A favorite way for me to be in the kitchen is also the simplest way: no recipes, no special ingredients, no plan. It starts with hunger, a tugging in my belly that eventually takes over all my thinking so that I have to stop what I'm doing and wander around to see what's on hand.
This morning I found a ripe avocado, a lemon, and a single piece of stale flatbread on the counter. In the garden, some mint and parsley, and a handful of wee lettuces just poking up. In the fridge a half of a cucumber, a few scallions, some peas, and a few radishes that were just barely on this side of fresh. It's clear that a springtime salad, something close to but not quite a fattoush, is what's for lunch today.
People always want to know how to cook without recipes, a desire I really understand. There's a particular pleasure in just grabbing a little of this and that and having it become something really wonderful. It feels good to be untethered and in a flowy improvisational space, just following your instincts. Who doesn't want to tap her wand three times and pull a rabbit (maybe stewed with wine, mushrooms and thyme) out of a hat?
The truth is, this kind of improvisation is easier than you think. You just basically have to get in there and do it. Yes, it helps to keep a few things always in stock (garlic, olive oil, lemons, herbs) and yes, it helps to have a little technique and experience under your belt. But the best way to be an improvisational cook is to just be bold, leap in and learn as you go. And start simple.
My salad today is an excellent example. It's basically just a toss up of a few chopped vegetables and herbs with a lot of olive oil and lemon. I toasted the flatbread on the stove top, tore it up and added that, too. Boldness came in the form of a pinch of sumac and a little garlic in the dressing. But it was really simple and over the top delicious and it didn't take much in time, technique or fancy cooking know-how.
I encourage you all to cook like this whenever you can: no recipe, no fancy equipment, no plan or expectations. You may think you need to be an experienced cook to come up with something off the top of your head, but you really don't. Somewhere deep inside, you understand food, understand how flavors and textures go together. After all, you have been eating your entire life! Just listen and be bold and you will find what you need from whatever is on hand.
(Image: Dana Velden)