Cooking on the Fly, Part 2

Before we go back to the process of cooking without a recipe, let me add a few additional points about my last post --not about Ego and doing too much; rather, as it related to being mixed-race:

  1. No matter how society received and sometimes judged me, I was ALWAYS proud of being mixed --NEVER ashamed. However...

  2. I DID occasionally have shame and puzzlement about having a white dad who didn’t magically stop being a product of 1950s rural white America just because he had three brown children under his roof.

  3. I DID have confusion (and jealousy) about what I perceived but could not articulate regarding white privilege, which I lumped together with financial wealth and felt was glaringly distinct from anything to do with me.

That said, let’s get back to food. Food is a critical component of a fitness sister’s world because it’s human fuel. I mean, it’s literally (in the actual sense of the word “literal”) OUR FUEL! If you want to generate muscle-building, for example, you have to eat differently than if you want to lose weight. But either way, YOU HAVE TO EAT!

But food-as-fuel is utilitarian. Food, itself, can be selected for its macronutrient quality and quantity, prepared according to scheduling demands, then consumed unceremoniously to fuel one’s body for an intentional purpose. Sometimes, in fact, that’s the way people gain power over it, since the brain is so resistant to changing habitual carb and sugar cravings.

While utilitarian food consumption can be an effective way to master unhealthy eating habits, it doesn’t have to be bland or boring. Before my diversion on Ego, we left off this discussion at an entry point somewhere farther toward pleasure on the continuum between food-as-fuel and food as pleasure. We were, in fact, celebrating what seems like exactly the opposite of utilitarian food consumption: cooking on the fly, sans recipe. In the hopes of convincing at least a few readers to try throwing out their recipes on occasion, I jumped in on the creative and freeing end of things. Rest assured, I’ll come back toward food-as-fuel, but with a set of enrichment tools readers can apply to their daily intake to keep it bright and satisfy the brain’s yen for shiny.

With that as the lens, let’s revisit The Why, excerpted from Blog #14:

Cooking without a recipe is the act of threading your innate human curiosity with all the things you already know; it’s the act of connecting backwards and forwards through time with all fellow humans in their endeavors to manifest their ideas. It is the act of wondering, experimenting, trusting, risking, and synthesizing. It’s what humans do!

Someone invented puff pastry! Someone invented baba ganoush! Someone invented sourdough. Olives! Bacon! Jerky! BBQ! Tofu! Chocolate! Coffee! Beer! Even if you don’t invent something new, you can create what you want to taste --no matter what your intolerances or allergies are.

To cook without a recipe is to be an artist.

The premise thus set, we next discussed when to cook without a recipe, and WHAT TO COOK! We figured out how to look in our pantries, in our fridges, and in our freezers; how to scan their contents, link them with mental associations (and prior knowledge), and select the structure of a meal --an anchor item and a flavor profile to inform the rest.

Now let us move on to step #2: WHAT ARE ALL THE INGREDIENTS I NEED?

If we’re not used to cooking without a recipe, we might think we have no idea how to generate an ingredients list for an entire meal, let alone a single dish. But I’m here to disabuse you of such hogwash! You know so much more than you realize.

You’ve scanned your stores and picked one item that both sparked an idea and led to a question. For example, you saw some fresh basil, and you thought of Pesto-Pasta, which led you to the question: do I have any pasta? You looked for pasta, and sure enough, you found some macaroni and some bow-ties. Next, in a millisecond, you chose the bow-ties without even noticing the reason: your association with macaroni is something insipid that children love, whereas you are envisioning something flavorful and fresh tasting that adults appreciate!

Next, following Step 1 in the last blog, you asked yourself what flavor profile Pesto-Pasta generated for you: you thought to yourself, I usually don’t eat anything else with my Pesto-Pasta. It’s a meal all by itself. But it does make me think of fresh ingredients. Maybe not a green salad, though, because it’s already green. So you go back to your anchoring questions from step 1…

You’re not sure, but you think Pesto-Pasta is Italian, or at least Medeterranian. This makes you think of -that one beautiful salad you saw on that snippet of a cooking show one time when you were flipping channels in a hotel. It looked like sliced fresh tomatoes and sliced mozzarella about the same thickness, layered on their edges, with bits of basil or whole basil leaves in between, and as you remember it, the cooking show lady was drizzling oil on it. Probably olive oil. That sounds good.

So you look for tomatoes. You happen to have one, but no mozzarella. But then you remember that one time when you paid a jaw-dropping amount for the breakfast buffet at a semi-fancy hotel (those ones where the breakfast isn’t “included”). On one end of the buffet --the end far from the french toast and pastries, there was a nod to people who prefer either Mediterranean-type items or Northern European type items for breakfast: white plates of smoked salmon with capers resting on a little mounds of crushed ice; other kinds of oily fish among springs of dill; sopping milky muesli mixtures in sunken bowls with ladles; parsley-rich tabbouleh; whole eggs nested on a platter with perfectly egg-shaped indentations; and...wait for it…

Sliced, tomatoes laid beautifully, one oiled and peppered edge slightly beneath the next. Perhaps you could do that? That would be easy, and it’d go with your Pesto-Pasta.

That’s how it works: tap your prior knowledge and make associations. With that foundation, let's look at how to build the rest of the meal...

Informally ask yourself everything you know about the flavors you picked. Just do a mental run through. Soon, this will become automatic, and it will direct your eyes as you scan the pantry, fridge, and freezer. And don’t tell yourself you don’t know. That’s just plainly not true. THINK about it! You know more than you realize.

  • What fruit or vegetable or spice or herb or protein do the flavors come from? (If you’re not sure about this, ask yourself what dish you’ve eaten before has these flavors. What was in it? Beans? Meat? Rice? Pasta? What color was it? Red, like a tomato or wine sauce? Cream colored? Get at the source of the flavors, as these will inform your ingredients choices)

  • What lands do they come from?

  • Go generally “West,” think bacon, corned beef, venison, boar, wild fowl, cheeses, kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, wine, beer, yeast breads, sourdough, fresh produce, dried produce, fennel, etc.

  • Go “mid-East,” think: olives, garlic, whole grains, fresh produce, dried produce, spices, flatbreads, yogurts, seeds, spiced meats, etc.

  • Go “South East,” think rice, fermented grains and legumes; flatbreads, pickled condiments, spicy flavors, coconut, stewed meats, curries, seafoods, yogurts, etc.

  • Go “far East,” think kimchi, kombucha, sake, soy products, teas, ginger, soured and aged meats and eggs, huge varieties of fresh leafy greens, etc,

  • Are those lands tropical islands, surrounded by water (Think seafood, coconut, pineapple, plantains, rice!)

  • Or are they landlocked (Think livestock, grains, potatoes, yams!)

  • Now think Macronutrients: proteins, carbs, and fats

  • What kinds of proteins are eaten in this land or with this food item? (Pork? Lamb? Beef? Poultry? Soy? Beans + Grains? Nuts? What do you know about it?)

  • What fats? Avocado? Coconut? Olive oil? Butter? Ghee? Lard? Nuts & Seeds?

  • What starches? (Wheat-based like bread and pasta? Rice based? Tuber-based? Flatbread? Tortilla? Corn? Quinoa?)

  • Do they eat fermented foods in this land or with this food? (Think of sour flavors --plain yogurt, buttermilk, sourcream, creme fraiche, kimchi, injera, dosa, sauerkraut, sourdough…)

Now, with your flavor profile in your mind, you’ll be selective as you scan your pantry. If you know you want something that tastes like the food you ate in the Caribbean that one time, ban the thought that you have no idea what it was! That’s just not true! You know what you ate! What was it? Rice? What kind of rice? You know it wasn’t brown. That would be nuttier than what you remember. It was creamer than that. It had to be white rice.

Remind yourself it doesn't matter if you get this right or wrong; you’re just going to choose the best rice you can, and roll! What else was in it? Beans, right? But sparse. If you think back, you’ll remember that the ratio was like 3:1, rice to beans, right? So when you make proportion decisions, and you’re not sure how much one cup of rice will actually yield, make the rice first! You know canned beans are already cooked, so adding them at the end won’t affect cooking time.

Now, we’re talking about the Caribbean. You might not know everything about history, but you probably know that Europeans colonized the Caribbean and brought enslaved Africans to work the lands. You probably have a vague awareness that sugar cane was produced in the Caribbean. You probably know the people of Africa and Europe are from relatively old civilizations. Beef, chicken, and lamb lands. Yams, greens, and beets lands. So you know this is a cuisine of European and African ancestry, mixed with the people who already lived on those islands. Should we add goat? It’s gonna be a fusion, folks! An OLD fusion!

AND, you know those islands are tropical. Coconut, banana, and pineapple grow there. And they’re ISLANDS! Surrounded by water! Their cuisine surely has seafood, right? Shrimp? Crab? Lobster? Fish? But it also has those old world meats. You get to choose!

So you can start to guess the flavors. New World beans (you know you didn’t eat chickpeas in the Caribbean, right? You ate red beans, black beans, something in that neighborhood!). Then ask yourself...what else did I taste in that food? Coconut milk, right?! And some little hot bites, maybe? Like red pepper flakes you have in that jar on your spice rack. So here’s your list:

  • Anchor dish: Caribbean beans and rice (a complete protein by itself)

Ingredients: White rice, New World beans (red or black), coconut milk, red pepper flakes

  • Sides that make sense for the flavor profile & geographic origin (pick one starchy & one or more others; add meat if you eat it): Any meat/seafood; plantain, new and old world veggies (avocado, tomato, cilantro, sweet potato, yam, beets, coleslaw).

Ingredients: avocado, sweet potato, cilantro, shredded cabbage

Now before you do anything else, stop and revisit this thought: experimenting with this will be FUN! And if it tastes like crap, so what! Eat it anyway with a laugh, and start again next week, when we talk about basic cooking preparation methods and principles of flavor balance.

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