Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Improvisational Cooking

I have been hearing several new terms lately, no-recipe recipe, cooking without a book and lastly, improvisational cooking. The January issue of Southern Living magazine even has recipes that everyone should know ‘by heart’. There is a cookbook titled, The Improvisational Cook and one titled How to Cook without a Book. If it helps any, I purchased How to Cook Without a Book and I actually like it.

I got to thinking about what these terms really mean. All these terms are really nothing new. Our grandmothers did it all the time. As a matter of fact, most of them did not own a cookbook. All they knew was to cook ‘by heart’. It now seems that some people believe that if there is no recipe, they can’t cook. Why not, your grandmother did it and she had less sophisticated ingredients and equipment than you have. Here is my rule of thumb. You only need a recipe if you are making pastries or cakes or baked products. These are formulations and the ingredients are there for a reason. That is, they have a function that affects the overall quality of the final product. For dishes like soups, pot roasts, mashed potatoes, you don't need a recipe. A recipe is really someone’s idea of what a dish should taste like. What you want to put in your dish is entirely up to you.

I am really into this improvisational cooking. Preparing dinner at 6:00pm when I am tired and hungry is no time to hunt for a recipe. So, here is how I do it.

1. Stock the pantry for cooking, not for a recipe. When you run out of an ingredient, purchase it soon. A well stocked pantry allows you to cook a meal without last minute trips to the grocery store.
2. Stop measuring ingredients. Learn to cook by taste and feel of the dish. You are not trying to make the most superb dish; you are trying to get dinner on the table quickly.
3. Trust your instincts.
4. Practice. We get better at things that we practice. Cooking is no different.
5. Read recipes. That may sound dumb. I read a lot of recipes. However, I mostly read for ideas, not for exact recipes. Reading recipes helps you to understand what ingredients go together and in what proportions.

I am taking the liberty of including one of my favorite no recipe dishes. Please feel free to make changes.

No Recipe Sweet Potatoes

1. Bake enough sweet potatoes to make about 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes. If you like, bake extra, they freeze extremely well. I like to bake my sweet potatoes because I think they taste better.

2. Take about 2 cups of mashed potatoes and add the following ingredients, about 2 tablespoons butter, 1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger or ¼ teaspoon ground ginger, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and ¼ cup light coconut milk. Mix ingredients and serve. Sweet potatoes can also be made ahead and refrigerated. Reheat when ready to serve.

 3. This recipe makes about 4 – ½ cup servings.

As you can tell, this is not an exact recipe. If you don’t have an ingredient or you don’t like an ingredient, leave it out and keep on cooking. Other options for sweet potatoes are canned crushed pineapple, chopped pecans, cinnamon, and maple syrup in place of the brown sugar. I even have a friend who will sometimes use an overripe banana.


  1. Georgia --
    I'm going to try this and I'll probably have to use something instead of coconut milk, we don't have that. I have always wanted to cook with no recipe, that's why I like to make soup with my Mom. I just get to chop away and throw it in the pot. But she makes me use a recipe to make cookies.

  2. Carson;
    Thanks for responding to my blog. It's great to hear from you. If you don't have coconut milk, try using shredded coconut. Also canned pineapple is good with sweet potatoes. Thanks for writing. Let me know how your sweet potatoes turn out.