Cooking Without A Recipe

For some, cooking without the aid of a recipe might be as appealing as driving your car with a bandana tied over your eyes. I recently attended a session at BlogHer Food ’11 that was all about trusting your instincts, thinking of flavor profiles and yes, cooking without a recipe.

The session was presented by Sarah Breckenridge, the senior web producer for Fine Cooking Magazine As Sarah demonstrated, one of the first steps in cooking without a recipe involves a master recipe, or an idea of what you’d like to make. With a master recipe (e.g., salads, omelettes, soups), you break down the steps, the method of preparation, the interaction of ingredients and start to go off on your own with the recipe.

Once you take a master technique, like say, making chili, you add your own flavor profile and make it your own. As she pointed out, there are patterns in the flavors of recipes you see. As you read more recipes, you can identify things like flavor profiles (e.g., pears and blue cheese; goat cheese, beets and walnuts; etc.) A well-stocked pantry is key to playing with recipes. There are basics that every working kitchen should have: Kosher salt (less salty), Iodized salt (dissolves easily), Sea salt (great flavor), a handful of different herbs and spices (i.e., thyme, basil, fresh pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon). One of the great things about riffing on a recipe is that you can take an ingredient that you want to use up (is a jar of Chinese Five Spice powder haunting your pantry?) and base a recipe around that item, (for example, chicken and rice with Chinese Five Spice and garlic sauce). On another note, refrain from purchasing large quantities of spices from warehouse stores. Those massive containers are designed for restaurants to use in quantity. Often, the home cook isn’t going to need a massive amount of dried oregano or paprika. It does start to lose potency over time. Five year old dried parsley isn’t going to help your recipe because the flavor will be gone.

Sarah demonstrated that you want to correct as you go. One universal correction that is difficult to overcome is over-salting foods. At serving time, take a clean spoon and have a taste before you plate. Is there something it needs a little more of? (Food Safety Note: Don’t put spoons that have gone in your mouth back in your pot; use a clean spoon to test again.)

The recipe presented in the session was one presented on www.finecooking.comand their Recipe Maker feature. We started with a selection of vegetable choices, a few meat options, and seasoning options. You might wonder if cooking by consensus gets you anywhere, but it worked. As a group, we came up with some delicious Thai curry vegetables and seafood.