Courtesy of Karen Mordechai

A new book promises to teach you to improvise.

April 25, 2017

Karen Mordechai wants you to play with your food.

In her new cookbook, the Sunday Suppers founder laments, “I hear from many cooks that they will follow a recipe to a T.” Instead of exploring a grocery store or farmers market with an open mind, she writes, “they will create their list and take on a recipe like it is a didactic thing.” 

But for those interested eating seasonally, this rigidity can be prohibitive: sometimes, inevitably, “you go to market with the intention to make an oyster mushroom risotto, but the mushrooms are not looking great, or there are no oyster mushrooms in season.” Instead of giving up on the risotto, Mordechai encourages readers to play around with a concept she calls market variations—flexible recipes with ingredients and flavor profiles that can be mixed and matched, swapped out, and updated for the changing seasons. “In this way,” she says, “readers can feel liberated.”

RELATED: Dried-Porcini-Mushroom Risotto with Goat Cheese

Mordechai adapts her recipe-writing to accommodate this choose-your-own-adventure style of cooking—if an ingredient is underlined, that indicates that it can be exchanged for another seasonal ingredient from one of her suggested variations. With this approach, each recipe actually becomes several.

Mordechai’s versatile Smoked Black Bread Panzanella illustrates this concept beautifully. The dish follows some basic rules: toasted bread is matched with a hearty roasted vegetable, a solid leafy green, a spicy or herbal element and a cheese. Within this framework, she offers three solid variations—and it’s easy to see how an almost unlimited number could unfold.

Her basic recipe centers on beets—available during most seasons, and a generally reliable farmers market find. She pairs them with purple kale, radicchio and smoked ricotta, tossing with smoky sesame-roasted croutons and topping with saba, a tangy, sweet grape syrup like an unaged balsamic vinegar. 

Delicious, to be sure. But why stop there? What if you can’t find beets? What if the latest seasonal produce is calling out to you? 

Fall and winter carrots can take the place of the beets; pair them with mizuna, or Japanese mustard greens, and watercress, topping with yogurt for some acidity to complement the caramelized veggies.

Warm-weather tomatoes are perfect for adapting this panzanella into a summery salad—use arugula, purple basil and burrata for a fresh and toasty Caprese.

“There is a natural rhythm to the markets and the seasons,” writes Mordechai. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new combinations as spring and summer unfold: “As your personal surroundings change, your cooking often reflects those changes.” Get the full recipe for her Smoked Black Bread Panzanella here.

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 Courtesy of ABRAMS Books

Find this and more “market variations” recipes in Simple Fare: Spring and Summer by Karen Mordechai; ABRAMS Spring 2017. $35, amazon.com. 

Simple Fare: Fall and Winter is also available for pre-order.