Joshua Fang, a student at Deerfield Academy, in his TedX talk on improvisation, describes a piano lesson. Classically trained, Joshua was beginning to play Jazz improv. “I could barely practice my classical piece and make it sound decent, at least to the untrained ear,” he says, “But I would practice my improv for hours and hours and even a first grader could tell how lousy I was. Improv,” he says,” is hard.”
If you’re just making it up as you go along, what separates a Jazz great from a novice? Practice and technique. Great improv, whether at the piano or in the kitchen, is about combining well-rehearsed building blocks in unplanned ways. Those Quickfire challenges on Top Chef are most successful when the chefs use ingredients, techniques and recipe components that are familiar, that they have executed hundreds of times during service.
So, what does that say about improvising at home? First of all, you don’t need to be successful – you’re cooking for pleasure, for the enjoyment of learning, the fun of taking risks – so roll the dice and try a new flavor combination, ingredients you’ve never worked with, and a technique that is unfamiliar. Chances are high that you’ll have fun and it will be a decent meal, but you probably won’t create a new signature dish.
If, on the other hand, you take a well-practiced technique, say sautéing, familiar ingredients like pork chops or chicken thighs and flavors like mustard, jam and vinegar, then chances greatly increase for a delicious success. This then is not so much a recipe as a formula for improv. Grab your protein and have some fun – a sharp Dijon mustard with strawberry jam and a fruity vinegar like a fig balsamic, or apricot jam, mellow grainy mustard and apple cider or Sherry vinegar. Fewer variable mean greater odds of discovering your next great pairing.
So hit the kitchen and have some fun, take some risks and improv. I can’t wait to see what you put on the table tonight! If you come up with a great combination please share it in the comments.
- 4 1″ pork chops, bone in chicken thighs or boneless breasts
- 1/4 cup mustard – yellow, grainy, dijon, honey etc…
- 1/2 cup jam, jelly or preserves
- 2 tbs olive or vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. In a small bowl stir together the mustard and jam.
- Warm a 10-12″ covered skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. When shimmering add meat and sear, about 3-4 minutes per side. Reduce heat to medium and spoon over jam and mustard mixture. Cover and cook meat through.
- Remove meat to a plate and tent with foil. Add vinegar to pan and reduce sauce until syrupy. There is sugar from the jam so don’t over reduce or it will get gummy. (If the sauce begins to darken then the sugars are caramelizing so remove it immediately from the pan.) Stir any juices that have accumulated under the meat into the sauce and serve the meat with the sauce.