cooking without a compass

I imagine we all have moments where our cooking acumen is tested, when we are forced to rely on instinct and practice instead of recipes from trusty blogs or cookbooks. This is where I stood one Sunday afternoon. We were a week into house training the dog, somewhat ragged, and had a friend coming over for dinner. I had already planned the weekend's meals but when I made the Hungarian goulash I wanted to serve, it wasn't quite right, and I'm not fond of serving guests anything I'm not extremely certain about, so I saved it for dinner the following night. 

What, then, would I serve for dinner? Walking to Chipotle or our neighborhood sushi restaurant crossed my mind (the easy way out), but then Andrew reminded me I had bought shrimp for something later in the week, and in preparation I had just cooked the beans, so the decision was almost made. Except for the inconsequential detail that I had no recipe.

I usually print recipes, email them to myself, or make note of where they originated in my weekly meal planner. Somehow, this time, I completely failed on all accounts. Even a Google search came up empty, so I improvised. I reasoned that I'd baked beans before, and with a little prep, an even better meal would await us.

It might sound as if I was relatively calm during this ordeal, but I had a moment of panic. It took me all of 3 minutes to leap into action, but during the brief period of hesitation, I doubted myself. Although I often make adjustments to recipes while I'm cooking, the safety net of a written, tested recipe still exists, no matter how much I change in the process. Without a compass, we're unsure and may falter a bit, but the process reminded me that I do know enough (for the moment) and that I can trust my instincts. It's always a good lesson to be reminded of now and again.


Had I been able to locate the original recipe I read, the recipe would have been adapted. Instead, here is my own creation. Whether or not you remove the shrimp tails is a matter of preference.

3/4 pound dried lima beans
1/2 large onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 carrot, minced
1 small celery stalk, minced
4 cups cooked tomato sauce
1 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined

1 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Extra-virgin olive oil

Soak the beans in a large bowl for at least 8 hours or overnight. Add them to a large stock pot and cover by at least 2 inches of water. Boil until cooked through, between 40 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the age of your beans and how long they were soaked. If you'd like, also toss in a bay leaf, stalk of celery and carrot to the pot. When the beans are almost cooked, season with 1 teaspoon Kosher salt.

While the beans cook, sauté the onion, garlic, carrots and celery for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened. Season with salt and pepper. For the last few minutes, toss in the shrimp just to help the cooking process get started. Turn off the heat before they're fully cooked.

Preheat the oven to 425 and prepare a baking dish. Drain the beans, then return them to the same pot. Add the tomato sauce, shrimp and cooked vegetables. Stir to combine, then pour everything into the baking dish. In a small bowl, mix the breadcrumbs, parsley and enough oil to moisten the crumbs. Sprinkle over the top of the dish. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until the shrimp is cooked through and the beans are bubbling. Serve with crusty bread.