Cooking without a recipe requires only a little skill, plus a lot of imagination, and a willingness to be bold and inventive. These five steps will get you started:
1. Head to local farmer’s markets. That’s where you’ll find an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce. But don’t write off our local grocery stores; Whole Foods can’t be beat for its high-quality organic produce selection and vast array of herbs, spices, oils, nuts, cheeses and specialty items. Vitamin Cottage has wildly competitive prices and a full selection of organic produce. And some mainstream grocers are doing a pretty good job of offering more organic and local produce.
2. Start with color. It will be one of your main guides for choosing ingredients. Begin with one main ingredient—asparagus, for example—then look around the market or produce section for seasonal produce that would compliment their bright-green color. Look for what appeals to you–the pale hue of green onions, for example, and the soft tan-gray of wild morels.
You could sauté these in olive oil, then top with a little black sea salt and shaved Asiago cheese. How would you cook them? Maybe make them into a soup with a light broth, a little cream and nutmeg? Or sauté them in sesame oil with garlic and ginger, and top them with black sesame seeds? You get the idea; anything is possible. Don’t overlook fruit; pears, berries or citrus fruits compliment many vegetable dishes with a subtle, fresh sweetness.
3. Try something new. The first time I saw a rutabaga, I was consumed with curiosity. I purchased the monstrosity, which looked something like a mutant potato. At a loss, I chopped it up, boiled it and served it with butter, salt and pepper. It was delicious—sweet, clean, with a mildly nutty, cabbage like flavor. Try something new—celery root, cardoons, chanterelle mushrooms, tomatillos, fiddlehead ferns, chayote squash, kumquats. Ask for cooking suggestions at the market. Start by seasoning simply with a little salt and pepper, and branch out from there. You’ll know.
4. Stock up on basic cooking ingredients. An artist needs the proper paints, brushes and canvas upon which to express her creativity. You’ll need an assortment of oils, vinegars, salts, spices, fresh herbs and other ingredients, to make the most of your cooking artistry. Basics include:
- A good olive oil and grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
- Balsamic, sherry and red wine vinegar
- Kosher or coarse salt, sea salt and, if you like, a finishing salt, such as fin de sel, to be added after cooking.
- Seven or eight spices you love (try cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, chili powder, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and curry powder) and a wide selection of fresh herbs, garlic and onions.
- A selection of dried beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds.
- Canned tomatoes, canned beans and a good, basic broth or stock.
5. Start with a great recipe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having guidelines for a dish you love—pasta, salad, soup—creates a basic framework, the scaffolding upon which you can lay your own original design. A basic soup recipe, for example, might be 6 cups of broth, 2 cups of vegetables, 1 cup of beans, 2 tablespoons of oil or butter, and 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.
Start with a recipe you love, head to your favorite market, and be willing to be bold. At the very worst, you’ll discover what doesn’t work—and that’s a valuable life lesson in itself.
Originally published on Care2