I love music. I especially love Jazz music. There is spontaneity to it and a collaborative quality that mirrors cooking. Jazz musicians aren't just playing notes on a page – they are improvising within a framework and making music. They are calling on their own skill and creativity so it will gel with the other musicians. In the kitchen, I am not just mindlessly following instruction – I am cooking. I stay within the framework of a recipe or flavor profile, but I am using my skill, creativity, and improvisation to make my flavors meld together.
Kurt Elling is my favorite Jazz vocalist. Do you know him? Listen to this tune while you read the rest of this blog. This is my favorite song from all of his recordings. He is a genius because he takes existing instrumental melodies and creates lyrics and vocalese where no words existed. He mimics the sounds made by the original orchestral instruments with his voice. Genius. This piece was originally recorded by the Pat Metheny Group. Also genius.
Jazz musicians take solos. A solo is any one player's improvisation over one or more choruses of the tune. These bars of music are their chance to modify the song with their own personal preference, reflecting what they would like to say musically. I take solos in the kitchen all the time. I leave room in a recipe for me to find my way. I shorten or lengthen the cooking time, or I substitute an ingredient. I put my stamp on things to make my food specific to me and to my kitchen. Sometimes paying too much attention to a recipe disconnects me from what is actually brewing on my stove. When I overwork a recipe, I tend to cook out all of the JOY, all of the music.
How do we get better at anything? You got it – PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Those Jazz musicians, how do they develop the confidence to take that solo? They practice their craft. It becomes a pleasure, it becomes a skill, it becomes part of who they are. Practice brings opportunity to correct failure. That repetition provides freedom to experiment musically. That preparation in the studio makes them more flexible as artists in performance or in recordings. Practice in the kitchen works the same way. With every risk I take, I am gaining access to success. With trial and error, it becomes easier and easier to modify recipes. I have developed my own taste and preferences and cook with more expression, and I am able to meet the needs of my clients and loved ones with more ease.
It is empowering to have new skills under your belt – but not all of us have the luxury of time and money to actually take that pasta making class or sign up for that bread-making course. In the coming weeks, I will follow up with a Jazz Part Two. I will give an exercise in experimentation, practice, and creativity to liberate you in your kitchen.
This paella is a complete product of Jazz cooking; practice, improvisation, and creativity. In the past, I had made paella many times. Practice! However, when it came time to cook this dish for a new client, I couldn’t remember which recipe I used, so I truly had to get creative! I knew the basic components that make up traditional Spanish paella. I had a framework. I knew I would be using a Spanish chorizo and Spanish paprika. Those were my anchors of traditional flavors. But I had Persian saffron, not from Spain. Totally fine. I also incorporated Italian marinated octopus and mussels into the dish. Totally fine… Improvisation! I knew what I wanted it to look like and I knew what I wanted it to taste like and I knew how many people I needed to feed. For me, that is mostly how a recipe is born. In the end, this one came out GREAT!
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2" pieces
- 12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound uncured Spanish chorizo, squeezed out of the casings
- 1 tbsp. smoked paprika
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 4 medium tomatoes, minced
- 1 medium red onion, minced
- 7 cups chicken broth
- 2½ cups short-grain rice
- 1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
- 1/2 cup Italian marinated octopus
- 1/2 cup Italian marinated mussels
1. Put saffron and ¼ cup hot water in a small bowl; let sit for 15 minutes. Season chicken and shrimp with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 15" skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken, shrimp, and chorizo (breaking the chorizo up into pieces) and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a plate, leaving the other proteins in the pan. Add paprika, bay leaves, tomatoes, and onions to pan and cook, stirring often, until onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add reserved saffron mixture and broth, season with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Sprinkle in rice, distributing it evenly around the pan, and add peas, mussels and octopus, Cook, without stirring, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid, 10–12 minutes. Lower the heat, add reserved shrimp. Cook until rice has absorbed the liquid and is al dente, 5–10 minutes more. Remove pan from heat, cover with a lid, and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.