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The Happy Kitchen's Guide to Cooking Without a Recipe

Scene: Thursday at 6:00. There are errands to run, laundry to do, and everyone's starving (and not quietly). That recipe that seemed so enticing on Sunday afternoon suddenly feels daunting . . . and of course, a crucial ingredient never made it into your shopping basket. These are the moments we are tempted to forgo something healthy and homemade for something convenient and pre-made. The Happy Kitchen to the rescue! With a few handy skills up your sleeve, you'll always be ready to whip up something good to eat on the fly--read on for our tips for cooking without a recipe!

  • Start with what you have. Take stock of what you have on hand, then choose one ingredient as a focal point and keep it simple (think stir-fries, pasta or whole grains topped with a simple braise, and easy soups).
  • Stock up. Keep a well-stocked pantry—dried beans, pasta, and whole grains create a foundation for simple meals. Flavor enhancers (soy sauce, lemons, anchovies, Dijon mustard, capers, toasted sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, etc), spices, and staple ingredients (olive oil, eggs, salt and pepper, etc) make throwing an impromptu dish together infinitely easier.
  • Know what you like. Use ingredients that already work together (for example, if you love Italian, experiment with ingredients in that flavor family, like basil, tomato, olive oil, and Parmesan).
  • Keep it balanced. Remember that the basis of creating and balancing flavor is in how you use the Five Tastes: Sweet, Sour, Salt, Bitter and Umami/Pungent. Too sweet? Try a little acid. Too bitter? A drop or two of sweet and sour can turn that around.
  • Follow your nose! Scent and taste are closely related, so let your sense of smell guide you as you develop your culinary intuition and judge cooking times. The scent of toasted nuts and seeds is pleasingly nutty and aromatic at the moment they are ready – wait any longer and they will smell--and taste—burnt.
  • Make a plan. It might sound like an oxymoron, but improvisation is enhanced by organization. Take stock of what’s on hand, lay out all your ingredients, and have all your cookware and tools at the ready.
  • Get inspired! Read food blogs, cookbooks and magazine recipes that interest you and before you know it, you’ll be using recipes as a source of inspiration rather than a hard and fast set of rules.