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rustic bean stew

One of the most interesting cookbooks of the last 20 years was one designed to reinvent cookbooks altogether. Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook (William Morrow, 2006) is a reinvention because it doesn’t follow the usual prescriptive, scientific, top-down way of recipe writing — add 1 teaspoon of X to Y and cook at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Instead, Schneider lays out recipes in the broadest possible sense.

First, she explains the topic at hand — say, winter tomatoes — and then she describes one way of making them delicious, such as slow-roasting them to drive out taste-diluting moisture, to caramelize any available sugar and to soften fibrous flesh. Finally, she provides a master recipe for the ingredient, along with a series of “improvisations” — dishes you can make using the master recipe and your own understanding of the topic.

Regarding the slow-roasted tomatoes, for instance, she explains how to make the tomatoes into a slow-roasted tomato sauce, plus slow-roasted tomato soup, hors d’oeuvres, tarts, pizzas, lasagna and much more.

You’re probably familiar with the old proverb of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. In this case, Schneider shows that if you give a man a roasted tomato recipe, he has a meal, but if you teach him how to roast a tomato, he can feast for a lifetime.

Schneider’s idea for this book sprang from an Internet cooking class she taught. “There was a lot of interaction between my students and me on the message board, and I was shocked at how often the idea of fear came up,” she says. “Fear of cooking, yes. But more than that, a fear of not having the life they imagined other people were having, a fear of not cooking the way they imagined other people cooked, a fear of not cooking the way people on TV cook.

“I gave people very simple chunks of knowledge — how to roast a fish, for example, and we’d all talk about that.” For some people, says Schneider, that knowledge was enough: “They were off and running. For others, though, I found that what really worked was to focus a little on their fears and pull them into the light: What is this fear of cooking? Do you know that other people have them, too? You don’t need to feel trapped by fears. Instead, put them aside and ask, ‘What would happen if I tried this?’ If you try it, and it doesn’t work out, that’s fine. You’re learning something, you’re engaged in the process of your life — it’s OK.”

What causes all these cooking fears? Schneider mostly blames TV. “Television has really done damage to people,” she notes. “Food magazines, too, where everything is perfect. People don’t realize that what they’re receiving are these cleaned-up images. Everyone makes a mess when they cook. On television, though, there’s a prep cook who does all the advance work, and anything that doesn’t go right or is boring or unattractive is either edited out or reshot.”

This image of perfection can be positively poisonous, says Schneider. “People sit at home in their own kitchens thinking, ‘Other people know how to handle their life, other people know how to look good, other people know how to cook, and I can’t.’”

That’s where her improvisations come in. “The nice part of the recipes is that they give you a way of thinking and point you toward a series of actions, but there is no wrong way. There’s no idea that if your tomato tart comes out lopsided that you’re a failure.”

I asked Schneider if her students felt better about cooking once their fears were named and they had some tools with which to succeed. “Actually, for lack of a
better word, people tell me they feel empowered,” she said. “They’re in the kitchen making all sorts of decisions they never felt confident making, and this idea that there really is no failure, and that things just work out or don’t, and that either way you’re learning, gives them confidence in all sorts of other parts of their lives.”

In fact, Schneider has found this idea of improvising to be so powerful that she’s planning to launch a lifestyle blog based on the concept this spring. Her goal is to help people apply the same flexibility they used in the kitchen to reinvent other areas of their lives, such as travel, office space, clothing and so on. (Find more info at

If necessity is the mother of invention, is improvisation the mother of reinvention? Perhaps. These days, reinvention might be exactly what we need.

Rustic Bean Stew With Bacon and Caramelized Onions

Serves four

  • 4 ounces thick-sliced bacon
  • 1 pound yellow onions, sliced 1/8-inch thick
  • Kosher salt
  • 4 cups cooked, drained darkish beans, such as borlotti, small red beans, or Roman beans, or black-eye peas (or three cans beans, drained, rinsed well and drained again)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • Freshly ground black pepper


  1. Place the bacon in a large (12-inch) heavy skillet. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the fat has melted out of the bacon and the pieces are crisp and brown, about seven minutes.
  2. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan and reserve. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat.
  3. Return the pan to the heat and add the onions; toss to coat. Cover and cook until the onions are wilted and have released their juices, about five minutes.
  4. Uncover, add about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and sauté until the onions are golden brown, about 20 minutes longer. Remove half the onions to a plate and reserve.
  5. Add the beans to the pan, along with the reserved bacon, the bay leaves, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and sugar. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has reduced considerably and the mixture has a stewlike consistency, about 20 minutes.
  6. Adjust the seasoning, peppering generously.
  7. Spoon the beans into four shallow soup bowls. Top each serving with some of the reserved onions.

Shallots (or Garlic) Toast

Serves four

  • Four 1/2-inch slices crusty peasant bread or baguette
  • 1 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 shallot or 2 garlic cloves, halved
  • About 1/2 tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt


  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet and brush both sides with the olive oil or melted butter. Toast the bread until golden brown, two to three minutes.
  3. Rub each slice lightly with a cut shallot or garlic clove; sprinkle with salt.

Author’s Note: If you’re in a hurry, toast the bread slices, without oil, in a toaster or toaster oven. When golden, brush with extra-virgin olive oil and rub lightly with a halved shallot or garlic clove; sprinkle with salt. (These are a little less chewy.)

White Beans With Rosemary, Thyme and Lavender

Serves four to six

  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
  • 2 1/2 tsp. fresh rosemary, thyme and savory (if you have it), minced
  • Pinch of dried lavender
  • 4 cups cooked, drained white beans, such as cannellini, navy, baby white limas or flageolets
  • 1/3 cup water
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (optional)


  1. Combine extra-virgin olive oil and shallots in a large (12-inch) heavy skillet. Cook, covered, over moderate heat, until the shallots are soft and golden, about five minutes.
  2. Stir in fresh thyme and rosemary (and savory, if you have it) and a pinch of dried lavender. Sauté, stirring, for one minute.
  3. Add beans and water to the pan. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has almost evaporated, about five minutes.
  4. Adjust the seasoning, including a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice if necessary to brighten the flavors; pepper generously.
  5. Spoon the beans into four shallow soup bowls. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over each serving.

Author’s note: These fragrant Provençal herb-scented beans make a fine meal on their own, with some shavings of Parmigiano, aged goat cheese or ricotta salata, and Shallot (or Garlic) Toasts. They are also a classic accompaniment to grilled or roasted lamb.

Fennel and Parmigiano Salad With Toasted Pecans

Serves four

  • 2 large fennel bulbs (about 1 pound each)
  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans
  • 2 to 3 tsp. Banyuls or sherry vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Parmigiano


  1. Cut the branches off the fennel bulbs and reserve; with a vegetable peeler, peel any bruised spots off the bulbs. Slice each fennel bulb into quarters through the stem and cut out the tough core. Using a mandoline or Benriner or chef’s knife, cut each quarter lengthwise into thin — but not paper thin — 1/16-inch slices (you should have about 8 cups).
  2. Place in a medium bowl and add the toasted pecans. Toss with extra-virgin olive oil to coat and Banyuls or sherry vinegar.
  3. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. If desired, chop a few tablespoons of the reserved fennel fronds and add to the salad, and scatter thin shavings of Parmigiano over the top. Serve at once.

Recipes excerpted from The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider (William Morrow, 2006).

This article originally appeared as “Kitchen Improv.”

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