Lots of my students ask me how to move beyond cooking with a recipe, to the point where you can come up with your own combinations of ingredients and techniques to create a dish.
As I was cooking tonight, I realised that what I was making was a perfect illustration of how I do this. I have a kind of mental decision tree I now instinctively (and quickly) go through so I wanted to share it. I hope it helps you start to frame your thinking and help sharpen your instincts about what to put together. Don’t be scared off by all my notes below, but have a read, maybe print it off to pin on your fridge and think about it when you’re stood at the door of the fridge staring into it wondering what to make. Or, keep it with you in your bag if you are the kind of person who plans shopping lists on the train to work or when you’re actually in the shop itself.
Firstly, what do I fancy eating? Today is cold here in California – finally! And I’m feeling a bit under the weather and in need of comfort but also want lots of veggies and low carbs after a weekend of indulgence. I also want something that my kids can eat tonight that I can then set aside and eat with my husband after they go to bed (they are only 2 and 3 so we don’t eat dinner together mid-week yet).
Secondly, what is my day going to be like? Do I have time to stand at the stove? Do I have something in the freezer I’ve already made that I can use? Will I be able to get something prepped or cooked earlier in the day? I knew that I’d be out all morning then home this afternoon but would be busy. So I wanted something I could prep for 15 minutes earlier in the day (while my boys had breakfast) then throw in the oven early afternoon and leave to do its thing while I did other things. Then I’d only need to have 15 minutes to pull it together at dinner time.
Then, what flavours do I want to use and where can I get my spark of inspiration? I went to a fabulous new bar, The Lexington House, near us a couple of week ago and ordered a dish that was one of the best things I’ve tasted this year. My cocktail fuddled memory from that night (and badly written note in my iPhone) tells me it was amazing. Dark, long-cooked, pork broth surrounding a pork-filled tortellini with slow roasted pork and a kale pesto. The flavours and textures worked beautifully. The freshness and acid of the pesto balanced out the fatty (in a good way) umami of the pork and the soft pork was balanced by the crisp baby kale leaves that were used to finish the dish. This was the photo I took that night (great way to remind yourself of good things you want to recreate at home as are photos of the description on the menu/trips to the website of the place you ate at)
The technique for the homemade tortellini and long-cooked broth is something I’m not going to replicate on a Tuesday afternoon when I have my boys playing Lego around my feet. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still be inspired by the key parts of the dish. Namely:
- the kale pesto – I make pesto all the time in my food processor so I can easily replicate this. My boys have been hopeless at eating their greens lately but they will always eat pesto – so it’s a great way of getting lots of raw greens into a small amount of food. I’ve started giving them kale pesto often and they lap it up – on toast, in pasta or soup or as a dip for raw carrots or cooked strips of butternut squash
- I have this wonderful hands-off slow cooked pork shoulder recipe that is very similar to the soft pork I loved at the restaurant
So, two key elements I can use, both using techniques and recipes I already have. I’m just combining them in a new way.
Then, to add onto this (or often this is my first question), I ask myself – what do I have in the fridge that needs using? I don’t want to go to the store every day to buy a long list of ingredients for a recipe so I plan for most of my week’s meals in advance so that I’ll have all I need. I knew I’d be having the fennel roasted pork in some format but hadn’t decided what, so I had the pork. I also have Brussel sprouts and butternut squash. I’m obsessed with roasted butternut squash at this time of year and am making it almost every day in some shape or form – to stir through pasta or purée into a soup or simply to toss through some rocket [arugula] for a salad with sherry vinegar.
So there are my veggies – restaurant food is typically light on the veggies with a dish, but in the real world I want to fill the bulk of my plate with veggies – not only for their nutritious benefits but also because they balance out the heaviness of the meat.
Finally, I check off what I’ve got in my imagined dish in terms of balance of textures and flavours:
- pork – soft, umami, meatiness, richness, protein (check)
- lemon kale pesto – freshness, acid, green, protein from the nuts (check)
- roasted squash – colour, sweetness, carbiness, veg (check)
- brussel sprouts – more veg and colour (check)
What’s missing for me is crunch, so I decide to leave the seeds in my squash before I roast it.
To dig into that last section a bit more, here is the mental checklist I use when I’m planning or when I’m tasting as I cook to make sure it feels balanced. I think about if the dish has ticked off these elements:
Nutrition – Does it contain – protein, healthy carbs (whole grains/root vegetables), a few colours of veggies, good fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts)
Texture – Are there soft, crunchy, crispy, cooked, raw elements
Flavours – Are there elements of these in the dish:
- Sweet (i.e. roasted veg, honey, fruit)
- Salty (i.e. salt, soy sauce, nam pla, Parmesan, anchovy)
- Umami (i.e. soy sauce, nam pla, Parmesan, anchovy, tomato, crust on cooked meat)
- Sour (i.e citrus juice, pickled veg, wine, tamarind)
- Bitter (i.e vinegar, olive, beer, bitter greens such as dandelion) – to be honest I often struggle to get this one in except when I use citrus zest
Finally, freshness – never sure if this is a flavour or texture (i.e. fresh herbs or lemon or raw vegetables) but it lifts things
Don’t worry, this soon becomes instinctive – the more you cook, think and taste, the more you’ll be able to train yourself to think like this. I’m going to write more on this subject in future so please let me know if you have questions I can help answer.
Here is the recipe for the resulting dish:
Slow roasted pork with kale pesto, roast butternut squash and greens (serves 4)
Active prep time 30 minutes (split 10 minutes getting the pork in, 10 minutes chopping the squash, 10 minutes making pesto)
Cooking time 2-4 hours (all hands-off so you can be doing other things)
Slow roasted fennel pork
This is also wonderful served with a fennel salad as in my original post of this recipe. Pork shoulder is a great cut for slow cooking – it melts down beautifully and is a relatively inexpensive cut so a great way of feeding a crowd.
1kg/2lb 3oz pork shoulder (pork shoulder butt in the US)
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 170C [325F] (or you could use a slow cooker/crockpot)
2. Tip the fennel seeds, salt and pepper into a Le Creuset, or similar enamel lined pan with a lid and shake them around to mix them (see photo)
3. Roll the pork in the pan so that is covered on all sides with the spices.
4. Put the lid on and put the pan into the oven for 3- 4 hours. No need to do anything much during that time. Check it after 2 hours (or so) and turn it over. It is ready when it is falling apart and golden. If it cooks a little longer it won’t be a problem.
5. Drain off the fat and roughly shred the pork by using a couple of spoons to pull the meat apart in chunks, be sure to scrape up the brown sticky juices at the bottom of the pan. The pork could be cooked a day ahead and reheated in the same pan if time worked better for you that way. Leftovers are great in tacos, stirred through pasta or even on sandwiches.
Feel free to swap the kale for any other green such as spinach or rocket [arugula]. You could also add some basil or parsley or substitute the lemon for white or red wine vinegar.
around 300g [10 ounces] rocket [arugula] or kale
1 handful of almonds, walnuts or sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
Grated zest and juice of one lemon, or half a tablespoon white wine vinegar
Pinch red chili pepper flakes
Half a teaspoon of sea salt and black pepper, adjust to taste
- Place the roughly chopped kale or rocket into a food processor.
- Add the nuts, lemon zest, lemon juice, red chili pepper flakes and salt and pulse to chop. With the machine on, drizzle in the olive oil through the funnel and process until smooth. Taste and season with lemon, salt and pepper
- Leftover pesto will keep well for a week in a narrow topped jar with a thin layer of oil covering it to stop the air getting to it. You can also freeze it. It is great stirred into pasta or soups or to top on crostini. My boys like it stirred through mashed potato or on their sandwiches.
Roasted butternut squash
1 butternut squash
1 teaspoon olive oil
a large pinch each of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Pre-heat the oven to 200c [400f]. Chop the squash in half through its waist (imagine its a curvy lady!). Chop off the stalk at the top then cut each half in half lengthways.
2. Cut out the root then, leaving the seeds in place, cut each quarter into chunks (see photo). The bigger you cook them the longer they’ll take to cook but I like them pretty big so you get a nice balance of squishy sweet flesh and crispy char on the edges. Leaving the seeds in appeals to my laziness but also gives you a lovely crunchy toasty element.
3. Lay on a parchment lined metal roasting pan – the type you’d cook cookies on. Drizzle with the oil, salt and pepper then use your hands to rub them around so they are all roughly coated
4. Roast for around 30 minutes then check them, turn them over and cook for another 10 minutes or until they are soft and starting to turn a dark caramel colour on the edges. Leftovers can be pureed with stock for a quick soup, or stir them through pasta or salad.
Scatter the roasted pumpkin on the bottom of your plate then top it with some baby kale or rocket [arugula] leaves or cooked Brussel sprouts or shredded fennel. Sprinkle a little lemon juice or sherry vinegar and salt on the leaves and squash. Blob some pesto around the plate on top of the greens. Place pieces of your cooked pork on top then finish with a generous dollop of the pesto, a drizzle of pan juices and some of the cooked squash seeds.