I once listened to chef Jaques Pepin describe his process for inventing a recipe. He explained that he cooked, taking notes as he went, and that after tasting the finished dish he would attempt to figure out what worked and what didn’t and to revise it for the next version.
Last night I was in the position of “inventing,” due to the fact that the mushrooms I had bought to make this had gone bad during a hectic week. I was feeling like something spicy, maybe Mexican-esque, and had about 2 pounds of pork tenderloin, most of a can of San Marzano tomatoes, and the usual assortment of garlic, onions and spices. I sliced two onions and cooked them in oil, added 3 cloves of smashed and chopped garlic, cubed the meat, and browned it. I then shook in an improbably amount of Chipotle chile powder (no fresh chiles in the house), cubed the meat and browned it in this mixture. I took notes, feeling a bit foolish about the fact that, if the dish was a flop, there would be documentary evidence of my naive belief that I was creating something worthy of re-creation and refinement.
So far, I was in relatively safe territory. If I added the tomatoes and stewed the mixture over low heat for a couple of hours, I would have a sort of pork chile to serve over rice, maybe with some shredded cheese and avocado. Tasting the mixture, though, I found it to be almost so hot as to be inedible. Often, in these cases, I add some sugar to balance the heat, but my eyes were drawn to a corner of the cupboard which contained half a box or pitted prunes left over from a Moroccan dish. It occurred to me that the prunes would essentially dissolve in slow cooking, adding sweetness and maybe a depth of flavor that I couldn’t get from mere cane sugar. I added the prunes (maybe a cup) and let the Mex-roccan fusion stew cook for three hours over the lowest possible heat, until the tomatoes and prunes became disembodied flavor (with a little help from my wooden spoon) and the pork became tender. I served the dish over rice, skipping the cheese which sounded unpleasant to me with the sweet-hot mixture. I dished up, turning my notes face-down on the counter in a sort of defense against possible failure.
It was, in the words of Randy Jackson, “just okay.” The pork was tender, the sauce was rich and spicy, but there was definitely something missing. Salt helped, but I kept thinking that there was something I could have changed that would have taken the dish from “okay” to “great,” only I lack the culinary depth to figure out what that something might be. Or perhaps the issue was not one of different ingredients, but of the proportions. Maybe more onions and garlic and less prunes. Maybe less chile powder, no prunes and just plain sugar. Maybe fresh, diced chiles which would have added texture and little “pops” of heat as they hit the tongue and teeth.
Alas, I am not Jaques Pepin. On a good day, I could definitely beat Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee with my spoon tied behind my back, but I am just not able to invent dishes with a 100% success rate because I have not cooked long enough, read widely enough, or experimented enough. I saved my notes, and maybe the day will come again that I have similar ingredients and feel like something spicy. Maybe not. For now, I think I’ll just keep learning and playing and taking risks whenever I can.