Can you walk into the kitchen, pull out a few items, and pull together a meal? A number of friends have commented at various points about how easily I cook without recipes. Partly, I can do so because I always stock some basic pantry items. Beyond simply having the carrots and rice in the pantry, you need the confidence to pull it together into a meal. Cooking without a recipe is a valuable skill to develop, as your pantry may not always match your recipes.
First, I like to use a basic formula as my “recipe.” It’s actually pretty close the what the USDA now recommends in their nutrition guidance (see above).
2 parts vegetables (some could be fruit)
1 part grains
1 part protein
Splash or pinch of seasoning(s)
For maximum health, focus on whole grains, plenty of vegetables (orange and green), and lean protein topped off with good fats like avocado, olives, or nuts.
Second, I select the seasonings. A basic option is to keep a list of the seasonings and flavors of various cuisines. (My mother’s copy of the Enchanted Broccoli Forest had a list in the back that was incredibly useful.) For example, for something Tex-mex I would combine garlic, onion, chili, cumin, oregano, and perhaps some cilantro. For Italian, I might use red wine or balsamic vinegar, garlic, and herbs like basil, oregano, or thyme. Vietmanese might be rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, lime, chili garlic sauce, cilantro, mint, or Vietnamese basil. The easiest way to select your cuisine is to think about 1) what you like; 2) what matches the foods you’re about to cook.
Finally, I’ll think about the technique. Do I want to steam, stir-fry, boil, roast, poach, or eat it raw? Do I want to combine techniques, like simmering beans to mix with raw vegetables? Again, it’s fairly easy to go back to the classics from your cuisine of choice but don’t let that limit your options. Almost anything can be a delightful soup, and stir-fries are fairly universal. Don’t forget to think about the order of cooking, either! Be sure to add longer-cooking item to the pot, or those that hold better to raw mixtures, first.
Don’t be afraid to taste as you go. It will help you season your food appropriately (remember, you can always add more later!), and know when to stop cooking. Just serve yourself a little less than you might otherwise, or else you won’t have room for dessert!