I love improvising in the kitchen. But lately I’ve been doing less and less of it. Part of it is distraction: there’s a universe’s worth of recipes out there, and most of the time I’m just chasing them around, like a child with a jar in a firefly swarm. Part of it is laziness, the temptation to just follow someone else’s breadcrumbs rather than start a new trail myself. Part of it is a hunger to learn new techniques and tricks, which I can only practice by trying what someone else already knows inside and out.
But there’s also a big pinch of self-doubt, and an awful lot of inertia. I find myself listening more and more to the perfectionism-goblin, who’s diabolically skillful at talking me out of things. My creative well feels low and muddy these days, for both food and writing; he’s always right there to stir the muck at the bottom for me, to let me see for myself that there’s nothing left. Using someone else’s recipes is safe, comforting, an easy way to keep the goblin satisfied. So I’ve found myself doing more meticulous planning, and less aimless riffing.
Which is a shame, because it’s usually the aimless riffing that yields the most exciting results. Like the addictively flavorful salmon salad I made not long ago. I’d bought a brick of smoked salmon for a lunch party, but there was a riot of other food on the table and it went quietly uneaten. Two weeks went by, and I felt guilty for leaving it in the fridge, alone and unloved. I could have just flaked it onto some dark bread with mustard and called it a day–in fact, I was sorely tempted–but something in the back of my mind said, Come on. Try something different. You haven’t played in a while.
So I gathered up all the traditional trappings of a good salmon dish: mustard, dill, capers, lemon, shallot, and cream. I mashed them all together in a bowl with a mound of flaked salmon, then opened a box of crackers and called some friends over for snacks. While I waited for them, I took a taste–then a bigger taste–then said to hell with it and started heaping salad onto crackers for myself. It was perfection in a bowl, tangy and salty and rich and just a little zippy, like a brunch platter you could eat with a spoon. It’s the kind of totally improvised dish I will be making again, and again, and again–perfectionism be damned.
Smoked Salmon Salad (makes about 4 cups)
6 oz hot-smoked salmon (the firm stuff, not the lox), skinned and flaked with a fork
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1 medium shallot, minced*
2 tbsp drained capers
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup dijon mustard
2 tbsp creme fraiche, sour cream, or Greek yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste
*If you want to take the harsh raw edge off the shallot, put the minced pieces in a mesh strainer and run them under hot tap water for a few seconds. Drain them thoroughly before adding to the salad.
Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Serve on crackers or toast, or as part of a bagel platter.