How to Reverse-Engineer a Recipe!

I love it when people discover that they can make something from scratch. There is this light in their eyes that pops with possibility and curiosity. This is why the kitchen can be such a magical place; we can experience this pop every day by playing with food!

One way to encourage this pop is to ask family or friends what dishes they find most delicious and then set about figuring out how to make them together. This process could involve searching for recipes…OR…

…you could Reverse-Engineer it!

This means that you work backwards from how something tastes and figure out, through trial and error, how it got to taste that way. This gives you practice honing skills including tasting as you go, making adjustments, practicing the scientific method, until you get it the way you want it (which might even be better than the dish you started with!).

A reverseengineering quest is in fact how I fell in love with cooking at age twelve, a love that set me on a life-long learning curve I still enjoy every day.

It all started because of ridiculously delicious pasta. One day, I got the gumption to try to make the pasta dish at home. The original pasta came from a restaurant in New York called City Limits. Over two decades later, this pasta is still on their menu, because it is truly that good. I recently re-made this pasta and sent a picture to siblings and friends with no text, and they all recognized it immediately. The pasta was full of yummy things–chicken, broccoli, sun dried tomatoes–all bathed in a silky, savory garlic sauce and gushing with parmesan.

I remember starting out with an epiphany: if I messed up, that was OK. This made me feel bold enough to try to figure out the recipe. So, I thought about all the flavors and and textures of the ingredients in the dish: penne al dente (with a bite), tender (but not mushy) broccoli, lightly breaded and browned chicken strips, sweet and chewy sundried tomatoes, and fresh tomatoes barely cooked. Thinking about the textures helped me deduce what to cook and when to cook it. This meant that I would start with the chicken, then the broccoli, then the garlic and stock, then the tomatoes, then add cooked pasta, and then the cheese.

On that first attempt, I created something delicious, though I did not achieve the full recipe. I knew even then that a big difference was cooking the garlic in oil separately, which I did not do. I also knew something was missing, something savory and smooth that makes the whole dish come together in mouth-watering goodness. I know now, after undertaking the experiment again two decades later, that it was cheese. So. Much. Cheese.

I share with you now the reverse-engineered recipe for City Limits Pasta. I encourage you to try it, but also to try your hands at reverse-engineering your own favorite meals!


2 heads garlic 
1 cup olive oil 
2 chicken breasts 
2 tablespoons flour 
2 tablespoons cornstarch 
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter 
1.5 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine 
3 cups broccoli florets 
2 roma tomatoes or other firm tomato, julienne (sliced into wedges)
1 cup sun dried tomatoes  
1 box penne 
So much parmesan cheese 
fresh basil, chiffonade (sliced into tiny ribbons)

 1. Using a sharp knife, CAREFULLY chop off the tops and bottoms of the garlic heads and peel each. Peel both heads of garlic and place in a small sauce pot. Cover with olive oil and cook on medium low for 10 minutes. Remove the garlic carefully and let cool. Push softened garlic cloves out of their skins. Reserve the oil as it is now yummy garlic oil for dipping bread and other purposes.

2. Prepare the penne to al dente, reserving some of the pasta water.  
3. Mix flour, cornstarch, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Slice chicken breasts across the grain for good bite-size pieces. Coat them in the flour mixture. Heat oil at medium high and pan fry the chicken slices until just done. Remove from pan.

4.  Deglaze the pan (meaning, add liquid and scrape up the brown bits) with pasta water, chicken stock, and white wine. Steam the broccoli in this mixture, then add sun dried tomatoes until plump. When broccoli is tender, add the fresh tomatoes and garlic, cook 1 minute, then remove from heat. 

5.Add pasta, chicken, and massive amounts of parmesan to the veggies and sauce, along with salt to taste. Top with basil. 

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