Okay, okay. I may have jumped the gun in the last blog (Courage in the Kitchen). I said step 1 (for cooking without a recipe) would be What to Cook, but I forgot to explicitly address the WHY, and completely address the WHEN.
Why cook without a recipe if you don’t have to? Especially now, when every recipe ever created is in your smartphone. Why risk failure? Why risk waste? Why risk criticism, even if it's only behind your back? Why cause yourself the stress?
Implicitly, I suggested you do it because it will be freeing and it will help you build transferable courage. In addition, I implied it would be a way to finally use up the ingredients you bought that one time when you thought you’d try a recipe that was unusual for your family. And those are solid, useful reasons. But, really, I think there’s another, more fundamentally human one...
A cook practiced at cooking without a recipe can do that most human of things --create according to a yen, or a need, or both.
Really. Is there anything more satisfying than wanting something, envisioning all of its sensory features: its textures; its flavors; its colors; its aromas; and then bringing it into reality?
Is there anything more powerful than taking an idea from your brain and making it real?
Just take a look around you. Every last thing in your sight that isn’t part of nature (and even some of the things that are part of nature) was first someone’s intangible idea. Every. Last. Thing. The computer, the desk, the pen, the can of sparkling water, the mug, the earbuds, the calendar, the spoon, the post-it note, the tissue box, those paintings, those books --all of it!
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.
NOW THE WHEN.
This part is easy. Learn to cook without a recipe when you don’t have a lot going on. Saturday morning when the house is still sleeping, try that bread idea. Friday night when the kids are immersed in screens and your partner is working late, try that cajun rice idea. Don’t try it Wednesday night at 8 until you’re confident with it!
There’s also another time when you’ll WANT to try it: when you’ve started a recipe, and you realize you don’t have a specific ingredient it calls for. In that case - applying the logic above - if you have the time, go ahead and consult your brain about how that ingredient might function for the recipe:
Is it a binder? Then pick something you already have that would act as a binder (something mucilaginous mixed with something dry: egg + breadcrumbs, leftover cooked rice, oats, or any kind of absorbent and edible material; or instead of egg for the mucilaginous factor, try flax or chia seeds + liquid).
Is it an acid? Then use any acidic thing you have on hand: vinegar, lime, lemon, plain yogurt, buttermilk. Not sure if it’s acidic? Taste it! Is it sour? Then it’s acidic!
Is it a flavor agent, like vanilla? Try any liquor or concentrated coffee you happen to have.
Is it a fat? Then use any fat on hand! Butter! Oil! Coconut butter! Avocado! Mayonnaise!
You get the idea. The main thing is to start telling yourself you know how to figure out what the components of a recipe are. Stop telling yourself you don’t, because you have a solid brain in your head that already knows A LOT of stuff! Make the connections between types of things and their functions, and then swapping ingredients will become straightforward.
STEP 1: WHAT TO COOK?
What’s on hand?
Generating a flavor profile to go with it
First, open your cupboards, open your fridge, open your freezer. Look for an ingredient that makes you think of a dish you like. Here are some examples of how basic we’re talkin’:
A can of black beans
A pouch of sundried tomatoes
Hearts of palm
Any of these could anchor a bunch of decisions that fall together into a meal. Here’s how it works. Pay attention to your thoughts as you scan your stores. When I see fresh basil, I think: “Ooo, maybe we could have pesto pasta! Do we have pasta?” Then I look for pasta. When I see a can of black beans, I think, “Mmmm, what about black bean chili? Do we have any tomato paste?” Now, if the answer to either of those is NO, move on until you get to a YES.
Next, use that starting point to create side dishes that go together by building a flavor profile. To get an idea of what items and flavors to put together, I usually start by asking myself overarching category questions like any of these:
What geographical bucket does my item fit into?
New World (Anything from Latin America, USA, Caribbean, etc) or Old World (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia)?
Eastern (South Asian, East Asian, South East Asian) or Western (Western European, Northern European, Eastern European)?
Southern (USA) or Not?
What type-of-meal am I making:
Breakfast, Lunch, Appetizer, Dinner, Side dish, Snack, or Dessert?
What have I tried before that tastes good with this item?
Sweet or savory?
Spicy or mild?
Creamy or brothy?
Crunchy or smooth?
Fresh or stewed?
Starchy or fibrous?
What macronutrient does this dish fulfill?
Is it a protein, a fat, or a starch?
What colors would look nice with this item?
If it’s all green, maybe a bright red (tomato, red bell pepper)
If it’s heavily cooked and brown, maybe a bright green, fresh something? (Parsely, basil, a big green salad, al dente asparagus, a sprinkling of feta cheese? Pale, toasted almond slivers?)
What season are we in?
Consult your brain on what you know about seasonal foods --strawberries and asparagus come in the spring; root-vegetables and apples come in the fall; pickled and canned items work in the winter; tomatoes and peppers come in the summer…
If your brain doesn’t know, no harm in consulting Google!
How does this dish make me feel? Is it...
Light or heavy food?
What associations do I have with this item in combination with today’s weather, or the quality of light in this moment, or my vibe right now?
Cold weather triggers a desire for something warm
The quality of the light in the kitchen reminds me of Grandma baking on Sunday mornings
Coming home from pilates on a hot summer day puts me in the mood for salty and healthy things...
I’m guessing that no matter who you are, at least one of these broad categories gets you thinking about specific flavors. Pick the one that speaks to you in the moment. That’s important because the moment is the source of your inspiration, and it will drive all your choices for this meal/dish.
Keep this starting nugget in your bonnet. Next week we’ll build on by visiting Step 2: WHAT INGREDIENTS DO I NEED FOR THE REST OF IT?