Cooking Creatively, or Why a Recipe is a Guideline, not a Mandate

The other day, I was gifted a meal kit from a friend of mine. It was something she had sent to her that she couldn’t eat (due to gluten) and she thought I might like it. So I got to try it out. It was a baked tortellini dish with a tomato cream sauce. Turns out, it was quite tasty for the first meal kit I’ve ever tried.

I’m not used to cooking without any use or expectation for improvising. Normally, when I cook, I like to think about the ingredients I have, find a recipe or two to give me an idea, then put the book (or more realistically, my phone) down and wing it. I realize I am probably a more skilled home cook than most, but I wasn’t always this way. My cooking skill has developed over time and was expedited by experimentation and iteration. I like to say I never cook the same thing twice.

So for the meal kit, I had just precisely the amount of each ingredient that the recipe called for, no more and no less. The only exception was the package of chili flakes, which I’m certain would have been generous for the 4-serving size (I had a 2-serving recipe). The instructions were thorough and well documented with pictures. I was never insecure about what to do next or anything. And the techniques used (specifically, making a pause in a frying pan and cooking the fresh pasta in it, before popping the whole thing in the oven to crisp the topping) were not ones I use every day, so that was fun to try. But it still felt quite odd to be so constrained in the kitchen when that’s not what I’m used to.

I think cooking can be really intuitive if you practice well enough and long enough. Of course if you still need to learn techniques or even some basic knife skills, that is one thing. There are plenty of books, videos, classes, etc that can teach you a vocabulary and some basics that will help you move forward. But after that, it’s time to explore. Explore your own taste buds. Figure out flavors you like and those you don’t. Substitute freely, one or two ingredients at a time from a recipe that intrigues you. Keep a journal of meals you make and how you augmented them and made them your own. Most of all, don’t be afraid. The worst case scenario is you make something inedible and have to throw it out. Trust yourself.

And with that, I’ll share with you my VERY FIRST cooking experiment, a meal I made (a little differently every time) probably 4-5 times per month while I was in college.

Ingredients:

  • 2 boxes Noodle Roni (flavor of your choice)
  • 1 15oz can of beans (your choice), drained and rinsed
  • 1 15oz can of tomatoes
  • 1 15oz can of any other vegetable (corn works well, or green beans, peas, etc.), drained
  • Various toppings of your choice (grated parmesan cheese, chili flakes, breadcrumbs, green onions, chopped fresh cilantro or Italian parsley, etc.)
  • NOTE: When good fresh veggies are in season, you can always substitute those as well. A solid handful of spinach or chard would be an excellent option.

Instructions:

  • In a large pot, cook Noodle Roni according to instructions. (You will probably need milk, butter and/or oil for this step.)
  • When the noodles are nearly done, add beans, tomatoes and other veggies and stir to combine.
  • Once heated through, serve in bowls and top as you wish.

This is a perfect college student meal because not only is it delicious, but it also makes enough leftovers that you likely won’t need to cook again for a few days. I’m guessing this makes 6-8 servings, if my memory serves.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that a recipe should be a jumping off point, from which you should explore and try things. You don’t have to follow someone else’s inspiration in the kitchen, you can create your own. Try something once, then if you like it, improve on it next time. Believe in yourself and more confidence will come.

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