Shh… don't tell anyone I'm poor. They all think I'm living frugal and green just like everyone these days. This is a blog about a senior citizen living a frugal life, on a fixed income, in a low income food desert, and passing along knowledge from lessons learned. Some she learned from her Grandma Mama many years ago and some learned only a few days ago.
I’ve had many requests over the years to give recipes for the foods I cook. Honestly I’m not really good at using or writing recipes. I have lists of ingredients without measurements that I call my recipes. I do have a recipe or two that require fairly accurate measurements though. For example, my bread recipe needs to be close to accurate in order to produce a good loaf of bread.
Most of the time I cook without recipes using what I have available rather than shop for ingredients to follow a recipe. As I’ve explained often, the majority of my food comes from the mobile food bank produce truck. (Not the emergency food bank.) I never know what I’m going to get which makes knowing how to cook without actual recipes very important.
Ok, so you don’t get your food from a food bank. How can knowing how to cook without recipes help you? Hmm…. let’s say you are broke and its still a couple of days before payday. You must eat from the hodgepodge of ingredients in the fridge or cubbards that can’t be covered by one recipe. Have you ever watched one of those “cooking challenge” type shows and the contestants are given a mystery box of ingredients which they use to magically create a meal? That’s what I’m talking about. Meals without recipes. Grandma Mama called it mix and match cooking but some call it improvisational cooking.
So let me see if I can explain my process of cooking without recipes so you can do it too.
First: look in the fridge and the cabinets. What flavors or spices do you see? Mexican? Chinese? German? Soul? Southern or Cajun? Whatever you see is probably the flavor your family enjoys the most. That’s your starting idea but it could change before you are done.
Second: choose a main ingredient. What do you need to use up first? A bunch of wilting greens? A potato or two? Perhaps a piece of leftover chicken from yesterday’s meal? Maybe a lone jar of tomatoes sitting on the can goods shelf? Whatever it is you choose as the main ingredient it will be the focal point of the meal.
Third: look to see what else you have that could be added to that focus ingredient? Maybe you have some stale bread that could be toasted as croutons or maybe added to something as a thickener for a sauce? Perhaps you find a few crumbs of tortilla chips in the bottom of a chip bag that could be used as a casserole topping. Maybe you have half an onion or some leftover macaroni salad in the fridge. Whatever you have available, with the right seasonings, it can become a delicious meal.
Fourth: put everything out on the counter together. Seeing all the ingredients like that may help you picture how everything will match up with each other. It may help you choose a technique as well. In your head think through all the steps you want to do in order to make a dish. Do you want stir fry? An oven baked casserole? A crockpot stew? A pot pie? A simple salad? Half of all cooking is in the technique. These days most people rely on a recipe to instruct them what to do rather than actually knowing how a technique works. For example; stir fry is a technique. If you know the technique you don’t need a recipe to tell you to heat the pan and coat it with oil. You don’t need a recipe to tell you the ingredients needing the longest cook time goes in first. You will already know. Baking a casserole is a technique but if you know how to bake you don’t need a recipe to tell you to turn on the oven. You know. So, if you understand how different cooking techniques work you have the basics for all kinds of meals. You only need to decide the steps you want to take using the ingredients before you.
Many people, especially frugal people, are looking for quicker and easier ways to make everyday meals and that’s why learning improvisational cooking is so valuable. Its about using what you have so nothing goes to waste. Its about learning that measurements can be approximations and that many ingredients are interchangeable. In other words, mix and match cooking. Have you ever seen a cooking show where the star uses their hand to measure a tablespoon or a teaspoon? Have you seen the ones who just sort of toss in a bit of this and a bit of that? That’s what I’m talking about when I say approximations. Lets say you don’t have a full cup of an ingredient called for in a recipe. Mix and match cooking says find something similar to add or just use less.
Recipes are not set in stone rules. Recipes are suggestions. Sort of like a friend watching you and saying hey why don’t you add a few of those too. If you simply remember ingredients instead of measurements you will have taken the first step toward independent mix and match cooking. Ladybug says to tell you that Remy, the mouse chef in the Disney movie Ratatouille, used mix and match cooking too.
When you are mixing and matching ingredients remember to always taste your food as you work. Except, of course, when raw meat is involved. As if you didn’t know this already, never eat raw meat! Always cook it first. Your taste buds are your best guide for everything. It can tell you if it need more spice or if its cooked long enough. Whether or not you are using a recipe you want your dish to taste good. The only way to know is to taste it.
In the old days women kept recipe scrap books. Some hand written. Some clipped from newspapers or magazines with notes written beside them. Recipe scrap books are rare these days but really should be brought back again. Not every dish you create from scratch will be a hit. Some will be a flop so just remember what it was that didn’t work and avoid it in the future. Write it down in your recipe scrap book with a note saying what was right or wrong. You may think you’ll remember but you’d be amazed how small details fall through the cracks and your loved recipe may never live up to the original.
Here is an example of one meal I made using what I had available. I have an abundance of canned salmon. It was time I started using them but I didn’t want to heat up the house cooking salmon cakes. I looked to see what I had available to pair with the salmon. The fridge is kinda empty but I find cream cheese and celery.
I made a salmon cream cheese spread. I prefer to eat it on crackers or as a sandwich spread but I had neither crackers nor any bread left in the freezer. Gosh, I should have baked extra bread before the heat arrived. Anyway, I did have celery so I ate the spread on celery sticks along with a glass of tea.
How was it made? I let the cream cheese set on the counter for about an hour to soften. Using a fork I mixed the cheese with the salmon to a smooth consistency. I added a little celery seed to give it an extra boost but it wasn’t necessary. Just the cheese and salmon would have worked.
Now lets say instead of the simple spread I had wanted to make the spread go farther so there was leftovers for another meal. I could chop the celery to add it to the mix. Put in some raisins and maybe a few pecans from my food storage and I’ll have a similar but different salmon spread. Ok, say there is no salmon. Do I have tuna? Some canned chicken? Left over roast beef? Any of these would work.
On the negative side, I don’t think I personally would like salmon with BBQ sauce or chocolate sauce. There are limits to what I’ll try. Mix and match cooking is how many great recipes got started and became family favorites to be passed from one generation to the next. Each new generation adding their own twist to the recipe.
I hope I’ve given you something new to think about.