The pork ribs arrived in the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. A quick dig through the fridge turned up a withering green tomato. An orange and the usual garlic and herbs sat a bit further back.
"The way dishes come together in my head, they come together 90 percent," says Melissa Clark, whose new book "In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite" (Hyperion, 2010) encourages playing with your food until it tastes good to you. "You say, ‘This is what I have in the fridge, this is what I'm hungry for, this is what I bought.' "
A dash of this, a squeeze of that, a sprinkle and a grind later, and Clark had a delectable pork dinner (you can find the recipe on her blog, melissaclark.net).
This is called improvisation, and it scares a lot of people. But Clark swears anyone can do it. "You have to take that last 10 percent and make it your own," she says. Here's how:
* Focus on balance. Complexity comes from balancing sweet, salt, acid and pungent. Sweet can be sugar, honey, hoisin. Salt can be capers, pickles, anchovies. Acid equals vinegar or citrus. Pungent is your garlic and onions. Some ingredients do double duty, like Clark's orange, which provided both sweet and acid. Make sure each is represented in your dish, and it's hard to screw up.
* Play with your proteins. Recipe calls for chicken but you've eaten it all week? Use pork instead. Or turkey. Try lamb in place of beef.
* Grind, squeeze, dash. Cooking integrates flavors, but it also softens them. So be sure to reseason when the dish comes off the heat. That could mean a grind of salt; a squeeze of citrus or a smidge of zest; a dash of hot sauce, vinegar, vermouth; or another flavor you like to help brighten the dish.
* Start slow. Can you scramble an egg? So scramble one — and add a little cheese. Or tarragon. Or chorizo. "Whatever you're confident making, make it and take it to the next level," Clark says. Just don't experiment 30 minutes before a dinner party.
* Trust yourself. Your palate is as good as anyone else's. Honest. If you like a flavor, use it.
* Always have a Plan B. It's true, you might screw up. But what's so bad about breakfast cereal for dinner now and then? "My emergency food is tomato on toast," Clark says. "My husband has peanut butter."
Figgy, Piggy Drumsticks and Thighs
8 strips bacon (8 ounces), halved
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 each of chicken legs, drumsticks and thighs (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Ground black pepper
11 or 12 fresh figs, halved or quartered if large
12 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons vermouth
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Don't drain the fat from the skillet.
Add the garlic to the skillet and saute for 1 minute or so, or until the slices are pale golden. Transfer the garlic to the plate along with the bacon.
Season the chicken with the salt and pepper.
Increase the heat under the skillet to medium-high until the fat begins to smoke. Add the chicken and cook until browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and brown the other side, about 3 minutes.
Scatter the figs and thyme over the chicken and transfer the skillet to the oven. Roast until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Stir the vermouth and lemon juice into the skillet, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom (be careful when touching the skillet handle; it will be hot). Place the skillet over medium heat until the juices thicken, about 3 minutes.
Pour the pan sauce over the chicken, then garnish with the bacon and garlic.
Per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 557 calories; 296 calories from fat (53 percent of total calories); 33g fat (10g saturated; no trans fats); 126mg cholesterol; 36g carbohydrate; 29g protein; 5g fiber; 1,045mg sodium.