I love to cook. Even after a long day of teaching cooking classes, I still like to unwind with a cold IPA or other fermented malt beverage and make myself a bite to eat. Most often the food I enjoy eating after a long day of cooking has nothing to do with what I have been cooking all day. You may know what I am talking about. Usually once I have planned a menu, shopped for it, prepped it, then either assisted, instructed or cooked it all (not to forget cleaning everything up), I am not hungry for that food. I am tired of it. I feel like I know it too well. I would much rather have something totally different. I tend to enjoy that leftover food the next day or even later. I tend to freeze leftovers for quick lunches or dinners later.
Perhaps because I like to cook every day, my favorite class to teach is called Everyday Cooking: Cooking without a Recipe. It is an all-day adult class where I can really see students’ skills evolve from the beginning to the end of the class. It starts with me demonstrating cooking techniques and discussing fundamental culinary concepts and classic recipes, while preparing a three course meal. Then students take over and create their own dishes. It is always inspiring and fun to see what the participants cook up using the variety of ingredients I have on hand.
The key to cooking without a recipe is to first of all know how to cook. You have to have some knowledge of techniques. Then you need to have some basic Pantry items on hand. When I shop, I have a list of items I need to replenish, but I also shop by price, closeouts, freshness and what looks good to me at the time. I usually buy raw materials, then figure out what to do with them later.
My favorite methods of cooking follow classic French Cooking Techniques. What I decide to make, depends on several things. One is what I am hungry for. This can start with a cuisine. I reach for my inner Xenophile and ponder, “What kind of food do I want to eat?” I think, “We haven’t had Thai for awhile,” or “I am hungry for Persian Food.” Then I look to see what ingredients I have on hand. If I decide to make a Thai Dinner and I have a lot of carrots, I look through my Thai cook books for recipes using carrots. (I may cheat and do an internet search, but I love to sit at the kitchen table in my office and pore through cook books.) A couple of good Thai recipes using carrots are Thai Carrot and Ginger Soup or Thai-Style Vegetable Salad.
What I decide to cook also depends on what I need to use. Say I have a couple of tomatoes sitting on the counter that are getting soft with ripeness, the sour cream I haven’t quite used up is just about to turn and I have a head of garlic with a fresh green shoot stretching for the sunny kitchen window. I might pull some chicken breast out of the freezer to thaw in cool, trickling water and use some homemade Stock with these ingredient to make Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Roasted Garlic and Tomato Sauce and serve it with a starch of pasta, rice or potatoes from my Pantry.
Sometimes I have too many options to cook. And sometimes I am tired of cooking, especially after a long teaching trip. Sometimes I open the fridge, having come home with all sorts of delicacies that I have picked up during my travels, but all I really want to eat is a cheap frozen pizza.
P.s. Thanks to Steve Ralser for the great photo.