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When I first started cooking for myself regularly after college, no trip to the grocery store would be complete without a printed recipe or two. Those ingredients would lead the charge as I dutifully made my way up and down the aisles to pick up provisions for Chicken Marsala and Teriyaki Salmon. I recall those days fondly; boy, was I scared to veer off course! Many years and many meals later, with knowledge of how to keep a stocked pantry and the need to feed myself and my family, I've largely relinquished recipes, as championed by this week’s Change the Way You Cook newsletter.
During the work week, my dinner routine is pretty straightforward and its components are almost always the same: a warm bowl of mixed grain rice anchors the meal and is accompanied by a sautéed or roasted vegetable, some type of fish or chicken, and sometimes a soup. Keeping dinner relatively simple and formulaic may seem like a bore (and trust me, sometimes it is, but that’s what pizza delivery is for!), but it actually allows me the freedom to create meals based on how I'm feeling (and what's in the refrigerator). Below, you'll find this week's newsletter strategies for improvising in the kitchen, and how they play a very active part in my every day cooking.
My day-to-day cooking leans heavily on the flavors of my Korean heritage, so making a flavorful meal is quite easy with pantry go-tos like soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic, gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), doenjang (soy bean paste or miso), dashima (dried kelp or kombu), rice vinegar, mirin, sugar (or honey), and scallions. With that list of comrades, I can make endless meals for my family that our palates don’t tire of. Having a reliable spice gang and stocked pantry gives me the freedom and confidence to go rogue. No more half-used jars of a pre-made teriyaki sauce; now I know how to make a simple homemade version with basic ingredients I already have lying around. When it’s hard enough to get dinner on the table after a long day, I rely on the core flavors we enjoy most and apply them to all manners of vegetables and proteins, tweaking for seasoning along the way.
Winging it in the kitchen invites you to bend the rules. Do I cook solely from my Korean pantry? No way! While those flavors are certainly the MVPs, if a dish is missing brightness that rice vinegar can’t quite capture, you can bet I’ll be reaching for a juicy lemon for an assist. If gochugaru’s feeling a little one-note, I’m going for fruity, tangy sumac instead. In fact, one of my family’s favorite mandu, or Korean dumplings, emerged from Thanksgiving Day leftovers. We just wanted a new (very cute) package for all that turkey and Brussels sprouts, so we tucked it all into a wrapper with some flavor-boosting rehydrated shiitakes, and gave it new life as a pan-fried dumpling. When midweek Bolognese cravings hit, I can throw a quick version together with ground beef I pick up on the way home and pantry standbys (tomato sauce, aromatic vegetables, and red wine—wine is always in stock, BTW). Keeping a wide range of flavors and staples on hand—and knowing how and when to substitute them—gives you the leverage to go off-roading, and experiment with confidence.
Maintaining a framework without exact recipes lets me experiment with techniques that will yield different results using the same ingredients. Pan-searing a fillet of fish skin-side down, for example, is an entirely different experience from steaming that same fish en papillote, or broiling it in the oven. Poaching tofu for its entrance into a soup is worlds away from pan-fried tofu and flash-fired tofu in a hot wok.
Cooking without recipes keeps you nimble when unexpected roadblocks get thrown your way, like when the gas in your building gets turned off for an unknown amount of time and you're given a hot plate to make do (don't get me started). What does that look like from a shopping and cooking perspective? Essentially, I don't let meal plans or recipes dictate my shopping. When I hit the supermarket or online grocer, I get the weekly staples that never change (onion, garlic, eggs, milk, yogurt, rice, pasta, etc.), and then let whatever is on sale and/or in season guide me the rest of the way. As long as I fill the general categories of fruit, non-green vegetables, green vegetables, and proteins, I'll be good for the better part of the week. And when I’m approaching the tail end of the week with a fridge full of leftover bits and bobs? That’s when they’ll get reimagined as fried rice, toppings for rice bowls and salads, folded into soft omelettes, or heaped atop toasts.
I love a good, well-written recipe as much as the next person, but I save those inspiring projects for the weekend when time isn’t of the essence. Generally, I think of a great recipe like training wheels: If I make it often enough, it will become part of my cooking muscle memory. During the work week, I remain largely recipe-free and cook like the freewheeling maverick I've unwittingly become.
What are some ways you go off-script in the kitchen? Share your best cooking discoveries with us below!