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Some don’t like to cook, and upon deeper digging, some will tell you recipes intimidate them. Which is fair—there are recipes out there that call for 17 ingredients and a trip to Mumbai, or make you use unfamiliar techniques, or insist on fussy extra steps. The real spookfests demand all three.

Did you ever see a movie you adored, then read a review that trashed it, and couldn’t believe it? “Hmmph,” you think. “Why is Joe Movie Snob’s arbitrary opinion more important than mine?” We both put our pants on one leg at a time, as the saying goes. I myself gave up reading movie reviews years ago on this premise.

The deal with recipe-making is much the same: it’s one person’s idea of how a dish should taste. That’s it. Food Tester X hasn’t had a date since Vanilla Ice topped the charts and is self-conscious about his breath, so he’ll tell you to use a half-clove of garlic. Another likes her cookies baked to a delicate golden brown; I like them a deeper brown. My friend Linda would, and has, called them burned.

If a recipe grabs your interest, try it the way it’s written and see if it matches your taste. No? Then tweak it. If you’re new to cooking, this will make you nervous. But once you get a little more confident in the kitchen, you’ll start to alter ingredients and method without even thinking. You’ll look at a new recipe, see the addition of an unnecessary lemon peel, for example, or you’ll see step 6, which tells you to strain the sauce, at which you’ll roll your eyes contemptuously, deem the recipe writer nuts, and ignore her. It’s your meal. It’s your call.

Here’s an example of how to toy with a recipe. It’s pasta, nothing too weird. And the ingredients are in season, so you’ll be starting with the best, which helps.

Zucchini carbonara, a riff on classic carbonara. Calls for the addition of egg to the just-out-of-the-pot-hot pasta, which cooks it on the spot and gives the noodles a luxurious texture. Zucchini and basil are called for instead of meat.

My original recipe calls for 1 garlic clove, a pound of zucchini, just 12 ounces of pasta, 6 basil leaves and a couple of eggs. It also calls for 3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Put a pot of water on the stove to boil. Cook a few tablespoons of olive oil in a big, wide pan over medium heat and then add the clove, whole. When it browns, add the sliced zucchini. When that browns, take out the clove and throw it away, and take the pan off the heat.

Whisk the eggs and cheese together in a big bowl and wash the basil leaves. Tear them into pieces. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the egg mixture bowl and toss. Then add the zucchini and basil, toss, and serve.

Now, you might think this sounds awesome. If so, make it and like it.

If you’re thinking of tweaking it and want ideas, here’s what I do.

I use a whole pound of pasta, to start. Barilla multi-grain (in the yellow box) is great; many organic varieties are wonderful too, and have a velvety texture. I double the basil leaves and use hot red pepper oil instead of regular olive oil (you could add red pepper flakes instead of or in addition to the oil, too). As for the Parmesan, I cut it back to half a cup and sometimes shave a bit on top to lend some firm texture to the silky pasta and delicate basil leaves.

Fresh garlic is one of my favorite flavors. So to me, adding a whole clove and then discarding it, as the original recipe asks, is akin to licking condensation off a water glass to quench one’s thirst instead of drinking the cold water inside the glass. The word ‘wussy’ comes to mind. (Again, this is just my opinion. Maybe you have an esophageal ulcer. Hope you feel better.) I also use 2 whole cloves, minced and added at the last minute, to preserve the health benefits of the garlic and to pack the most punch. Zucchini, basil and garlic are such good friends. Plus, I add salt and pepper. It kind of boggles me that the original doesn’t call for either, in any amount.

Fresh ingredients prepped your own way, in a style that pleases your own taste buds—this is home cooking at its best. Test, taste. Put your own spin on a recipe. Make it yours.

Trying is what matters. You might get the flavor you want on the first try; you might not. If you’re deciding between not trying versus trying and spectacular failure, try. Remember what Julia always said: you’re alone in the kitchen. Go down in flames before you sit on the bench. (You can always blog about the failures :))

What have you tweaked? What worked and what didn’t? Tell me stories.

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