Most of us look to recipes to tell us what to do in the kitchen. How can you know intuitively, without a recipe?
Many (most?) of us look to recipes to tell us what to do in the kitchen. What ingredients to use and how much of them we need, what to do with them in which order, and how long it will take to cook. And a few of you have told me you do indeed worry about not knowing what goes with what or when it's done without a recipe to tell you.
So how can you tell all these things intuitively? Is it even possible? (No, I don't mean memorising the recipe). Here's the secret:
Look at the food in front of you.
What goes with what is entirely determined by cultural and personal preferences. In Britain you add swede and carrot to a stew, in Iran you add pomegranate and almonds - and that's just one example. Anything goes, as long as you like it. There are 'tried and tested' flavour combinations, of course, but these too are specific to your taste (and those you cook for).
Don't expect a recipe to tell you what to like - learn to trust your taste. Pay attention to what you like and what you don't, and keep notes (mental or in a notebook). My head is most definitely a huge 'library' of taste memories! That new recipe you made last month, or something you ate on holiday, or what you love about your favourite dish - what combinations appeal to you? And which not so much? From there you can extrapolate and improvise (yes you can!).
For example, if you know you like garlic with spinach, chances are you will like garlic with any kind of greens. If you loved a dish of roasted fennel and tomatoes, you can assume you will like the addition of fennel in your tomato sauce, be it fresh (both the bulb and the fronds!) or as a spice (the seeds).
Another path to figure out tasty matches it to think of the main ingredient you have and think of what could complement or contrast that taste (ideally both - think about layering flavours here.)
Say, you have a squash, and you want to make soup. Squash is sweet and creamy, so you can enhance that with other sweet veggies (carrots and potatoes perhaps), and with the sweet creaminess of coconut milk. To contrast the sweetness you could add, say, garlic, ginger, tomato, and/or nutmeg. And next time you have a squash you could roast it with the same ingredients (i.e. garlic, ginger and/or tomato to contrast, while roasting in itself will intensify the sweetness).
How much do you need? If you think about it, it becomes obvious:
Sometimes the relative quantities (the ratios between ingredients) are important, for example in baking or certain sauces.
Of course, there are sophisticated techniques, and if you are so inclined, it could be fun trying something complicated on a weekend perhaps. But for simple everyday cooking you only need the very basics of cooking in a pot/pan or in the oven. And if you look for the patterns (more on this concept here) you'll see that most methods move on a continuum you can easily move up or down. A few extra tips:
You don't need a recipe, or a timer. Pay attention to the food in front of you and you'll know when it's done. (*)
Now go and give it a try: watch your food while it cooks. What can you see, taste and smell?
* The only exceptions I can think of, where a timer and/or thermometer are kind of necessary are those situations when you can't look inside: boiling eggs and roasting a very large piece of meat, like a whole turkey, come to mind.