One of the things I think I am good at is improvising in the kitchen. Except for baking where I tend to rely on recipes or canning where I fear I may kill someone if I don’t respect the chemistry, I usually don’t follow recipes. I might read them for inspiration, especially for techniques I’m not as familiar with (making a soufflé, as an example), but generally I’m not using them. I did a lot in the early days and I think you can teach yourself to cook by just picking a recipe or two and making it several times. Eventually you’ll tweak it. You’ll either be out of an ingredient and need to get crafty, or, like me, you might be living in Japan and need to get creative to come up with items to approximate the comfort foods of home.
Japan gave me several gifts when it comes to food. One is it eliminated my obsession with butter and cheese on veggies and soy sauce on plain rice. I am a much cleaner eater after living in Japan. Two, it got me away from an “it’s got to be piping hot” before you eat it expectation. When we went to big parties, most of the party food was on the table long before we got there. Normally hot food was still delicious at room temperature. Even in our boxed lunches, it was not uncommon to have room temperature spaghetti or chicken. Even fish and rice. It was delicious and sometimes the flavor was even more pronounced as the food was a bit cooler. Sure, some things were always served super hot, but it was no tragedy when they weren’t. The third gift was creativity. If I couldn’t find zucchini, I could sub in a thin cucumber. If I couldn’t find cheese, I could find tons of other interesting and beautiful veggies to experiment with instead. And if I did find cheddar cheese or taco shells or something else familiar, I had the good sense to splurge and indulge to keep myself going. And then back to experimentation. Living in a small town, I did a lot of cooking for myself. Pre-internet and google, I asked my mom to send me a basic U.S. cookbook and I set to teaching myself how to make things (like spaghetti sauce) that I normally would have bought in a jar before. I really began to love cooking (I always liked it) and to view it as a time for self-care and a way to be self sufficient.
I began to trust my abilities. My instincts. My resources to “rescue” items that might not turn out right right away. I think cooks should use their instincts in the kitchen. Trust your experience to know what will and won’t taste good together.
Yesterday I was feeling under the weather and thought it might be a good idea to make a pot of soup. I knew I had a bunch of veggies that would lend themselves to a lazy Sunday soup — chard, carrots, potatoes, an onion. I know not everyone is a fan of greens, but when I have them and items like carrots and onion, I think minestrone — a blend of chicken broth and tomatoes for the soup base. So, that’s where I was headed, sort of. I didn’t want to use pasta like a minestrone or beans, but I wanted the veggie and broth elements.
I started with a big pot. Into it I tossed in the diced onion, one potato, some carrots, and some garlic. I could have stopped there, but since I know fennel is good with tomato and Italian seasonings, I cut up a fennel bulb that I had. I had a kohlrabi which tastes a bit to me like cabbage so I peeled it and cut it up too since that flavor would enhance what I was doing. I had beets, but knowing their flavor would not be enhanced by tomato, I left them in the veggie bin. We had a lot of leek and garlic scales from the farm but they were starting to get larger in diameter and not so tender, so I chopped up the last of them and added them as well so they could lend their subtle leek and garlic goodness as they softened in the mix. Last, I added the chopped up chard stems (leaves saved to go in later). I was in business!
After sautéing for a bit, I added in a container of chicken broth and one jar of my home canned tomatoes (a 14 oz can from the store would have been fine).
After bringing it to a boil and reducing it to simmer, I added oregano and thyme, my two favorite dry herbs “by eye” to the developing soup. I left it to simmer about 10 minutes to soften up the carrot, potato, fennel, kohlrabi and onion.
While the soup was cooking, I washed the chard leaves and set them aside with some chopped parsley we had gotten from the CSA this week. I went to my garden to gather some fresh herbs: oregano, oregano thyme, and thyme. These would all go in towards the end along with snap peas (so they’d stay crunchy!).
When the veggies in the pot were getting tender, I added in the chard and parsley.
That cooked just a few minutes to soften the chard. Once I thought it was ready, I did the critical taste for seasoning and added a bit of salt and pepper.
Last, I added the fresh oregano and thyme and the snap peas.
I didn’t want the peas to cook. Just get a bit warm and a tiny bit soft. I basically brought the soup back to a boil and the pulled it off the heat to serve.
Put into big white bowls, it was both lovely and delicious. And soul satisfying. I was feeling a lot better after the soup than before, but I also felt good to once again trust my instincts to come up with something good. Not all experiments are a success, but as you cook more, more and more of them are.