A Chef Who Improvises

You don't have to follow a recipe to make a delicious meal. That's the philosophy behind the new cookbook, "The Improvisational Cook."

Author Sally Schneider is an award-winning food writer and chef. As The Saturday Early Show's Chef on a Shoestring, she prepared a three-course meal for four, on a budget of $40.

Schneider is a former chef, food stylist, newspaper columnist and cookbook author. She is a regular contributor to NPR, and has been a contributing editor for Food & Wine. She has won a variety of awards for her work.

"The Improvisational Cook" is designed to help home cooks break away from recipes and learn to create delicious meals from whatever ingredients they have on hand. It's about having fun with your food, understanding why certain techniques work, what ingredients work well together and using this knowledge and new-found confidence to whip up easy weekday dinners and special occasion meals.

Each recipe in her book is followed by an "understanding" section that explains the internal logic of the recipe and ways to alter, adapt, embellish or modify it.

For instance, the caramelized onions also can be used to top pork chops, as an omelet filling, as the base for soup, turned into a savory jam or baked into a tart.

The menu for Saturday:
Caramelized Onion Dip
Slow Roasted Fish in a Sauce of Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, Olives and Lemon
Brown Sugar Lime Curd Tart


Makes about 1 1/2 cups, 4 servings

2 pounds yellow onions (4 to 5 medium), peeled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

Slice the onions. Slice onions in half through the stem. Using a mandoline or a Benriner or a thin sharp knife, cut into 1/8-inch lengthwise slices. You should have about 6 cups.

Cook the onions covered to release the juices. In a large nonstick or seasoned cast-iron skillet, melt the butter over moderately low heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with the salt, and toss to coat. Cover and cook until the onions have released their liquid, about 13 minutes.

Caramelize the onions. Uncover, increase the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the sugar and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the onions are golden brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes longer. Pepper generously and adjust the seasoning. Remove from the heat. The onions can be refrigerated, covered, up to 4 days.



Onion soup dip, made with sour cream and dry onion soup mix, lost its chic decades ago, but Schneider doesn't don't know anybody who didn't love it and wouldn't love it again if it were made without the ersatz flavors and intense salt of the original. Here is her revision, made with real caramelized onions stirred into sour cream for an astonishing effect. Served with excellent potato chips, the dip is the ultimate cocktail party food.

Make Caramelized Onions using finely diced (rather than sliced) yellow onions. (Or simply chop leftover Caramelized Onions). Let cool completely. Mix together roughly equal parts of the onions and sour cream, adjusting the balance to your taste. Add salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice if necessary to pick up the flavors.

Serves 4

For the fish:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 1/2 pounds fish fillets: four 6-ounce salmon, striped bass, or red snapper fillets or one 1 1/2 pound fillet
Kosher salt

For the sauce:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 pint cherry, grape or egg tomatoes
12 pitted Kalamata olives
1 lemon
salt and pepper

For Slow Roasted Cherry Tomato and Lemon Zest Sauce
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Stem the tomatoes; cut in half lengthwise through the stem. In a medium bowl, toss the tomatoes with about 2 tablespoons olive oil to coat. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with sugar, salt, and pepper.

Roast the tomatoes until they have lost most of their liquid and are just beginning to brown, about 1 hour. They should look like tiny dried apricots. Meanwhile, slice the olives lengthwise; place in a small ovenproof dish or skillet, and toss with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. When the tomatoes have roasted for 50 minutes, add the olives and roast for 10 minutes.

Transfer the roasted tomatoes and olives to a medium bowl. Stir the lemon zest into the sauce, along with 2 additional tablespoons extra virgin olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to serve.

Turn the oven down to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare the fish for roasting. Brush an ovenproof dish lightly with olive oil. Arrange the fish fillets skin side down in the pan. Rub the top with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Roast the salmon about 25 minutes until a two-pronged kitchen fork inserted in the thickest part of the fish meets with no resistance and the flesh separates easily from the skin. An instant-read thermometer should read 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (Don't worry if the top of the fish still has a slightly translucent raw look.)

Assemble the dish.
Transfer the fillets to four warm dinner plates. Spoon the sauce over the top.

To estimate the cooking time for other kinds of fish, gauge the cooking time according to the thickness of the fillets, figuring 5 to 6 minutes per 1⁄4 inch of thickness:

  • For fillets less than 3⁄4 inch thick, such as striped bass and red snapper, 15 to 20 minutes
    -For 1 1⁄4-inch-thick salmon or swordfish fillets, 25 to 30 minutes
  • If you are unsure, test the fish early, then continue cooking until done.

    The Caribbean origins of brown sugar and lime inspired Schneider to bake Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough (below) in a tart tin and pair it with an unusually light tangy Lime Curd to make this tart. In a pinch, use good-quality store-bought lemon curd as a filling, stirring in a few teaspoons fresh lemon juice to make it sufficiently tart.

    Serves 6 to 8

    Lime Curd (see recipe below)
    One recipe Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough (see recipe below)
    1/2 pint heavy cream or creme fraiche, whipped to soft peaks

    Prepare Lime Curd and chill.

    If the Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookie dough is chilled, allow to soften at room temperature about 20 minutes until malleable. Press the dough into a 10-inch tart tin with a removable bottom, building up the edge slightly to make a 1⁄4-inch-high rim. To make 6 individual tartlet shells, press the dough into 4-inch tart tins, building up the edges in the same way. Chill 1⁄2 hour before baking.

    Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the tart shell until the edges are barely colored, 30 to 35 minutes; cool before filling.

    Within 1 hour of serving, gently fold 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup whipped cream, into the Lime Curd. Spread evenly into the tart shell. Serve the remaining whipped cream on the side.

    Lime Curd
    You can also use the basic method to make lemon curd or Meyer lemon curd; just adjust the sugar accordingly. Make the Lime Curd up to 5 days ahead; refrigerate.

    Makes 1 cup

    1⁄2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
    1⁄2 cup fresh lime juice (Key limes are particularly good).
    7 tablespoons sugar
    1 large egg
    1 egg white
    One 3-by-1-inch strip lime zest

    In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Set aside to soften.

    In a medium stainless steel bowl or the top of a double boiler, combine the remaining 6 tablespoons lime juice, sugar, egg, egg white, and lime zest. Set the bowl over, but not in, simmering water. Whisk constantly until the curd is thick and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Stir in the gelatin mixture and cook 1 minute longer. Strain into a medium bowl and allow to cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally. Discard the zest, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

    Ethereal Brown Sugar Butter Cookies
    This versatile dough makes delectable, melt-in-your mouth cookies fragrant with butter and the caramel flavor of brown sugar. Pressed into a tart tin, it makes a fabulous tart pastry.

    Makes about thirty 1-1⁄2-inch round cookies or 12 to 16 wedges or squares

    1⁄2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
    1⁄3 cup packed light brown sugar
    A scant 1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or 1⁄2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise in half, seeds scraped out, and stirred into the sugar
    1⁄4 teaspoon orange flower water (optional)
    3⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    3 tablespoons cornstarch

    Prepare the dough. In a food processor, combine the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and orange flower water, if desired, and process to a light, fluffy paste, 20 to 30 seconds. Remove the lid and add the flour and cornstarch. Pulse until the dough begins to clump together and the mixture is fairly uniform, 8 to 10 times. Gather the dough together into a rough ball, kneading a few times if necessary. (You can also mix the dough by hand or with an electric mixer.)

    Alternative 1: Form the dough into a freezable log, chill, slice into rounds, and bake. Form the soft dough into a log about 11⁄2 inches in diameter. Gently roll up the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate to firm up, at least 1 hour, or until ready to use.

    To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange the oven rack in the lower half of the oven.

    Using a thin knife, slice the chilled log into 1⁄8-inch slices and arrange them 11⁄2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. (If the dough is very soft, place the cookie sheet in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm up.) Bake until the tops are firm and the edges are barely colored, about 20 minutes. With a thin metal spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. Cool completely before packing into a tin.

    Alternative 2 (quicker method): Press the dough into a pan, bake, and slice into shortbread-style wedges or squares. Press the dough into a 9- or 10-inch tart pan, preferably with a removable bottom, or an 8- or 9-inch square pan. Prick the dough at 2-inch intervals with the tines of a fork. Place the pan on a baking sheet and freeze for 10 to 15 minutes.

    To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange an oven rack in the lower half of the oven. Bake until the edges are barely colored and the center is no longer puffy, 30 to 35 minutes for a 9-inch round or an 8-inch square, 25 to 30 minutes for a 10-inch round or a 9-inch square. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes. With a thin sharp knife or a serrated knife, carefully cut the shortbread rounds into wedges or cut squares into squares, rectangles, or strips.

    Note: You can refrigerate the dough up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 2 months; thaw in the refrigerator for 8 hours before using.