I had a totally creative-cooking day yesterday, thanks to cooking tips I call “add-ons” and “re-mixing”. With those, and a good nose for spice chords (explained below), a body can cook a dang lot of tasty food without being chained to a cookbook.
In the morning, it was pancakes (which are super easy to do since I have a big jar of pre-made dry pancake mix). These evolved and became cranberry and Seckel pear pancakes. Super tasty. Aside from the pancake mix (I’ll get that recipe up here), the morning used a cooking hint I call ‘add-ons’.
Take a recipe you know, sniff out some extra things you have around you could toss in there, and voila, new dish. In this case, it was two fruits endemic to November. Other times, it’s been adding carrot or apple pieces to the chili, or tossing zucchini or fennel into the pasta sauce. And at still other times, it’s been toasting up some seeds or steaming a few more veggies to throw on top of the pizza about to be delivered.
A variant on this is to take the key idea of a meal (layer the ingredients) and do it using the ingredients to something else entirely: build lasagna from taco ingredients, bake it. (Try spinach in place of lettuce, lettuce doesn’t bake so well.) Use a blanched chard leaf like a burrito wrapper around a savory rice dish.
2) Re-mix and / or re-name what you made
Seriously: have a general idea, tell no one what it is, cook it, and then decide what it’s called. That one cooking tip alone (nabbed from a former housemate) has saved so many meals and impressed so many people.
Yesterday evening, I had some spare eggplant parmigiana (which I sometimes see called eggplant parmesan, but I think it’s the same basic dish, just two price brackets). Anyway, mine had failed the day before. I’m not sure where it went wrong, but the eggplant was too tough, too… rubbery to be pleasant to chew. I had a great flavor set going, but the texture… .
I ended up chucking the whole dish in the blender (with a little more liquid so it would move) and turning it into a fairly robust sauce. Served that over rotini pasta (the twirly stuff can hold up under a thick sauce). Total save.
Other times, I’ve started off thinking I was making one something, had it veer off track, and just gone with it. A lime juice accident over the supposed-to-be Chinese-food stir fry means dicing up some basil leaves (from the pot growing on the windowsill), maybe tossing in a pinch of anise (I have Genovese basil but I want an east Asian inspired meal), and declaring it “Thai Stir Fry.”
3) Cultivate a nose for herb and spice flavor chords…
My girlfriend through ‘grad school version 1′ was born in New Zealand of Chinese and Indian & Irish parents. I learned a tremendous amount about cooking from her folks, who were both excellent cooks and excellent instructors, too.
At one point, trying to recreate something Ilina had taught me, and trying to describe what I was looking to my own mom, all while spinning Mom’s spice rack and repeatedly opening and sniffing various bottles, I hit on an analogy I still love.
My mum was a music teacher while I was growing up. To explain the spice I was looking for, I described what was in the pot already as notes on a musical chord: I had my base note- garlic- and my high note- celery seed-, but I was looking for something in between. I needed a middle note spice and I was using my nose to find it. (I think I settled on oregano, but I can’t think of what I was cooking at the time.)
Ilina taught me to keep it simple and work with 3 or 4 spices at most at a time while I was a young cook. I learned a lot about how they taste individually and how they interact with each other. Applied more broadly to food flavors, I’ve since made excellent and very simple soups and stews with very few herbs at all, just letting the flavors of the ingredients do the work.
I’ve also gotten more willing to play with on my analogies: toying with color theory (I was an art major in college) and looking for “warm color” and “cool color” spices introduced me to using nutmeg and cinnamon a little more liberally in my repertoire of dishes.
Sometimes, to get started, I’ll look at a couple of recipes in a cookbook that are dealing with the same core ingredient I’m working with (“what do I do with this squash?“) and see what spices they group together.
A final point of clarity:
I’m using herbs and spices as interchangeable terms here for both the literary effect and for the basic meaning of ‘small bits with high flavor density’. Technically, herbs are from the green growing parts of plants (leaves, flowers, green stems) and spices are from the harder, browner parts of plants (roots, dried stems, seeds). Ergo, coriander is the seed and cilantro is the leaf, both from the same plant.
In general spices are middle and low notes, and herbs are middle and high notes. For you other art majors, spices tend to be warmer (I picture browns, reds, and oranges), herbs tend to be cooler (pale yellows, greens, and blues).
Not a musician or an artist? Think through your own field: what are some very basic sorting mechanisms: soft, firm, and hard? Shiny and dull? Clear, translucent, and dusty/opaque? Coarse, medium, fine? See if any of the perimeters you use regularly can be used as metaphors to help sort your spice rack. And then share your ideas: what metaphors are you trying on?