While I love reading recipes to get ideas, learn about flavor combinations, figure out quantities, I rarely follow them. Don’t get me wrong, I have shelves of cookbooks in my apartment, but I use them more for reference and inspiration. In the morning, while planning my day, if I can’t figure out what I’m in the mood to make for dinner, I take down a couple of my colorful cookbooks (the ones with pictures of course) and peruse. If I find a dish that feels like that day, I’ll take a minute to read through it, consider what’s in season and local, and see if I can combine the two. Maybe a recipe calls for butternut squash, but I much prefer kabocha, I’ll switch it, or maybe jewel yams are on sale, I’ll just swap them into the recipe or add them on top for that matter.
I believe cooking is about feeling your way through a recipe, not following it word for word because one person’s personal tastes could and very possibly are very different from another’s. What’s available at my local market may not be available at yours and no one should go wasting their day scouring their town for obscure or out of season ingredients, that time could be well spent reading, bathing, people watching…
The key to cooking a meal to perfectly suit your tastes starts by naming your flavors. While I think classic ingredients and flavor combinations are almost always the right way to go, I definitely highlight my meals with my favorites. For example, I am not a fan of oregano. There is just something about it that turns me off. But I LOVE a fresh marinara sauce over whole wheat penne or on some homemade pizza. Most traditional marinara recipes have oregano and, for me, that totally ruins the dish. So, when I make my sauce, I make it with tons of onion, garlic, sea salt, paprika, and smoked chili powder (I’ll share my recipe soon!). The dish is both fresh and traditional and just a tad spicy.
So…before even pulling out the pots and pans, take a sniff around your spice rack. Pick out your favorite spices, herbs, and condiments and make sure they are always within arm’s reach. Here’s my list:
-Mexican Chili Powder
-Hot Sauce (Melinda’s)
-Vinegar (Apple Cider, Champagne, Rice, Umeboshi…)
I’d feel confident saying that every single time I walk into the kitchen with the intention of cooking a meal, I reach for at least one of these ingredients (and these days I’m into coconut anything: milk, dried/shredded, water. I’m making tons of coconut curries. Yum!). All these ingredients are what make a meal comfortable, familiar, and delicious. Take some time to figure out what makes your list. Have some fun sniffing. Close your eyes and really experience the scent of each of these and try to pinpoint how they make you feel and what they remind you of. This is actually a really fun exercise with your baby or toddler too! Let them take an adventure in smells and tastes and see what they respond to. The visceral response from both you and her can be fun to see!
I’m interested in learning more about the healing qualities of spices and herbs too. I already know a little bit, like: turmeric is widely used in eastern medicine as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Cinnamon is known to be anti-microbial and aids in blood circulation. Everyone knows that ginger helps any stomach problems (mom and grandma suggest ginger ale?!?), but did you know that cumin is said to aid digestion and bloating? I’ve heard a ton of tales, and mean to investigate. Will report back…