How to "just cook something"

Do you like cookbooks and are downloading recipes from the internet all the time? Or do you just cobble something together from what you have? I love cookbooks and can’t stop buying more, but at the same time I find that more and more often I “just cook something”. Some people swear by meal planning: It helps keeping an eye on what and how much you are eating, and if you are frugal then meal planning is the way to go. You buy what you need for the week or the next few days and then use that. No leftovers. I don’t know about you, but for me that doesn’t really work very well:

  • You’ve planned and shopped for seven days, and then it turns out that one evening, you spontaneously decide to go out for a meal with friends after work. Or yesterday’s recipe produced more food that you could eat and you have the leftovers today.
  • You find that your meal plan requires half of something: half an onion, half a red and half a yellow pepper, half a tin of beans … Where does the other half come in? Planning meals in such a way that you can use second halves within a reasonable time can be rather difficult.
  • You find that your recipes require ingredients that you don’t have and, if you bought them, are unlikely to ever use again in the foreseeable future.
  • You can’t really plan as you receive a weekly organic veg box delivery and don’t always know what will be in it.

If you are planning meals, always plan just for five or six dinners to allow for unforeseen circumstances. If you do need another recipe or two at the end of the week, this is the time to use your store cupboard staples, your “2nd halves” and your more exotic spices. And: your own creativity. Here some hints:

Tomatoes, thyme, basil, garlic, olives and olive oil give your odds and ends an Italian twist. Add protein using haricot, butter or flageolet beans, parmesan or mozzarella.

Ginger, garlic, spring onions, coriander leaves and Chinese cooking wine (or replace with leftover sherry or vermouth) and Chinese 5-spice powder for – you guessed it – a Chinese-like dish. Now don’t rush out getting 5-spice powder if you don’t think that you will use it much. Make my “Vaguely Oriental Sauce” (see below) instead.

To make your dish taste Mexican, use kidney or black beans, peppers, tomatoes, sweetcorn and avocado, season with chilli, cumin and a sprinkling of cocoa powder or raw cacao powder. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves.

For a Middle Eastern twist, try olive oil, garlic, and lemon, cumin, cinnamon (yes, even in savoury dishes, just a pinch) and ground coriander and – again – chopped coriander leaves. Chickpeas do well in Middle Eastern dishes.

If you like an Indian curry, make sure to have onions, garlic and ginger handy. Season with turmeric (anti-inflammatory!), cardamom, fenugreek seeds, cumin, chilli and ground coriander … or just throw in a teaspoon or two of your favourite ready mixed curry powder, but add extra turmeric.

Just knowing a little bit of this can form the base of many lovely dishes invented by you: pasta with an Italian-style sauce, noodles and stir-fry (see below), noodle soups, chillies, curries, stews, salads … Just have fun!

Oh, and if you don't like any of the ingredients - maybe your genes do not allow you to enjoy coriander, for instance - then leave them out. That's the beauty of cooking your own food: What you don't like or can't tolerate doesn't go in. You're the boss, it's your kitchen.

Stir-fry with my Vaguely Oriental Sauce

I get a weekly organic veg box, and at the end of the week, I sometimes have a mix of different veg left over that I need to do something with. If what I have would suit a stir-fry – e. g. onions, peppers, leeks, carrots, cabbage, pak choi, Chinese leaf, green beans, chestnut or shiitake mushrooms … - I make one that is usually of no particular country as I am just making it up.

First, chop your veg into bite-sized pieces. Start with the harder ones that take longer to cook. I always sweat the onions first, then follow carrots, then cabbage, peppers, leeks, mushrooms. Tomatoes, if using, go in last. Steam-fry the vegetables in coconut oil with a little water.

In a separate pan, I cook some protein food. You could use sliced chicken, tofu, king prawns or shrimps, cashew nuts or edamame beans, whatever you fancy, just not dairy, necessarily. It just doesn’t go well with it.

Whisk together some tamari (soya sauce), chopped or grated ginger, chopped or grated garlic, finely chopped chilli, roasted sesame oil (tiny bit, maybe 1 tsp, it’s got a strong flavour), Chinese cooking wine (or vermouth or sherry), rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, perhaps some 5-spice powder, but if I don’t have any I use ground coriander and cumin.

Then dissolve 1 or 2 tsp of potato or corn starch (or arrowroot) in cold (!) water and pour it into your sauce.

Mix your protein and veg and noodles if using (I like soba noodles). Add the sauce to your stir-fried veg and bring it to the boil. As soon as it boils, it will start to thicken. This is due to the starch. Now take your stir-fry off the heat, sprinkle with sesame seeds and chopped coriander and serve.

Tomorrow morning’s Nutrilicious News will be about green smoothies and juices, free radicals and antioxidants. There’s still time to sign up!