The societal effects of the coronavirus have utterly transformed one of the most difficult words in the world of recipes: optional. What did optional mean, pre-pandemic, and what does it mean now? We suddenly live in a world in which Melissa Clark gives a recipe in The New York Times for an asparagus salad — and the asparagus is optional.

It is a new world. Optional has at last taken a prominence in recipes. But even more important than what the New Optional means right now may be what will learn from it and how will it change our cooking?

I happen to be sheltering with my wife, Ann Hood, who follows recipes the way one follows instructions for putting together a PAX wardrobe from Ikea — every step and amount executed exactly.

When cooking with Ann, if I suggest doing something that is not in her recipe, it elicits from her a look of bafflement and the words, “But that’s not what the recipe says.” This is invariably followed by a go-away expression I’ve learned to embrace.

Her condition is partly congenital. It manifested early in her perfect comportment and straight A’s at school. And she will not break the line of a crosswalk when crossing a street even if no cars are in sight.

But following-the-recipe-to-the-T has an existential component, too. Rules, laws and recipe ingredients are here for a reason. In words similar to those of Sir Thomas More to a zealot in “A Man For All Seasons” — “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?” — Ann would surely say, “If you take away all the measurements and ingredients in a recipe, where will we hide from the dinner I end up serving us?”

Also, it follows that if you can stray willy-nilly from a recipe, what other rules and laws, in life generally, might you violate? Because from there the world slips inexorably into anarchy. Therefore, if she is making a Chinese stir-fry that calls for a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce, and I suggest that she try using beurre manie (flour and butter kneaded together, a common thickener for Western sauces) . . . well, you’d see me making a hasty retreat from the kitchen.

Shortly after the pandemic locked us down, I contacted three recipe writers I admire to ask their take, generally, on what optional means to them.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef-owner of Prune in Manhattan and food columnist for the New York Times Magazine, wrote by email, “I’ve never suggested anything as optional in my entire career. I write recipes as if they were directions to my house given to people I would actually like to see arrive.”

Ina Garten, a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa, feels the same: “When I write a recipe, every ingredient has to earn its place in the recipe. If it doesn’t make a difference in the final product, it goes. Therefore, if I call for two tablespoons of dark rum, it’s there for a reason.”

Former pastry chef and author David Lebovitz, who recently published a book on cocktails called “Drinking French” (Ten Speed Press), tries to keep the user in mind: “I use it frequently when an ingredient is not easily available,” he said by phone from his home in Paris. “Some drinks have a quarter teaspoon of absinthe. But it’s hard to tell someone to buy a $50 bottle of liquor to put a quarter teaspoon in a drink.” If that quarter teaspoon made a substantial difference, however, he would not call it optional.

Perhaps this is why I have such a hard time writing recipes (or cooking with Ann).

It should be obvious by now; I am a rules and recipes questioner. Who made the rule? Why? Toward what end? As far as I am concerned, anything not actually named in the title of the recipe can be considered optional. Which is why I was astonished, and delighted, by the Times’ Asparagus Salad, asparagus optional.

Recipes are not, and cannot be, instruction manuals (though I admire Garten’s rock solid recipes, which come close). In the end, dishes are not put together the way that wardrobe from Ikea is. Recipes are sheet music. The pages can be played with nuance and grace, or not so much — Bach’s cello suites played by Pablo Casals vs. the same sheet music performed by a first-year student.

Knowledge and experience determine the degree of nuance in a given dish. And they also determine how well or badly you can play with the rules. I can change the cornstarch slurry to beurre manie in a Chinese stir-fry because I know that both thicken with starch, and that the butter that separates the granules of flour in beurre manie and allows them to thicken a sauce would also enrich the sauce, which will be good. The slurry has no enriching fat.

“So why don’t Chinese recipes call for beurre manie or roux for thickening, Mr. Anarchist?” Ann might ask.

My guess would be that when and where those cuisines were developing, wheat flour and butter weren’t staples, as they were in Europe. But all I really need to know is that butter enriches, and flour thickens.

This is a culinary fundamental. And if you know just a few culinary fundamentals — how to make a sauce, how much heat to apply to what kind of food, and how to season — and combine them with your common sense, you can improvise on any and all recipes you come across no matter what is in your pandemic fridge and pantry.

I’m hoping that one of the things we gain from the pandemic is a brave new world of cooking.

This recipe for strata is incredibly flexible. It’s easy to scale depending on how many people you need to feed, and any bread — from sourdough to leftover hamburger buns — will work. No sausage? Cook ground pork with sage, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Vegetarian? Use roasted bell peppers, asparagus or mushrooms. Any cheeses, such as Monterey Jack, colby or Swiss, will be great. Any kind of onion works, or sub in scallions. Don’t have half-and-half? Use milk. You can even turn this into a dessert, by adding sugar and spices to the custard mixture, and fruit to the bread, and top with caramel sauce. A perfect custard ratio is 1 large egg per ½ cup of liquid, so you can use as few as 6 large eggs. Once cooked, the strata is good hot, at room temperature or straight out of the fridge.



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