Sunday, July 20, 2008

The old standby

Every artist has something in his repertoire that he executes particularly well, even with a minimum of thought: maybe, for a painter, it's a particular type of landscape; for a musician, a certain movement of a composition; for a dancer, a specific progression of steps: something that has been practiced so many times that doing it is natural, even inherent. And for us chefs (or cooks) out there, there's the old standby: a dish that we've been making for as long as we have been cooking, and that has been so finely tuned over time that we could make it in our sleep.

The beauty of a dish like this is that it encourages improvisation. Sure, I may think that the cinnamon-raisin bread I make is perfect the way it is, but when preparing it for the umpteenth time I'll probably get sick of the raisins and decide to throw in some chopped dates instead; I might feel uninspired by cinnamon and decide that allspice will do the trick. Knowing a recipe like the back of your hand frees you up to riff a little bit: keeping (and accentuating) what you know by experience are the best elements of the dish, and modifying (or doing away with) the parts of it that could benefit from some changes.

One of my go-to recipes is this very simple salad of black beans, corn, red bell pepper and onions. Spiced with cumin and brightened with lime juice, it's light, crunchy, creamy, colorful and satisfying, all at once. Most everyone likes it, and it makes perfect barbecue or picnic fare because it doesn't need to be refrigerated--in fact, the longer it sits at room temperature the better the flavors meld together and complement each other. Where did I get the recipe? Who knows. I think I first made it back in high school, and I've been making it at least 3 or 4 times a year since then.

The basic elements of this recipe are quite interchangeable. Don't have access to any good, fresh corn? Use frozen instead. Forgot to pick up red onions or scallions (like I did earlier tonight)? Use a white or yellow onion. Your friends don't like cilantro? Use some chopped fresh parsley. You could have sworn that you had some limes at home, but they're nowhere to be found? Squeeze in a mix of orange and lemon juices instead--or some rice wine vinegar--or some apple cider vinegar. You get the point. I've made every single one of the above substitutions before, and I always like the way the salad comes out--even if it tastes different each time I prepare it. I guess that's why I never tire of the recipe, and probably never will--I'll always be able to tweak it a bit to suit the occasion (or my whims).

Corn, Black Bean and Red Pepper Salad
Serves 6-8

1. Rinse and drain two 15.5-oz. cans of black beans and place them in a large bowl. Add a thawed 10-oz. package of frozen corn kernels and one large red bell pepper, finely diced. Add a small red onion, finely diced, or a large bunch of scallions (including the green tops), chopped.
2. Season the salad heavily with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, the juice of 1-2 limes, and 1/4 cup of olive oil.
3. Add 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro to the salad and toss, taking care not to crush the beans. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve at room temperature.

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