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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 8: Creative Cookery (a.k.a. Cooking With No Recipes)



One evening years ago, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend came over for dinner. It was impromptu. They called up at 4.00 p.m., said they’re arriving at around 6.00 p.m. and that left me no time to go shopping for ingredients.

Three-citrus Country-style Pork Ribs
Three-citrus Country-style Pork Ribs

Still, they loved the dishes I prepared, the main dish especially, and it prompted my brother-in-law to ask where I got the recipe for it. Nowhere, I said. I looked in the fridge and cooked together what I found.

My brother-in-law acted like I was pulling his leg — like I was pretending to know more than I actually did. I explained that cooking is not always about following a recipe.

I thought that was pretty obvious. A cook who understands ingredients and cooking techniques, basic or otherwise, can whip up a good meal with whatever is available. It’s not rocket science; it’s a simple truth. He still looked skeptical and I wondered just how many people think the way he does.

The truth is, if every cook simply followed recipes that already exist, no new dishes would ever be invented and we’d still be like cavemen roasting meat over burning wood

There. I wrote that as a subtitle to highlight a simple truth.

Dishes are born in three ways.

#1. It was cooked by following an existing recipe.

Chocolate chip cookies
Chocolate chip cookies

#2. The cook made a mistake, had a kitchen accident or deviated big time from an existing recipe and the resulting dish, unintended as it was, turned out to be delicious. Think how chocolate chip cookies happened and how the popsicle came to be.

#3. The cook decided to be inventive and took risks cooking an ingredient in an untraditional way (perhaps, even an unheard of way) and came up with a fantastic dish. That was how nachos was born. The same is true of Filipino sisig (the modern-day version, anyway, with meat from the pig’s head).

Creative cookery is about throwing away (mostly imagined) limitations and “security blankets”

Ninety per cent of people who try a new dish will immediately ask where it came from (or, like my brother-in-law, where the recipe came from). And when you are unable to name a source (because you invented it so it didn’t exist until you cooked it), they will be hesitant to praise it.

Heck, most will even be hesitant to TRY it.

And that makes me think of a blogger from long ago, a Filipino tech blogger who grew up in the U. S. This was back in 2003 when blogging was very new. I posted a recipe for spaghetti tossed with leftover kaldereta sauce (the one in the recipe archive today is an updated version) and this tech blogger wasted no time writing his own blog post, linking to my recipe, and saying Beef kaldereta spaghetti? I don’t think so. Yep, some things I never forget.

Beef kadereta spaghetti
Beef kaldereta spaghetti

I mention that side story to point out that many, if not most, people balk at the unfamiliar. Just as many, if not most, people balk at anything that cannot be sourced to a purported “authoritative source”. Crowds line up for crappy food in a restaurant because the owner is on TV but they will cringe at the mere thought of eating at a carinderia where the food is ten times better for a fraction of the price.

As cook and diner, learn to judge a dish for its intrinsic quality rather than for its association with a name or establishment.

A dish is delicious if thoughtfully prepared (i.e. the ingredients come together well, the texture is good and the mouth feel is pleasant) EVEN IF it still has no name and even if it hadn’t been cooked before. Put that to heart and you will never run out of new ideas.

If, and when, you do cook without following a recipe, go a step farther and educate the people, whether family or friends, who will eat the dish you invented. If they ask what it is, tell them to try it first then ask how they found it. Then, explain what’s in it and how you put the dish together. Finally, declare that you invented it.

Granted, cooking with no recipes is not for the complete newbie

Some people are born with innate talent. There are children who can paint with no formal lessons, and I mean paint in such a way that most adults will not be able to easily do even with years of training.

Others are born to be natural athletes, piano players, writers, dancers…

Others are born with a talent for cooking. My older daughter Sam (who makes the videos for the blog) was like that as a child. Naiwan la’ng sa kusina tapos nagluto na (she was left alone in the kitchen and she just started cooking).

Not all of us are like that. I know I WAS NOT. I started from scratch, I made a lot of mistakes, wasted a lot of ingredients (which often had my mother screaming) and threw away countless inedible dishes.

Tinapa (smoked fish) and mashed potato cakes
Tinapa (smoked fish) and mashed potato cakes

But I got to this point. THIS POINT when I can pull things out of the fridge and pantry and, even if at the outset they appear to be so totally unrelated with each other, cook them together into something appetizing. I who was NOT born with a natural talent for cooking can now cook without following recipes.

SO CAN YOU. If you’ve been following the 10-week course on how to cook, you shouldn’t be a complete newbie at this point. But whether you’re ready to cook without following recipes is something that you will know ONLY IF YOUR TRY.

Are you ready to try cooking with no recipes?

A practical guide for cooking with no recipes

Here’s a test. See how you fare.

Option 1. Go to the market (or grocery) and buy ingredients randomly. Meaning, buy them with no particular dish in mind. Buy them just because they’re wonderfully fresh or because they’re your favorites.

Option 2. If you’ve just been to the market or grocery, skip option 1. Instead, look in your fridge and pantry. Pick out ingredients with no specific dish in mind.

Place your ingredients on the kitchen table (or counter). Spread them out so that they are side by side. Look at them. Does their arrangement spark inspiration? Is the seed of a dish forming in your mind? If not, re-arrange them. Think how each ingredient can enhance the others. Toy around with options. Then, decide how you will cook them.

See, there is no strict formula. How well the cooked dish will turn out depends on (1) how well you understand the characteristics of each ingredient and (2) how those characteristics can be maximized or underplayed once you put them together.

Yellow rice with fresh mussels and mixed vegetables
Yellow rice with fresh mussels and mixed vegetables

See that rice and mussels dish above? It’s not paella. It’s not biryani. But it was darn good.

Take a leap of faith, I tell you, and try cooking with no recipes. It’s liberating.

So, next week, for the ninth lesson in the series, it will be about recycling and cooking with leftovers.