Last night, I adapted a tried-and-true (if overly simple and insufficiently spicy) recipe for Shrimp Fra Diavolo. I adapted the recipe in several ways, the two most obvious deviations being the substitution of cod for shrimp and cauliflower for rice. Cooking cod in a skillet differs rather substantially from cooking shrimp in a skillet, so that element of recipe revisionism started the path down different-dishdom. Cod takes longer and, if not prepared properly, will fall apart. So, I patted the cod filets dry, dusted them with flour, drenched them in an egg wash, and squeezed the flour and egg coating off until just a hint of it remained. After cooking the cod for a total of around five and half minutes (compared to three for shrimp), the remainder of the recipe was as it would have been had I been cooking Shrimp Fra Diavolo. Except, of course, I did not use broccoli rabe in the dish because it was unavailable; I used frozen chopped broccoli instead. And I did not cook rice. Instead, I cauliflower, steamed with boiling water into which I had introduced a few teaspoons of lemon juice. Along the way, because I am lazy, I omitted various steps that traditional Shrimp Fra Diavolo would have included. Instead of crushed tomatoes, I used a nice squirt of Italian tomato sauce from a tube. Instead of a crushed anchovy filet, I used a squirt of anchovy paste from a tube (whose “best by” date was early 2015, but I don’t buy that nonsense meant to sell more tubes of the stuff to fearful consumers). And I omitted the white wine and basil leaves and diced onion.
In short, I pretended to make Shrimp Fra Diavolo, substituting cod for shrimp, using cauliflower instead of rice, leaving out several ingredients during the course of preparing the meal, and taking a few other shortcuts.
The end result? It wasn’t bad, not bad at all. But it did not result in the kind of meal I would have eaten had I stuck to an original recipe, followed the plan, incorporated all the commonly-used ingredients, and dedicated myself to making it “right.” Even with the substitutions, it could have been a more delightful experience, had I not taken shortcuts. But it turned out fine. We were hungry. We did not want to wait the extra time it might have taken to reach a higher rung on the gustatory ladder. Last night’s meal was more about satisfying hunger than achieving culinary excellence. I think I married the two reasonably well; the union will not produce offspring, but it did not end in divorce.
Taking shortcuts tends not to produce great art. We rarely herald writers of formulaic mysteries as great writers. Painters who generate mass-market assembly-line copies of masterpieces fail to achieve artistic recognition. Cooks who take shortcuts to fill hungry bellies are not called culinary wizards. Actors whose characters are wooden and two-dimensional are not awarded Oscars.
There is nothing wrong with mediocrity, if mediocrity satisfies. But we tend to pity the mediocre and, even more so, we pity the lack of dedication and drive that permit mediocrity to suffice. I want to believe such an attitude is elitist, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I think there’s something in us, at least most of us, that forces us to push on beyond mediocrity. Shortcuts are acceptable in the right circumstances, but accepting them as a way of life would be a shame.
I may try creating Cod Fra Diavolo again. Next time, though, the hunger will not reside solely in my stomach; it will sizzle in my brain. Next time, I will create a dish worthy of the energy of someone who could call himself chef.