A look inside an intuitive cook's mind
The other day I posted my 'recipe' for a pot of red lentils (thank you for the lovely feedback!) - not a recipe at all, strictly speaking, but a set of rough instructions. I thought it might be interesting to write down what exactly happens when I look for a new recipe, and how I go about 'deconstructing' it to end up with a rough and simplified version, a roadmap if you like. Even if it's something I haven't cooked before and kind of complex too. My intention here is to capture the inner dialogue that goes on in my head, in present tense - bear with me if it's a bit of a long one!
At the weekend we got some home-reared pork from our friends at Moch Cymreig Fedwen, just 4 miles up the road. (For context, 95% of the meat we eat (infrequently) is either raised by myself or someone I know personally).
I fancy a stew but unfortunately I don't have any celery to hand for my favourite Greek celery stew so I want to find something new to try. I'm a bit restricted though as I don't have that many ingredients in the house.
I start with a search for 'pork stew' and 'pork casserole', browsing through some options. I always find I'm most attracted to 'local' versions (Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish...). I stop to have a closer look at a Polish Goulash recipe (tomato & wine based), but decide to bookmark that for another day.
Then I stumble over a 'Balinese pork stew' - sounds delicious, and looking at the ingredients, I think I can wing it. I love Asian food, and I have a personal connection to Indonesia (Bali is the only part of Indonesia were pork is widely eaten) and I like that the recipe is a bit different from the rest (not sure though why this is attributed to Anna Friel!)
It is a complex looking recipe so I need to read the recipe several(!) times trying to map out or 'deconstruct' the process. I'm looking for the most essential steps here, not the specific details. For example, like many Asian dishes, it involves a spice paste, so I make a mental note of that without worrying too much about the specific spice paste ingredients.
Step by step, in my head, the recipe gets condensed as follows:
make a spice paste
rub paste into meat chunks
roast in the oven for quite a while (2 hours covered - means it will be quite caramelised)
chop veg (I'll use whatever I have, regardless the recipe)
put meat back on the hob, add veggies, more spice paste and coconut milk
simmer until veg are tender
Once I get to this stage of simplification I am able to notice the most 'unusual' part of the recipe: the meat is cooked twice! First roasted with the spice paste, then simmered in coconut milk. I also notice that it is baked for quite some time ('until gnarly') which indicates that I need to make sure I use a cut of meat that can take this kind of treatment without shrinking to nothing (stewing meat from the shoulder with a lot of connective tissue and some fat will do nicely, pork belly should work perfectly too). Long slow cooking always needs to be done in a covered pot to keep the steam in (or everything will end up charred), so I take note of that too.
I have now boiled down the process to just 3 basic steps:
rub meat with spice paste
roast covered for a long time
simmer with veggies & coconut milk
This procedure took several minutes of reading the recipe again and again, trying to 'get my head around it': distilling what is most important and most characteristic. Now I have turned a complex recipe into a very simple 'scaffolding' that I can go improvise with. For me, I decided the three defining elements (that I wouldn't attempt the dish without) would be: spice paste, twice cooking, coconut milk. The rest (exact ingredients of the spice paste, what kind of veg, what garnish, etc.) are the non-critical 'details' I feel I can play with.
So what is it what I'm doing in my head?
I compare the recipe to 'what I know'
I zoom in on any aspects that are 'different' (e.g. the method: first roast then simmer, or the ingredients: spice paste and coconut milk)
The stripped down version of the recipe highlights the most essential steps only: the whole process now looks much easier.
I now got a jar of surplus spice paste in the freezer I can use to jazz up other meals on the fly (I already used some of it in a fish curry!)
Last but not least, I have now added new knowledge to my 'repertoire' which I can apply to a different context. For example, I might roast, then simmer some beef or lamb with a spice paste one day, or even some squash.
How did it turn out? Absolutely delicious! Here are some 'debrief' notes from the back of my mind:
I definitely will be making this again, especially as I now have a whole jar of spice paste in the freezer (having this ready makes the rest of the recipe super simple).
The finished dish looks stunning, so definitely one to keep in mind for showing off to guests (one day...).
I had more sauce in my pot than on the official recipe photo, but so what? The sauce is super delicious. (Simmering for longer uncovered would have reduced more of the liquid).
I couldn't be bothered making the sambal today - even though I know it is 'authentic': sambal accompanies every single meal throughout Indonesia). I would probably make it for a special occasion, for now the chilli sauce we have in the cupboard will have to do.
I didn't worry about the banana leaves either - nice idea if I was making a show stopper for a dinner party but I was just cooking for the two of us tonight.
See the end of the post for some more notes on the spice paste.
Hope this piece made some sense, despite the length, and helped shed some light on the inner dialogue when cooking intuitively. If you have any questions please do let me know. And I really recommend you try the deconstructing process yourself, next time you look at a recipe.
PS. Some notes on the spice paste, because they always have a long list of ingredients and can be very intimidating. Here's my take on it:
I use approximate quantities (keep to the proportions and you'll be OK).
I improvise on the paste according to what I have to hand. I don't sweat over substituting anything. A spice paste is meant to be complex so I generally avoid leaving out things, aiming to substitute with something or other. I try to think about what might work in the direction of taste or function and substitute accordingly.
I do take note of what the recipe calls for - this will guide my improvisation. This one calls for a 'yellow' curry paste based on turmeric and galangal (similar to ginger), but at a push, any East Asian style spice paste will do (to my mind, anyway). I also notice it contains nuts (adds creaminess) and shrimp paste (adds umami).
In this case, I happen to have turmeric, ginger and garlic, so I feel the basics are covered (if I didn't have fresh turmeric I would use turmeric powder).
I use onion instead of shallots, chilli flakes instead of fresh chillies (personally I prefer warming depth to all-out heat any day), cashew nuts instead of macadamia and fish sauce instead of shrimp paste. I use honey instead of palm sugar and don't even bother with white pepper. I add a little spoonful of Thai green curry paste from a jar, as I like the lemongrass hit it adds (lemongrass is not listed in the recipe, but mentioned as an ingredient of the accompanying sambal chilli sauce so can't be that wrong. Anyway, I add it mostly because I like it. Voila!