The other day, I sliced a fresh tomato onto the same plate I’d earlier used at breakfast for a toasted everything bagel. In the process, some of the leftover poppy seeds on the saucer imbedded themselves into the tomato slices, which turned out to be a tasty combination.
For dinner that evening, I prepared a standard Caprese salad with tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil, then sprinkled some toasted poppy seeds on top. It was a simple example of what the region’s chefs do routinely when they update classic recipes and upgrade comfort food. It’s something home cooks should do more of. Our dinner tables demand menu makeovers as surely as our living rooms need occasional redecorating.
Sometimes these makeovers are accidental. Sometimes they’re the result of a carefully thought-out process. Sometimes it’s simply because we don’t have the right ingredient on hand—like the time I was making pesto and found myself short of fresh basil. I added a large handful of leftover green peas into the blender, and I hit on a slightly nuanced and much creamier pesto—still true to the dish, but just a little different in taste and texture. “I’m constantly revisiting dishes, be they comfort foods, classics or ethnic gems,” says Delaware-based chef Robert Lhulier, who hosts his own private dinners and has a catering business. “Once you begin to view constructing dishes in this manner, you find that what you’re doing is just riffing on proven classics. We like them instantly because they’re familiar and still feel new. And we all like new things.”
It’s an interesting concept to consider—home chefs creating the way a jazz pianist or sax player takes a familiar tune and uses it as a starting point for exploration before returning to the well-known for the finish. It may depend on our disposition at the time as to whether we feel the song has been refreshed or violated. The same is true with a favorite dish.
Lhulier, as it turns out, was also thinking about Caprese, but only as a starting point. “Take as an example the classic salad, insalata Caprese—mozzarella, tomato, basil, balsamic, sometimes pesto,” he says. “I love this salad, but we only get great tomatoes around these parts six weeks of the year. So, beginning in May, sometimes I substitute the tomato—a fruit—for something equally fresh, ripe and seasonal, like strawberries.”
Lhulier notes that you can make pesto from any herb or green. “So maybe I’ll make arugula pesto and then switch out the balsamic for another sweet or sour component,” he says. “Sticking with seasonal, I’ll often make a fresh blueberry vinaigrette by essentially soaking ripe berries in a base of warm vinegar and shallot or onion. They steep and plump.”
Then Lhulier takes a whisk or spoon and roughly breaks them apart so they release their juice, adding depth to the vinaigrette. “All slight changes to the original,” he says. “For a more in-depth understanding of this method, look at The Elements of Taste by chef Gray Kunz, one of my mentors.”
Chef Zane Dippold gives comfort food his own “little twist” at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa. Among other things, he adds chili oil to deviled eggs and pickled jalapeños to his Southern fried chicken. At the House of William and Merry in Hockessin, chef Bill Hoffman upgrades his deviled eggs with truffle Parmesan, duck ham and sunflower shoots. As a main, he fancifies a pasta Bolognese with lamb merguez sausage and a house-made peppercorn pappardelle, tossing in blood orange for even more zing.
“You find that what you’re doing is just riffing on proven classics. We like them instantly because they’re familiar and still feel new.” —Chef Robert Lhulier
If you cook regularly, it’s natural to keep returning to the same dishes. It may help, then, to have a mindset similar to that of Antimo DiMeo of Wilmington’s Bardea Food & Drink. One of his “always evolving” menu standards may taste differently tonight than it did a month ago. Tyler Akin at the Hotel Du Pont’s Le Cavalier keeps a mental list of flavors that he’s constantly mixing and matching as he updates menu items.
Sometimes, upgrading and updating is as simple as adding or subtracting one ingredient. If your favorite cocktail is a Manhattan, ask the bartender what might be interesting to substitute for the cherry. If there’s a different type of bitters, you might give them a try. A friend of mine likes to use sake in place of dry vermouth in his martinis.
For another approach, try matching similar flavors and textures. Start with a standard beef tartare, then add a few crumbles of quality goat cheese. And think of all the ways recent trends like brining, smoking, pickling and stir frying have led us to reinvent dishes with the same or similar ingredients.
So enough chatting. Time to get creative and shake things up.