Picture this: you come home from work. You open the fridge, you take out some bits, put a pot on the stove, throw them in with a few cupboard staples and - voila - a tasty dinner is on the table. No stress, no planning, no recipes - just a home-made dinner.
Why no recipes? What do you gain from ditching the recipes, you might ask. What's wrong with recipes anyway?
Let me reassure you, there is nothing wrong with recipes. In fact, I LOVE recipes. And I have stacks of cook books. Reading recipes is one of my favourite things - as sources of ideas, inspiration and experiments they open countless doors of tasty possibilities! But all too easily recipes can become frustrating, restrictive and overwhelming - the opposite of inspirational! When I ask people about their biggest obstacles to cooking more regularly at home the reason mentioned most frequently seems to be lack of time. But most of that time is not even spent in the kitchen - it's all the planning, shopping and prepping. Trying to cater to different needs and preferences in the family drains time and energy too. Being bored of the same few dishes and not knowing where to start expanding the repertory in a practical way only adds to the misery.
Having to stick to recipes means a lot of time is spent planning and shopping so that everything listed is to hand at the right time. You may already have a plenty of food in your fridge and cupboard but somehow you still think you need to shop for that recipe. For many this gets so overwhelming that they will opt for something ready made or same old staple meal more often than not, especially on busy weekdays. In my 'other' life as a shopkeeper, I daily meet people hunting for just that one ingredient they can't seem to find. Often we have it (we like being a foodie shop) but every now and then we don't. In that case I can always suggest an alternative; while most people are delighted to realise they already have a substitute at home, some won't be convinced and will continue the hunt for just the 'right' thing - which is fine too (we all get to choose what we spend our energy on). There are as many recipes as there are cooks, and there is good reason for that. Today's dish can never be the same as tomorrow's even if you follow the exactly same recipe to the letter. And even if the dish was ever the same, you - the eater - wouldn't be the same. That is why the concept of a 'foolproof' recipe has always amused me: how can anybody claim a dish will turn out the same every time, in every kitchen, for every cook - if you only followed those precise steps. How can this be, when your tomatoes can never be never the same as my tomatoes, the way you chop them is different from my way and your pan is not the the same as mine (unless we relegate cooking to the realm of lab experiments).
But which recipe is the best? Quite simply: the one YOU like best! But just as importantly: the best recipe is the one that you can make today with what you have - and what you fancy. Or, in the words of my food hero, Nigel Slater (from his book Appetite, my go-to reference book):
At the end of the day a recipe is only telling you about someone else's taste. [...] To assume that their word is law is ridiculous not to say downright arrogant. Don't be bullied by recipe writers. Listen to what they have to say – they know the pitfalls and also the fun to be had cooking - but trust your own taste, too. [...] The crux of the matter is that it may be their recipe but it is your supper.
For all these reasons: Break out of recipe jail! Unleash your cooking intuition to make cooking stress free, enjoyable and tasty - every single day.
It takes some confidence, yes. But confidence is a skill you can build up step by step. It takes a bit of know-how, yes. But this boils down (excuse the pun!) to just a handful of 'methods' you can easily learn. If you can boil water, you can cook dinner. For all the practical stuff, say, knife skills, there are any number of demos, videos and courses available out there. It's a very useful skill to have, for sure, but... you can chop up food any odd way and still make a tasty supper!
I think it is much more important to understand the anatomy of a dish - once you learn to see the patterns in what you are cooking, you can throw together anything and get a tasty result every time! It is also critical to understand that everything is substitutable - no need to run around hunting for that ingredient. Cook with what you have, what you fancy or what looks best that day.
If you keep those 'secrets' in mind, recipes take on a different purpose: you scan them for ideas and inspiration, and make up the rest as you go. That way recipes set you free, rather than hemming you in. I'm here to show you how to read recipes with a 'deconstructing' eye, ready to put them back together in a way that suits your circumstances and cravings today.
Like everything else, confidence and skill comes with practice. You wouldn't expect to run a marathon tomorrow if you went for your first run yesterday. So don't expect picture perfect meals tomorrow. Just get started by making everyday cooking into a tasty habit. Perhaps you now get a sense of what it takes to develop an intuitive cook's mindset - where cooking is fun, food is nourishing, and confidence is all you really need. The rest you will pick up as you practice. Aim for progress not perfection - let's get cooking!