Igniting Your Own Creative Spark in the Kitchen

I’m often asked by dinner guests, as I serve them a meal of Sardinian seafood or Japanese sumiyaki grill or Yucatan-style Mexican, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Freshly made mezzaluna

I’ll admit it’s somewhat easier for me than the average person — having a career that gives me the time and flexibility to indulge my passion for kitchen creativity. However, I still have to come up with ideas of what I’m going to cook each evening. And since I’m cooking anyway, why not take the few extra minutes to get excited about doing a Genovese tortelloni alle salsa noci (filled pasta with walnut sauce) instead of a spaghetti with tomato sauce from a jar? Start with some crusty bread and good salami and a nice bottle of Ligurian rossese, and you’ve got a mini-vacation to the Italian Riviera right in your own home! Shouldn’t every night be a celebration?

So where do my ideas come from? My own curiosity, mostly. For example:

• I picked up a copy of Saveur, my favorite food magazine, this morning, and noticed an article on Sicilian cooking. I read a bit, checked out the recipes, and got excited to do a Sicilian dinner.

• I’ll often get inspired while shopping. For example, if I see beautiful, fresh Dungeness crabs on sale, I’ll pick one up and then figure out what to do with it: make Cantonese salt & pepper crab; make a linguni dish I learned from Celestino Drago; or simply steam them and serve with butter for a crab feed. All of which I’ve already posted about on this blog. (I like crab.)

• The travel bug sometimes inspires a meal. If I’m craving a vacation to Hawaii, for example, but am unable to hop on a plane, I’ll cook a Hawaiian feast instead! (Served, of course, with a tropical fruity rum drink.)

And speaking of creativity… What, you ask, about avant garde, modernist cooking? What about molecular? The average home cook needn’t concern themselves with what is happening at the cutting edge of the culinary world — unless it is of interest to you. What you can take away from the avant garde, in a nutshell, is pushing yourself to be creative. The aesthetics of modern cooking are all about finding new combinations of flavors and textures. And this is something you can have fun with at home. Would you normally serve a sauteed fish fillet with butter and lemon? Well… what if instead you created a sauce of pureed leeks and mint oil? Instead of serving slices of medium-rare ribeye with the usual mushy spinach, what if you paired it with tempura-fried pea sprouts? You get the idea. The kitchen is a playground, let your imagination free!

Just to get you started, here’s that tortelloni alle salsa noci I was talking about, made with my own homemade mezzaluna instead. I’m not even going to force you to make your own pasta — just purchase a good-quality tortelloni from your best local grocer. And like I said, add some salumi and crusty bread to make it a true evening in Genoa. Enjoy!

*   *   *

Mezzaluna alle salsa noci
serves 4

1 lb. fresh mezzaluna, tortelloni (large tortellini) or other pasta, filled with cheese or spinach
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup cream
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup parmesan reggiano, plus more for sprinkling

Prepare the noci sauce. Place walnuts, chicken stock and cream in a food processor or blender. Puree until creamy, but with some walnut chunks. Season to taste with salt.

Cook pasta in boiling water for 2 – 3 minutes, until floating and puffed. Drain in a colander.

Pour sauce in a skillet over medium heat. When sauce begins to simmer, fold in olive oil and continue cooking for a minute. Remove from heat, stir in parmesan, and then carefully toss in warm pasta. Serve to four plates, top with a little freshly grated parmesan, some ground pepper and flaky sea salt to taste.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 02:58:14

    Sean…you really need to do a restaurant I’m afraid…

    Reply

  2. Benjamin Thompson
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 17:55:19

    I support your decision to not cook professionally. Many, many people beleaguer me that I don’t cook professionally, and I do believe from dining out often that I am a better cook than a lot of the food I’m forced to spend money on. However, it’s different to cook for yourself at home than to be compelled to work a busy line cooking the same dish, possibly upwards of one hundred times in one dinner rush. I do think that it would much of its enjoyment. I’ve known many, many tired chefs and cooks who go home and eat cheese and crackers because they don’t want to get out one more pan, or sear one more chop.

    As far as creativity, I know what you mean and I think that the main problem with the standard American cook is that they get one idea and they don’t know how to modify individual components of that dish or concept. For instance, a few days ago I didn’t want to make pasta but I wanted the same flavors, so I cooked up some brown beans and then finished them with butter, parm, and some sun-dried tomatoes. Most people don’t take that jump of creativity and simply sub out one part, they give up and think that if they don’t have one specific thing they have to scrap the entire recipe. My mother-in-law is the worst recipe Nazi ever. She was actually watching me once and noticed that I dumped probably 3/4 c. of cream into a vodka sauce when it called for 1/4 c. She asked if I was going to ruin the dish. Why? Because more butterfat ruins things? Lack of flexibility and creativity are something that is driven into many a young chef in the kitchen.

    The bottom line is that they are two types of cooks, the intuitive/creative ones and the recipe-dependent ones. I think it’s very easy for us to follow a recipe but I think it’s harder for the recipe-dependent to break free because they don’t know when rules can be broken, ingredients modified, etc. and we do.

    Reply

  3. Benjamin Thompson
    Aug 12, 2011 @ 17:57:49

    By the way, I love making raviolis as well, but I like making agnolettis better because it doesn’t waste any dough the way cutting raviolis does.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Aug 12, 2011 @ 18:19:27

      Those are all great points, Ben. I think in some way that’s what I’m trying to teach people to do here — be a bit more flexible, and know that it’s okay to sub out one thing for another. And to experiment in the kitchen. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You might not want to eat what you’ve made, but you’ve learned something valuable.

      Reply

    • scolgin
      Aug 15, 2011 @ 18:42:18

      Agnoletti rocks! I always wind up with scraps, no matter what I do. I put them in baggies, label them “maltagliati” — the name translates as “badly cut” — and keep them in the freezer for quick meals!

      Reply

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