Cooking for me used to be a frustrating experience, in part because I have what I call numerical dyslexia, which causes me to mix up numbers in my head. It happens when I try to read a clock or a calendar, and especially when I am going through a recipe. No matter how much I try to follow recipes, inevitably teaspoons become tablespoons, rendering the dishes I prepare inedible.
When I was younger, my mother and sister would spend hours in the kitchen. My sister became privy to a wide range of the kind of cooking secrets that are passed down through generations, earning her praise within our family as being our own “Martha Stewart.” Talk about intimidating! Me? I avoided the kitchen as often as possible, which resulted in years of eating nothing but takeout while living on my own in New York City.
It wasn’t until I developed an immune disorder that I began to examine what I was consuming and realized that eating out so often was exposing me to potentially harmful ingredients (like too much sodium, sugar and gluten) and questionable cooking practices (like less-than-clean cutting boards). That’s when I first braved cooking without a recipe.
The first thing I learned about cooking without a recipe was the importance of a properly stocked pantry and fridge. These are the items I’ve found over the years to be essential to have on hand, the staples versus the freshly bought produce and meats:
- All purpose gluten free flour
- Organic Baking Soda
- Organic Baking Powder
- GF Corn Starch
- GF Pasta
- Basmati Rice
- Himalayan Salt
- Lemon Pepper Thyme
- Smoked Paprika
- Ground Turmeric
- Powdered Ginger
- Red Pepper Flakes
- Cayenne Pepper
- Italian Spice Mix
- Olive Oil
- Organic Ketchup
- GF Tamari
- GF Teriyaki
- Kerrygold butter
I never fry foods but instead sautée, bake or steam them. I usually go for savory flavoring through a combination of jarred spices and fresh herbs. A really good, fresh, infused olive oil can go a long way to bringing a simple vegetable sautée to flavorful life. Who knew? And I never shy away from real, quality butter. A little goes a long way for that comfort food taste.
Learning how to Choose Spices
Sampling spices is important to really get to know their flavor profiles. It took me forever to realize that the comforting and familiar taste of authentic Mexican foods that I enjoyed so much came from cumin. I learn about spice combinations from reading recipes but never try to follow them precisely. I sometimes keep four or five versions of the same dish from books and websites open in the kitchen to get the gist of making something. I love learning how mixing up spice combinations can totally change a dish. Measuring seasonings to taste instead of with spoons is an acquired skill, but you basically just let your taste buds lead the way.
I now know that when I want to sautée vegetables with an Asian flair, I use GF low sodium Tamari, salt and pepper to taste, and powdered or fresh ginger. I sprinkle rather than dash until the taste is just right. A little cinnamon adds a layer to the flavoring that is pleasing and unexpected.
While I almost always add some Italian seasoning to everything I make (basil, oregano, marjoram and sage), when I want to go more Italian, I throw in fresh basil and oregano from either herb plants in my kitchen or from the refrigerated section of the produce aisle at the grocery store plus some tomato paste or even organic ketchup. If I’m going for Mexican, I use cumin, red pepper flakes and smoked paprika, maybe a little cayenne for extra heat.
Add Colors to Add Nutrition
I personally don’t cook with fresh garlic but fresh chopped onion always immediately follows oil or butter in the pan to get things started. While I do keep frozen organic vegetables in the freezer for convenience, I try to use fresh produce for every dinner. My favorites are zucchini, Mexican squash, carrots, bell pepper, Anaheim peppers, and asparagus. One cooking “rule” for healthier eating that I always try to follow is to make sure there are many colors represented on a plate, especially in my vegetable sautées.
Another rule I try to follow is to make sure I use more whole foods than packaged foods. I am still surprised how we’ve all become so accustomed to eating things from boxes and packaging that we forget it is not “real” food but processed substances that lack wholesome nutrition. I remember once shopping with a woman who went to the produce section to get potatoes so we could make mashed potatoes and came back with a box.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Mashed potatoes,” she replied.
“I meant get REAL potatoes so we can mash them,” I explained to her.
“But these ARE real,” she said, pointing at the box. “See, it says REAL potatoes right here.”
Anyone looking to totally transform the way they eat and cook should really start by eating less food from boxes and packages and replace them with more fresh produce and lean meats. Such a simple and obvious way to improve eating and cooking habits but too often overlooked. And if it says “fat-free,” avoid it like the plague.
I’m not some master chef. I’m not a nutrition expert. But I’ve managed to maintain a consistent healthy weight, low cholesterol numbers and optimal levels for all my other health numbers. Some of this is heredity, I know. But I attribute a lot of my good health to healthy eating and not eating “by the numbers” but instead consuming fresh and thoughtfully seasoned cooking without recipes.