For the longest time I would faithfully stick to a tried and true recipe, no substitutions, no veering off course. That worked out well for a while, but over time it slowly dawned on me that I didn’t HAVE to add almond extract if I didn’t like it (I don’t) and that I definitely prefer to saute vegetables before putting them in a soup, even if the recipe doesn’t require it.
If I am baking, or cooking something unfamiliar (i.e. an ethnic food I am unfamiliar with), then yes, I still stick to the recipe the first time around. However, the more I get to know a food style or flavor profile, the more bold I become at experimenting. Nowadays I can take a bite of soup while it is cooking and I think hard about what it might need to make it taste how I would like it. For instance, if it tastes like it needs more acidity (think, would I like this to taste more vinegary?) I will add lemon, or vinegar or anything else that gives that “vinegar” flavor. Tomatoes or tomato paste often has that “tang”, so that works too. Similarly if I think an item needs salt, I will add salt and/or something salty like soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, even anchovy paste. My family and I do not like our food to be too sweet. However, from time to time if I think an item needs a little more sweetness, I will either add honey or think of an appropriate, naturally sweet food to enhance the flavor. For instance, vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and butternut squash become distinctly sweeter upon roasting in the oven for a period of time.
The point is, a recipe can be useful as the foundation upon which to create something that you and your family specifically will enjoy. Ever since my son’s post-rosemary bread vomiting incident a few years ago, we can no longer have rosemary in the house, let alone in a minestrone soup. So we use parsley or sage instead and we love it, it’s no big deal.
I used to look to Ina Garten for my go-to tabbouleh salad recipe. This make ahead, nutritious side dish is a standard in my house. However, I customize this in a variety of different ways, depending on my mood and resources. I always omit the scallions because nobody in my family likes how that makes the salad taste a day later. I also like to add olives, feta, red (or any) pepper and jalepenos. I have also been known to substitute quinoa, rice, or barley for the bulgur. Oh, and always, extra mint. Go crazy!