(These are recaps of our “Hidden Apron at Home” Instagram Live sessions held on my @errant_diner account focusing on the fundamentals of cooking as I, a non-chef, understand them. They are based on my experiences learning how to cook and deal with systems and ways of thinking vs. just recipes. This third session is part of a longer series addressing the Motivation – or lack thereof – to cook. This one deals specifically with Flexibility. Click here for recaps of Part 1: Confidence and Part 2: Efficiency)
For the past two weeks, we’ve been addressing the multiple factors that stop someone from cooking whether it’s by approaching cooking as a playful progression in order to build confidence or by learning how to set up your station efficiently so cooking becomes less of a drag. This week, we’re addressing a third reason keeping many from cooking: Flexibility.
Cooking, like any other skill, is limited by what you “know”. If all you know is a handful of recipes or is restricted by the few ways you know how to enjoy an egg, cooking can quickly become a bore. Even the most habitual of creatures will want some variety in their diets! Second, and related to our previous session on Confidence, being restricted in your cooking style prohibits you from enjoying a perfectly delicious dish because you seemingly have less than optimal ingredients. Yes the purists out there may insist that there are only a few “right” ways to prepare the pasta, stew, or dessert you’ve chosen to make for the day but these are hills not worth dying on in your quest to become a better cook.
Flexibility is ultimately an expression of adaptability and in these uncertain times, it’s what allows you to make do with the equipment, ingredients, and time that you have to whip up something healthy and tasty. It also expands your field of knowledge so that even if you don’t fully know what a specific dish is supposed to taste like, you know enough to be able to produce a damn tasty version of it that’s entirely yours. The two biggest ideas I can share around the idea of Flexibility are these:
- Thinking in Templates, not Recipes
Templates, blueprints, and playbooks may be de rigeur in tech and consulting companies but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in kitchens! Rather than limiting yourself to a single recipe that defines amounts, temperatures, times, and ingredients, using a template allows you to quickly swap components in and out whether due to craving or circumstance. There is no one template you can use and you should feel free to write up your own so long as it’s broad enough to account for limitless variations. One I like to teach is the one below and as you can see, a diverse set of dishes can be created from this one simple template.
Lately, since I’ve been experimenting with cocktails, I’ve found it helpful to use this template:
Base Liquor + Sweetener + Filler + Garnish
This simple template has allowed me to make a post-dinner Ginger-Cachaça drink (Cachaça + Ginger Syrup + Hojicha + Mint) to a more refreshing and floral Gin one (Gin + Sorrel Syrup + Soda Water + Candied Sorrel). You might decide you prefer drinks neat and do away with the Filler but instead insist on Citrus. Go for it!
- Cooking in Modules, not Meals
Just as chefs will advise you to buy multi-purpose equipment and not those birthed in some infomercial fever dream, you can also think of the things you cook as modules that can be assembled into variations of a meal rather than the meal in itself. For example, I regularly keep the following (cooked whenever I get the chance) in containers in my fridge: Korean Multi-grain rice, Brazilian style Collard Greens, Filipino Atsara (pickles), a syrup of some kind, cooked beans that could easily turn into a soup or a side dish, a stock made from whatever vegetable/chicken trimmings I have, and a variety of other sauces and condiments (Calamansi-Gochujang marinade, rendered duck fat, leftover Coq au Vin sauce, Toum, etc.).
Using these in combination with my other pantry items allows me create several variations of a meal even if I didn’t have time to cook a more involved recipe. Eg.: Tamago Kake Gohan with a side of Tofu and Miso Soup, White Bean Soup topped with Collard Greens, Fried Eggs with Sardines and Kimchi, Roast Chicken on Peperonata, etc.
Cooking flexibly is less about having some innate Spidey sense that whispers ingredient substitutions in your head and more about sensing the broader structures of your kitchen from easy-to-remember templates to multi-purpose dishes that make cooking infinitely interesting and adaptable whether you’re under quarantine or not.
This week I chose dishes that people have a very strong opinion about and are resistant to bastardized interpretations by people like me: Risotto, Feijoada, and Chana Masala. I then substituted ingredients and techniques based on what I have available in my kitchen and how I wanted the finished product to taste like.
1) Create a stock using aromatics and herbs typical in Chinese cuisine. I used: dried shiitake mushrooms, jujubes, and star anise.
2) Prepare the risotto the same way you would with an Italian recipe: sauté aromatics like onion and garlic, toss in short-grain rice like Arborio or sushi rice until coated in oil, deglaze with a wine like Shaoxing wine (opt.), and begin ladling stock in and cooking over low heat until the desired consistency is reached.
* Note: Cooking risotto takes time and attention. Stir constantly and add stock as necessary to keep the rice just about submerged in liquid. You’ll know it’s done when the rice no longer looks raw (i.e. with opaque white centers).
Feijoada de Frango
1) Soak black beans overnight in salted water. Rinse before cooking.
2) Boil beans for about 30 mins., then add a whole, washed orange including skin (opt.). Boil for another 15 – 30 mins. Then add whatever smoked/cured pork products you have on hand and boil ensuring water is just enough to cover the ingredients (eg: bacon, ham hock, pork belly, snout, ears, linguiça, etc.). I only had linguiça so my primary protein was in the form of chicken which I added shortly after the linguiça. Blasphemous I know.
3) Boil under chicken and beans are tender. Season as necessary. You can continue to reduce the water or add some mashed potatoes if you prefer a thicker stew.
4) Serve with farofa toasted with a little butter and sautéed collard greens if desired.
1) Soak chickpeas overnight if using dried chickpeas.
2) Temper desired spices in oil. I wanted to use some of the spices of my youth in addition to more traditional Indian spices so I utilized Ras el Hanout, Cardamom, Cloves, Cumin Seeds, and Cayenne.
3) Toss in chickpeas and canned tomatoes (preferably whole that you can crush yourself) with any other additional spices like Bay Leaves and Red Chili Flakes if desired. Simmer over low heat until chickpeas are tender.
No Forks Given by Chef Yana Gilbuena. In her self-published cookbook/memoir, Yana details her insanely ambitious SALO Project where she cooked 50 Filipino pop-up dinners across all 50 States in America over 50 weeks. You can imagine the extreme flexibility required to bring flavors of an archipelago to places like Iowa where a massive Asian grocery store may not be available. Yana pulled it off not once, but fifty times.
The “Social Deliciousness” Instagram Series by Chef Sameh Wadi. Chef Sameh graciously let me into his kitchen to observe back when I was just a college student who saved up to eat the occasional meal and couscous cake at the very much missed Saffron Restaurant in Minneapolis. He and his brother Saed made me rethink the Arabic cuisine I thought I knew growing up in Saudi and Chef Sameh has not stopped with his boundary-defying culinary ventures: a food truck and shop selling global street food, an ice cream shop that garners lines of customers even in the dead of winter, chef’ed up hot dogs, and an Asian-Cajun seafood joint. He deserves far more attention across our culinary landscape in my opinion and his IG feed and current IGTV series shot under quarantine is a treasure trove of menu ideas.