How I Cook without a Recipe

Cooking is something I have always liked to do.  As a person who likes to eat, it seems only natural to me that I would try my hand at cooking.  So I’ve been experimenting with cooking for many years.  I used to cook when I was a teenager so it’s been at least 20 years.

In the past, I have lived on a strict budget and there’s really no way to feed 2 people on less than $30 a week unless you can cook something.  Back then, I used to make a huge batch of rice and beans with frozen veggies, a lot of eggs (the cheapest ones I could buy), and copious amounts of potatoes.  Spaghetti and sauce (Hunts in a can) was a very frequent dinner choice.  There was no way we could have fed ourselves on takeout, even from the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

Thankfully that was over a decade ago.  I’m happy to report I am now financially stable enough to spend pretty much whatever I want on food.  I do pay attention to prices and sales, mostly out of habit and good sense, but if there’s an item that’s expensive that I want to buy, I will buy it.  I believe that we spend far too small a percentage of our income on food.  Food needs to be a much higher priority in our lives than it currently is.  It’s not a choice that should be dictated by convenience.  We need to put in a little more effort than that if we hope to positively change our health and our ever expanding waistlines.

I have prepared many recipes that I found in a cookbook, magazine, or online in my life.  But I am at a point in my cooking skill now that I do not need recipes and I rarely use them for more than inspiration.  I’ve come to think that the way many of us think you have to cook is kind of backwards.  Find a recipe, make a list of ingredients, buy ingredients, cook recipe.  In my house, I do it the other way around.  The ingredients are the reason for what I cook, not a recipe.  My experience cooking from recipes taught me many cooking skills.  Once you have those down, you can branch out and start to get creative.

When I shop, my number one focus is produce.  I buy what looks the best and is the freshest, most local, and in season.  I buy things I know I love and things I am unfamiliar with.  I buy things that catch my eye.  Sometimes I buy one thing, then realize I would like to combine it with something else so I go find that (tomatoes and basil for instance).  When it comes to fruit I just buy what I like.  All fruit goes together in my book.  There’s no wrong answer.  And with fruit, 99% of the time, I just eat it.  I don’t often make fruit into a dish unless I’m adding it to a salad.

After I buy produce, I buy some staples.  I buy a few kinds of grains, some dried beans, nuts.  I make sure to have a few types of oil in my spice cabinet and a lot of spices.  I usually have some vinegar as well.  Right now I have olive, sesame, and coconut oil as well as balsamic vinegar.

Here is a photo of what I ended up making for dinner last night in stages:

Cooking without a recipe.

First, I usually have an ingredient in mind I would like to use.  In this case it was Eggplant.

Next, I start thinking about what else I have that would accompany that well.  Sometimes people ask me “How do you know what will taste good together?”  Well, how do you know what you like?  Experience.  It’s all so individual.  Choose foods you like, and you will like the result. I know basil and garlic and tomato taste good with eggplant because I have had and prepared many dishes that include those items.  I ended up choosing a red onion, purple basil, garlic, green garlic, and tomato as my other veggies.

Then I start thinking about how I will cook this.  Last night, I was wanting to get it done quickly because of the heat so I settled on sauteing the veggies and serving them with a grain.  I had some barley on hand so I chose that.

If there’s something that will take a longer time without my intervention, I start that first.  Barley takes 30-40 min to cook by simmering.  I know that from experience, but if I didn’t I would google it.  So I start that first.

Next, I will start chopping and prepping the veggies, starting with what will go in the pan first.  The eggplant takes while to cook, and I usually add onions right at the beginning so they have plenty of time to soften and get sweet.  Next, I chopped up the garlic, green garlic and basil.  And finally, I grated one tomato and choppped up the other.

Sometimes I will chop all the veggies first, then start cooking.  Other times, I will chop, cook, chop cook.  It really depends how much time I need to use up while the grains cook.  This time, I chopped everything first because it was only going to take 15-20 min to saute everything.

Then I start cooking.  Learning cooking techniques, rather than just following recipes, will free you from the cookbook.  You can learn techniques from recipes if you just pay attention and remember how it’s done.  Cooking is an art, not a science.  I rarely measure anything when I cook and I couldn’t recreate any of my dishes.  It’s a little different every time, and that keeps things fun and interesting.

Which spices or oils to use is completely up to you.  I have my favorites of the moment, cayenne pepper and turmeric, which I use for almost everything including the above dish.  Olive oil is my default oil unless I want the flavor of a different oil.

I love cooking this way.  It’s very easy to me.  The best foods are the simplest.  I think these days, so many of us were not brought up cooking the way our ancestors were so we feel it’s something beyond us.  Cooking is not difficult.  People have been doing it for many years.  You really don’t need an expert opinion on what tastes good, just taste it and find out!  Taste everything while you are cooking it so you can determine if it needs more spice or salt.

People are very intimidated by cooking.  What’s the worst that can happen though?  I suppose one could set the kitchen on fire or cut off a finger.  But other than that, even if it doesn’t come out fantastic, almost everything comes out edible.  It’s a learning experience every time.  Eventually you figure out not to cook certain things too long or they become mushy or how hot your particular oven needs to be to successfully roast something.

When in doubt, with nowhere to start, turn to the internet.  There is such a wealth of information on how to cook and so many recipes to be inspired by or follow.  I really don’t think “I can’t cook” is an acceptable excuse anymore.  If you can’t cook, it’s time you learned.  It’s the single best thing you can do for your health.

One thought on “How I Cook without a Recipe

  1. I love to cook, both with a recipe and without. I feel it is a lost art and wish it were still required in schools, especially if kids were taught methods and skills rather than recipes. I really enjoy your blogs; thank you for sharing your journey!

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