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.
You can learn a lot about a cookbook author’s life from their recipes. Take two pasta dishes, written by our two co-founders, as an example. You’d find out that Amanda Hesser and her husband "are always working on a pasta dish.” Or that Merrill Stubbs, our other co-founder, grew up eating her dad’s signature dish—made of “a box of Tuna Helper and a bag of frozen peas” and called “Tuna Pea Wiggle.”
But in our series Recipe Off-Roading, I’m less interested in recipes—with their obsessed-over ingredient quantities and carefully worded instructions—and more interested in not-recipes, the meals that get thrown together on a whim, the templates that get repeated and riffed on every week.
So, that’s just what I asked Amanda and Merrill: What do you, two professional recipe developers, cook off-duty? Here’s our conversation (edited and condensed for clarity).
EMMA LAPERRUQUE: How often do you cook new recipes during the week? And how often do you just wing it?
AMANDA HESSER: I do most of my cooking on the weekends. When I'm stressed or not feeling inspired, I like to try out new recipes and follow them to a T, so that I don't have to make decisions—and so, hopefully, the writer teaches me something new and I feel inspired again. When I find a recipe that my family loves, then I'll try to work it into our regular weekly menus and over time, tweaking just happens.
MERRILL STUBBS: I used to be more of a "wing it" cook but lately I've been trying out a lot of new recipes. As my kids have gotten a little older, they're more interested in new things. So I've been branching out and finding inspiration among my many shelves of cookbooks and online.
EL: What's the one recipe you riff on the most at home?
AH: Boosted Jook.
EL: Okay, Amanda, you first. When did you start making jook? And was it this particular recipe that got you hooked?
AH: Yes, this is the jook! I made it shortly after Vvvanessa added it to the site in 2015. Few dishes are more satisfying than a savory rice porridge, so once I got the hang of it, jook soon became a regular go-to, particularly during the school year. My husband probably makes it more often than I do, and in fact, he accidentally created his own off-road version, by once adding horseradish instead of ginger (they're both knobby, he was confused!).
EL: Just have to know: Was the horseradish-instead-of-ginger jook good? It sounds good to me!
AH: Yes, it was very good and we've continued to make it. We jokingly renamed it "Turbo Jook," and the recipe is in our book, A New Way to Dinner.
EL: What are some of the ways you love to riff on jook? Any variations in particular that you keep coming back to?
AH: We riff on both the base and the toppings. It's a lot like oatmeal in that as long as you get the texture of the porridge right, then the world of toppings is yours. With the rice base, we've tried all manner of rice—jade pearl, basmati, jasmine, you name it. The base calls for pork bones, too, but these aren't always easy to find, so we've also used pork shoulder, pork chops, and my latest is pork spareribs. You roast the ribs on a baking sheet for 30 minutes or so, then add them to the rice and water.
The toppings are whatever we have around—usually cilantro; mint; greens like arugula, pea shoots or baby kale; pickled red onion; roasted sausage; shrimp; shredded chicken; fish sauce; Cholula; soy sauce; roasted nuts; and scallions. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. You want a mix of herbal, crunchy, salty, rich.
EL: Merrill, your turn. Let’s talk about baked pasta. When did you first make this recipe?
MS: I went to college in Providence, where Al Forno—along with its legendary baked pastas and grilled pizza—has been an institution since the ’80s. I first made this recipe about 15 years ago, I think, feeling nostalgic for those special occasion visits to the restaurant during my college days. I don't remember if I introduced the recipe to Kristen or if she already knew about it, but I definitely remember a conversation—probably while she was testing it for Genius Recipes—in which we both agreed that no other baked pasta either of us had ever made had even come close to this one.
EL: What are some of the ways you’ve varied it over the years?
MS: A family favorite is this variation, which is more tomatoey and less creamy, with the addition of sausage and onion. And there's this adaptation, inspired by a pasta they serve at Al Forno during the fall and winter, that omits tomato altogether in favor of roasted pumpkin and pancetta (it just occurred to me that the next time I make this, I might try swapping in fresh sage leaves for the thyme). In the spring, I like to swap out the tomatoes for sauteed asparagus and lemon zest.
EL: This last question is for both of you. What’s your best piece of advice for recipe off-roaders who want to get more creative (and have more fun!) in the kitchen?
AH: Be willing to fail and you'll never be disappointed.
MS: Pick just one or two elements to play with the first time you tinker with a recipe. If you alter too many variables it's harder to pin down what works and what doesn't. You can always make more tweaks the next time!