salad in there and that worked.
EL: Whoa, like a mayo-based one?
MC: It wasn’t mayo-based—but that would have been fine, too! It had big chunks of mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olives. It was great.
EL: It sounds great. When it comes to the egg mixture, do you add cream or milk or nothing at all?
MC: Nothing at all. Just seasoning—salt and pepper. Sometimes I’ll throw some grated garlic in there, but that’s about as crazy as I get.
EL: Speaking of getting crazy, the last thing I’m wondering about is home cooks who want to get more creative in the kitchen. I know our readers love making adaptations, but they can be hesitant to do so because: What if it doesn’t work out?
MC: Well, of course! Because you don’t want to ruin your dinner. The last thing you want to do is try something and it’s a big fail, right?
MC: I would say: Try making a recipe once from start to finish and then make it your own. Or maybe you even have to make it twice to get to know the recipe and understand how it’s structured. Then start playing around with it, but change one thing at a time.
Here are a couple more of Melissa’s wonderful recipes. Feel free to make them your own, but remember to change one thing at a time.