Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Not Following the Recipe

Something you might often hear from people who cook a lot is that recipes are meant to be guidelines and that they do not need to be followed word-for-word. In fact, I know that I’ve said it in this blog a number of times, and there’s a reason for that: cooking becomes a lot more fun when you allow yourself to experiment. This is something I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years, and it has increased the pleasure I get from cooking many times over. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that recipes are important. Recipes can teach you, and in some cases, recipes know best. Good recipes have been tested in professional kitchens, and there’s a reason why there is no garlic in the ingredients list, or why the cheese should only be added at the last minute. But once you understand a recipe and some of the fundamentals of cooking, you can understand why a recipe is written the way it is. At this point, you can also see where the recipe allows room to move around.
Sometimes altering a recipe is as simple as substituting different seasonings, or adding or omitting steps. Sometimes it is as drastic as changing one of the primary ingredients, or using a different cooking method. You can make a recipe with meat vegetarian, or add meat to a vegetarian meal. You can add an Asian twist to a classic Italian dish, or modernize your grandmother’s famous recipe for beef stew. Once you start to play with recipes, you get to be creative with your food, and you become a cook who has her own signature recipes, instead of just a cook who can follow instructions.
A few nights ago, I modified a cold shrimp and noodle salad recipe to make a hot shrimp and noodle stir-fry. The original recipe has you cook the noodles, and then cool them under cold water. It also says to make the dressing, then toss the cooked shrimp with a little of it. The salad comes together by simply placing the noodles in a bowl, topping with the remaining ingredients, and then drizzling with the rest of the dressing. It sounds like a perfect summer meal, but since this is January, I thought it would also make a perfect winter stir-fry. To change the recipe, I had to do more than just heat the ingredients up instead of serving them cold, though. For it to work, I had to understand how this recipe worked as a salad, and what I needed to do differently in order to make it work as a stir-fry. The recipe is this Asian Noodle Salad with Shrimp from Epicurious.
My plan was to start to stir-fry the shrimp in some oil, then add some garlic, the red pepper, the peas, and the dressing, and then continue to stir-fry until the shrimp was just cooked. I knew that by cooking the dressing, I would lose some of it to evaporation, so I increased the quantities in the dressing by about a third. I also didn’t like the idea of eating totally plain, unseasoned rice noodles, so I tossed them with a little dressing immediately after draining them.
The remaining steps are more or less the same. I changed some of the ingredients, mainly to accommodate what I already had on hand. I used frozen peas instead of sugar snap peas, I used basil instead of mint, and I added sliced green onion at the end as well.
The stir-fry turned out beautifully. The combination of the sauce, along with the generous amount of fresh herbs added at the end, make this a very fresh and tasty meal. Adding dressing to the hot noodles was a good move, because they absorbed the flavouring very well. It was a bit of a risk turning a salad into a stir-fry—the results could have been very unappetizing—but this time, the risk paid off.

Asian Shrimp and Noodle Stir-Fry
Adapted from
Serves 4

6 tbsp fresh lime juice
4 tbsp fish sauce
5 tsp chili-garlic sauce
3 tsp sugar
1 6.75 oz. (191 g) rice stick noodles (maifun)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb (453 g) medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 cups frozen peas
1 cup thinly sliced Japanese or Persian cucumbers
½ cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
3 green onions, thinly sliced

To make the sauce, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, chili-garlic sauce, and sugar until the sugar dissolves.

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender, stirring occasionally, about 4 or 5 minutes. Drain, then immediately toss with about a tbsp of the sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the shrimp. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the shrimp and begin to sauté until they just begin to turn pink, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic, stir for one minute, then add the sliced pepper. Sauté for an additional 2 minutes, then add the peas and the remainder of the sauce. Cook for about three minutes longer. The peas should be tender, and the shrimp should be cooked through. Turn off the heat, stir in the cucumber, and then stir in the noodles.

To serve, divide the stir-fry between four bowls, and then top with the basil, cilantro, and green onion.


  1. I so agree with your comments on changing recipes. I believe when someone feels comfortable to make a change this means they really are becoming a cook. Love what you did here with the stir fry.

  2. That stir fry makes my mouth water, definitely need to try it. I also agree, I change recipes a little too often sometimes, but mostly it turns out for the best!

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