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.
Nik Sharma isn’t a planner.
Or, so he told me the other day. I find this hard to believe, considering his award-winning blog, A Brown Table, and his Piglet-finalist cookbook, Season, and the fact that he’s working on another cookbook as I write this.
Planner or not, Nik is busy. Which is one of the many reasons I wanted to talk to him for our Recipe Off-Roading series. What does a cookbook author cook for dinner? I asked him about that—and mac and cheese, and marinated chicken, and more—below. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EMMA LAPERRUQUE: How often do you cook new recipes during the week?
NIK SHARMA: Not as much as I'd like, to be honest, but that's probably because I'm working on a new cookbook. If I wasn't, I'd probably try something once a week.
EL: Do you have more free time to cook for fun on the weekends?
NS: In general, I end up working on the weekends, which is a bad habit. I tend to do most of my recipe testing on the weekends because my husband is usually home and I have someone else to eat and give feedback, or I can have friends over if I'm making a large batch of something.
EL: When you do follow other people's recipes, how often do you follow the ingredients and instructions to a T? And how often do you make changes as you're cooking?
NS: For the most part, if it's something that's more involved, I will not change anything. Like a cake or a pastry or a dessert, I won't even change the flour type—I'll try to use what was intended by the author. Then, if I really like it and I'm going to make it again, I'll start playing with ingredients.
With respect to the flavor of the recipe, there are times when I know I'll personally need a bit of boost in there. It's going to need more acid than is listed. Or maybe I'll think that this acid works better than what's listed in the book. The flavor profile is something I'll change more often.
EL: What are some other flavor elements that you change up a lot?
NS: Of late, I've been cooking with a lot of rice. Persian and Indian food use Basmati rice. But there are so many different types of Basmati rice within India, so I've been trying out a lot of recipes with new versions of Basmati, because the starch is so different in each variety.
EL: So you're playing around, seeing if you like the differences.
NS: Yeah! Even a single ingredient can have varieties that make a noticeable difference in the final dish. So for something like a tahdig, I've been trying a new type of Basmati rice from India—a brown version—which is supposed to be diabetic-friendly. But it's not giving me the same kind of structure.
The other thing I play with a lot is heat. I think that's a very Indian thing to do. I'll add a little bit of chile to dishes. Cheese also—if a dish involves cheese, I'll probably cut back. Like, mac and cheese? I'm not a big fan because I didn't grow up with it. I find it too rich. My husband loves it because he grew up eating mac and cheese. I can have a little of it, but I find it very heavy. But only becauseI didn't grow up with it—it's nothing else. So what I try to do, if I'm making it for us at home, is cut back on the cheese quite a bit, or I'll use a cheese that feels less fatty or greasy.
EL: What cheeses do you swap in?
NS: Usually, I like cheeses like feta or goat, because they have a distinct tartness. I like those with mac and cheese because then I can throw in a few herbs. I find sometimes cheddar is fantastic, but it can also be very flat. But we have so many types of cheeses that are available in this country—it's a fun way for me to play around at home... Oh God, mac and cheese is the most emotional example to give.
EL: Are there any other dishes that you've adjusted to find a middle ground between your and your husband's preferences?
NS: Yeah, so even though I mentioned adding chiles to a lot of things, I don't eat a lot of hot food—a lot of Indian food can be too spicy for me. So I'll cut back on all the chiles or I'll throw out the seeds. Another thing is: I feel like a lot of soups tend to go toward a very warm flavor profile. I'll sometimes change that around by introducing fresh herbs that are cooler. I like that balance of warm versus cool.
EL: I like that, too.
NS: Salt is another thing. At least where I am—and I know this is not the case for everyone—you can get flavored salts, which are quite useful. I like using Hawaiian red salt. In India, we use black salt. And they all have different flavor profiles. I'll play around with that quite a bit. There's this smoked salt made by Maldon, but because it's expensive, I just use it as a finishing salt. Especially at times when I want a little smoked flavor, but I don't necessarily want to smoke anything.
EL: You said you were working on a new cookbook—that's so exciting. How does developing recipes for that project affect the way you eat every day?
NS: I try to structure my week so that I'm not making desserts every day, because then you don't want to cook dinner, and you're stuck with a bunch of desserts, and you eat out. As I've evolved with recipe testing since the last book, I structure it out so I'm doing maybe two desserts a week, two or three savory things, and an appetizer.
EL: Outside of recipe developing, what are some dishes that are in your regular rotation?
NS: My husband and I both like chicken, so usually some kind of chicken dish—either dry or in a stew. Maybe a couple vegetable dishes as sides. What I really like when I'm recipe testing is dishes that can be stuck in the oven and I can walk away, come back, and pull it out. That's quite helpful when it comes to time. And you add something later, just to flavor it. My husband likes tandoori chicken, so I’ll make a big batch once a month and freeze them in portions with the marinade. Then, when I'm ready, I pull out a bag and stick it in the oven. So pretty much, it's all about being lazy and saving time.
EL: Or, it’s all about being efficient! With that chicken, do you freeze it when it's already cooked, or the meat is still raw?
NS: The meat is raw in the yogurt marinade.
EL: Whoa. So it's raw chicken, in the yogurt marinade, and then you freeze it in batches? And then you thaw it overnight in the fridge?
NS: Right, and that also lets it marinate a little bit. Because once it's in the freezer, there's no flavor getting into the tissues. But, once it starts to melt in the fridge, it marinates, and then I just toss it into the oven.
EL: That's so smart. Did someone teach you that trick or that's just something you figured out over the years? Have you ever tried it with other meats or other marinades?
NS: Figured out over the years, out of necessity. [Laughs.] I've done it with a lot of yogurt marinades and buttermilk. Even the fried chicken that's in Season, I freeze that sometimes. I've done it with beef curry. With a steak, I don't think it's worth it. But for a curry or stew, yes. And I've done it with lamb. I generally don't do this with seafood because something acidic will start to cook it.
EL: I feel like marinades are often the more involved parts of a recipe, so being able to do that in a big batch, then reap the rewards for a bunch of dinners is so great.
NS: A lot of Indian recipes will tell you to marinate meat overnight in the fridge, so for me, this makes sense, because I don't plan well. It’s is a great way for me to say, I think I have something! Let me just pull it out.
Sounds like A+ planning to me.
Here are four recipes with marinated chicken. Increase the ingredient quantities (double, triple, even quadruple!), then freeze in smaller portions, just like Nik.