The Recipe Tree

14 Aug

Where do recipes come from?

Do they fall, fully formed, from the recipe tree that stands on the middle of the earth, whose branches are so wide that they cover the entire world? Or do they swim about in the oceans, infinitely small, leaping out like a silvery fish to inspire when they feel they are needed? Or maybe they grow in the earth as grains of an idea, ready to help those that are hungry.

I’m not sure, but I know some of my favorite recipes have been an attempt to recreate a favorite meal that I ate while traveling. It’s just such a meal, about 15 years ago now, that first got me into cooking.

I was a junior in high school. Our German class had a sister gymnasium near Saarbrücken that we would attend every-other year for two months at a time. On the years we weren’t in Germany, our German friends would come and stay with us in the States.

My host-sister, Miriam, was a few years older than me, and in my eyes, so cool and accomplished. She had a wonderful older boyfriend (to whom she is now married), who was already in university and had a car. And so, we skipped out on a week of school and went traveling.

We went north, to Köln and Düsseldorf and Aachen and Belgium, and somewhere along the way, I cannot remember where, we ate in an Italian restaurant where I had a plate of pasta that still haunts me. It was simple, a ying yang of white and green linguini, with olive oil, crispy garlic and fried sage, but to me, it was the most exciting thing I had ever eaten.

Up until that point, pasta had always just been pasta. Something that should be covered in cheese or tomatoes. I’m also not sure I had ever thought of sage, at all, before that meal. And crispy, toasted, golden, transcendent garlic? It was too much. I was in love.

And so I arrived home, dressed in black, feeling cooler than cool, and immediately dove into trying to recreate the meal for my family. I think I remember my mom being amused, and I think I remember everyone actually enjoying the meal. From that point on, some of the most treasured souvenirs I’ve brought home from my travels have been recipes, or at least the germs of recipes.

On Saturday I tried to recreate one of the more recent souvenir recipes that I picked up, a pasta dish that I had on Good Friday in Florence. It was farfallle pasta with artichokes and fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was, and I know our artichokes here aren’t the same, tender, breathtaking carcofi they have there, but when I saw crates full of teeny, tiny, impossibly adorable artichokes at the Greenmarket last Friday, I knew I had to try.

And so I did, with thunderously wonderful results. I used branzino, and braised the baby ‘chokes in vermouth and flavored the whole deal with a fragrant, pine nutty pesto. It was dreamy and delicious and immediately transported me back to that rainy, soggy, impossibly Italian night spent in a steamy, jewelbox trattoria, sitting next to the crotchety old man who ate an orange for dessert.

So, tell me, where do your recipes come from? Are they inspired by travel? By the ingredients you find at the farmer’s market or pull from your backyard? Do you prefer to riff on recipes from magazines or cookbooks? Or are you some kind of recipe evil genius?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and links if you’ve got them!

Head below the jump for the recipe for Ann’s Good Friday Pasta.

Pasta di Venerdi Santo

prep time: 1 hour ~ cooking time: 45 minutes

  • 2 lbs Baby Artichokes
  • 1 Branzino fillet, scaled, cleaned, trimmed, washed and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • Olive Oil
  • 1 head Garlic
  • 1 Lemon, zested
  • Vermouth, about 1/3 cup
  • Salt
  • 1 large Tomato, chopped
  • Pine Nuts, a very large handful
  • about 2 c Basil, picked and washed
  • Olive Oil
  • 1 lb Fresh Pasta, something frilly
  • Pepper Flakes

Prepare the artichokes. Fill a bowl with water and add a healthy squirt of lemon juice. Trim each artichoke by cutting off any icky brown parts on the bottom, remove tough outer leaves, cut off the tough, spiky tops (about 1/6 of the ‘choke) and then very, very thinly slice the artichokes from heart to the top. Quickly move the sliced artichokes to the acidulated water as you work to prevent oxidation.

Set a large pot of heavily salted water to boil

In a nonstick pan, heat a glug of olive oil over medium-high flame. Season the branzino pieces with salt & pepper and very carefully cook them, skin-side down in the hot oil for about 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side for two minutes. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels.

This can also be done in a non-nonstick pan, but some of the skin will probably stick to the bottom. Make sure to scrape it up as it tastes delicious, like bacon, from the sea.

Chop a few cloves of garlic. Heat a glug of olive oil in a large sautée pan over medium heat. Add the garlic. Cook until fragrant then carefully add the drained artichokes. Squeeze the zested lemon over the artichokes (making sure not to get any seeds in, if you can) and the vermouth. Bring to a boil then cover and cook, stirring every so often, for at least 20 minutes. After that time, add the tomato and cook uncovered another 10-15 minutes until the artichokes are very tender and the sauce is concentrating.

While the artichokes are cooking make the pesto. Place into the bowl of a food processor: a few cloves of garlic, a very, very large handful of pine nuts, the basil, the lemon zest, a nice pinch of salt and a very large glug of olive oil. Process, adding more olive oil if necessary, into a thick, creamy paste. It should almost look as if there is cheese or cream in it because of the high ratio of pine nuts.

Cook the pasta and add the pesto to the artichokes, along with a few spoons of the pasta cooking water. Stir to incorporate. Add the branzino to the sauce and carefully fold in. Drain the pasta and transfer to the sauce pan. Carefully stir to coat. Turn off the heat.

Serve the pasta topped with a sprinkling of hot chile flakes. Mangia!


13 Responses to “The Recipe Tree”

  1. Dea Anne August 14, 2008 at 10:54 am #

    A lot of the time I think of an ingredient I want to use, usually something that’s in season and local, and then I consider what sort of flavors I’m in the mood for and then I go from there. Today I have a gorgeous eggplant that I bought at the local market and some organic/local hot Italian turkey sausage so I’m going to look for a recipe for moussaka and do my own version of that with peppers and herbs from my container garden.
    I love your blog. What a great post!

  2. Helen August 15, 2008 at 4:33 am #

    I think my recipes come from all of those places but my starting point is always what is in season. i find that eating this way, I am so excited by an ingredient coming along that I haven’t seen for a year that i am instantly inspired by it and looking for new and exciting ways to eat it. I must say, I do get a bit bored of courgettes by the end of summer though!

  3. ann August 15, 2008 at 7:00 am #

    Dea Anne — I know who’s house I’m going to for dinner tonight! Just kidding, but boy oh boy does that sound like an inspired dish! And delicious as well. Thank you so much for sharing. Perhaps you’ve inspired me now, too.

    Helen — I think the fact that you get bored of zucchini is proof that you are human :-)

    I agree with both of you, seasonality is so ultra-important in the way I chose what to cook as well, but sometimes, just sometimes, I like to get whacky and throw seasonality out the window… Boy, that’s livin’ on the edge, isn’t it?

  4. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) August 15, 2008 at 2:43 pm #

    Often my inspiration is a restaurant meal, at home or on my travels. Sometimes the inspiration is my pantry; living 5 miles from the nearest market, and 10 miles from the nearest decent market, I often stand and stare at the cupboard or fridge at the end of the day, far too lazy to drive somewhere for food, and forced to concoct from what’s on hand. Either my pantry is getting better, or I’m becoming a more confident improvisational cook, because some of my recent experiments have become permanent features in the dinner repertoire.

  5. Terry B August 15, 2008 at 6:22 pm #

    Christ on a bike, Ann, this sounds amazing. Inspiration can come from so many places for me—a restaurant meal, reading something on a blog or in a cookbook that sends me off on my own tangent… even seeing something lovely at the market and wondering what I could do with it. Impeccable timing your asking this question, at least for me, by the way. My current post happened because of my favorite meal on our recent trip to New Mexico, a fork tender traditional pork dish called carne adovada.

  6. Vic August 16, 2008 at 7:45 am #

    Very nice pics

  7. Sandie August 16, 2008 at 11:27 am #

    As a beginning cook, I can remember sitting for hours and pouring through my collection of starter cookbooks. My meals weren’t very sophisticated back then, but as my skills grew, so did my sources for recipe inspiration.

    Now I find inspiration for meals almost everywhere I go: restaurants, bed & breakfast inns, family & friends, cookbooks, farmers’ markets, TV and even during walks (I get many great ideas while communing with nature).

    Sometimes just seeing a leaf or flower colored a particular shade will bring to mind a flavor I want to create. And that’s really how it works for me: a color, sight or particular ingredient will trigger some sort of emotional response and bring to mind a dish I want to create. If it’s something I think I can make, I go ahead and whip it up. If it’s something beyond my usual repertoire, I search my cookbooks (or online sources) and take it from there.

    Now… when I’m feeling particularly uninspired, I head to, turn on the TV or head to the local library. PBS on Saturdays mornings is always great source of inspiration, as well as the Food Network and Travel Channels. And when I’m really jonesing for a recipe fix, I head to the library and search for cookbooks outside my comfort zone. It’s amazing what you discover when you break out of your routine!

  8. Christiane August 16, 2008 at 1:15 pm #

    My inspirations vary. Some days, I’ll just wander through the grocery store until something jumps out at me and then I’ll just build something around that. Or I’ll get a taste for a certain item, google it and look at a few dozen recipes before I start to cook, using parts from a few different recipes.
    I also have a few good “basics” cookbooks that I will just flip through for basic cooking instructions and go off of there.

  9. ann August 18, 2008 at 6:03 am #

    Lydia — Ha! I think that’s a wonderful source of inspiration, not wanting to jump in the car. Not only is a great way to stretch your comfort zone, it also saves the planet!

    Terry — Awh, you flatter too much! (more! more!) Just kidding. I saw your post (but didn’t have time to comment) about the New Mexico pork. It made me drool on my keyboard. Spicy, smoky pork… How I love thee!

    Sandie — You and I seem to think a lot alike about meals it would seem. Inspiration just kind of drifts in sometimes, doesn’t it?

    Christiane — Its always nice to brush up on technique when you’re riffing on your own idea, isn’t it?

  10. Anne August 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    You, Ann! I get recipes from you. And Luisa. And Kim. And a select group of other amazings. In fact, I’m going to the fish market tonight because of this delicious sounding post. I’m also a big tearer outer, plying most of my newer dishes from mags and the NYTimes.

  11. ann August 21, 2008 at 6:43 am #

    Anne — You crack me up. This comment so totally reminds me of those PSA commercials they used to run where the father catches the son smoking weed: “Who did you learn this from??” “You dad! I learned it from watching you!!!” I’m such an enabler ;-)

  12. shelley August 21, 2008 at 5:38 pm #

    I didn’t come by cooking naturally, so it’s taken quite some time for me to become comfortable with- as my husband would say, and is so fond of doing- “winging it”.

    The best-laid meals are so often spur of the moment. It is so fun to get sucked in by an armful of fresh summer veg and say: hmmm, I’ve never had gazpacho before, but I’ll bet this would make a great batch!

  13. Ulla October 13, 2008 at 12:39 pm #

    I love eating out because it gets me inspired. Most of my recipes are recreations of food I have eaten out or while traveling. I love vintage bookstores with vintage cook books I find their recipes work well on grass-fed meats.

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