If you wanna move into life beyond recipes, you gotta feel confident about recipe improv. And recipe improv requires a decent understanding of how certain foods work.

Case in point (and if you’re not in the mood for a charming little story, this link takes you straight to the Recipe Improv how-to): My husband has spent months at a time living in Germany. At Christmas one year, he decided to bake stollen (prounounced “shtollen,” or like “stolen” if you’re sorta drunk). It’s this classic German sweet bread thing and it looks like this:

Stollen from the King Arthur Flour website, not recommended for recipe improv!

(Steve’s only kinda looked like that, btw. The above image was lifted from the King Arthur Flour website, a fine recipe source.)

OK, so he’s not big on candied fruit, which is sort of what stollen is all about. But ok, he used raisins and dried apricots instead. So far, we’re good. The bigger problem was that his recipe, no doubt purloined from some German elf in a tree, included almond paste. Steve didn’t have any. So HE LEFT IT OUT.


Now Steve and I had not been together long when this debacle occurred, so he did not quite understand that if you are in doubt of any cooking type of thing, you can ask me and if I don’t know the answer I’ll figure it out. But here’s the thing: you can’t leave out almond paste and not replace it with something that will do what the almond paste will do. And what can do what the almond paste can? NOTHING. He really needed to just go buy almond paste or make something else.

The stollen was not so excellent that year. And yet, we remain happily married. Very important: True love can easily survive a cooking fail.

Honestly, this is kind of a crappy example because I would say that baking is where you don’t want to improvise. Baking is super precise and you really do have to follow the recipe, which is why I have the everything out rule (which is just a matter of getting out all your ingredients before you start cooking because otherwise you could be missing something crucial like almond paste, and if you don’t catch this ahead of time, you will be sad, sad, sad).

So now, I’ll deconstruct a recipe I riffed off of earlier this week.

Recipe Improv: From Pizza to Spaghetti Squash

I get a lot of cooking magazines because I like a ton of variety. Leftovers work for me one time at most, never more. I saw this pic in the October 2017 Cooking Light magazine and thought, wow, that looks good. Right? (Click this link for the original Arugula Pesto Pizza recipe.)

Cooking Light Recipe: Arugula Pesto Pizza, a candidate for a recipe improv make-over
Photo credit: Caitlin Bensel

I’m sure it is good, but Steve doesn’t do pizza crust. He’s just not a bread guy, something that mystifies me because, seriously, bread rocks. But I really wanted to make this. I love the idea of pairing arugula pesto with squash. Also, lately, I’m really digging roasted walnuts.

Now any pizza topping can be thrown over pasta instead, just as any pasta sauce can be thrown onto pizza. But then I thought, well, I dunno that I’m really in the mood for pasta either. The pizza crust, or pasta, serves as a foundation for the all the other cool stuff, one that would soak up the flavors without introducing yet another flavor that might mess up the balance.

And then I remembered, hey, we have a spaghtetti squash in the pantry, and that would pair up awesomely with arugula and Parmesan and walnuts, all of which are listed in the ingredients. It would soak up the garlic oil nicely. I loved the idea of pairing butternut squash with arugula and walnuts, but it didn’t make sense to have it and the spaghetti squash. But that wasn’t a big deal, because now we get to eat b-nut squash another day.

I also had some cherry tomatoes, and next thing I knew, I’d thrown together this recipe for Spaghetti Squash Arugula. Classic recipe improv.

Classic Recipe Improv: Pizza becomes Spaghetti Squash Arugula

Recipe Improv: Benefits

I wouldn’t have thought of that combo if I hadn’t seen the recipe, so thank you, Cooking Light. (I use Cooking Light a lot, but typically in an improv mode.) But what I ended up with made Steve and me happy in ways that a slavish adherence to the recipe would not. Here’s why:

  1. Low carb; I have nothing against carbs, but Steve limits his intake of them so I play along so we can eat the same thing. (About half the time we don’t, and I just have what I feel like.)
  2. Lots of fresh veggies that we had on hand, meaning we cleared out the refrigerator, which we love to do.
  3. The original recipe called for getting out the food processor and making an arugula pesto. I was SO not in the mood. This way, we got the arugula goodness without the pesto hassle.

Now, despite that it may be a bit oxymoronic, I’ve written a recipe for what I made in case you can’t figure out what to do with a spaghtetti squash, because they’re pretty odd creatures. But you know, feel free to riff and make it your own.

Most of the types of dishes you throw together for a quick meal lend themselves nicely to recipe improv (and eventually just plain improv). The main thing is, understand the property of the foods you’re not using. In this case, that included thinking outside the pasta/pizza box to come up with a good foundation, the squash, but also realizing that deconstructing the pesto into its components would work just fine.

Got questions or ideas? Send them my way, please! Le Chou Fou is a work and community in progress, and I welcome your input.