How to Structure Kitchen Improv: Cooking without Recipes

050914 Abby's Table Dinner-22_WEB

Cooking is part play, part theater and part structure. Our cultural tendency is to focus on the structure (through recipes) while cooking, and the beauty (and taste) of the end result.

However, there is a magical interplay between the cook and his or her ingredients that can result when a healthy dose of free play is allowed in the kitchen. This is the ultimate marking of a “natural” in the kitchen, and often the hallmark of many a famous chef. Like jazz, there is a form and structure that allows for much freedom in cooking, and this is what I’d like to share with you today.

True. Not everyone can “whip up” a meal from seemingly nothing, in no time at all, and not mess up along the way. As I often remind my new kitchen helpers, mistakes are the best way to learn. No, serrano peppers cannot be substituted for jalapenos in a sauce; no, you don’t start boiling the water with the green beans in the pot when you are blanching. Yes, pan handles are indeed piping hot when straight out of the oven (ouch!)

Sure, following recipes is important to success in the kitchen. But so is learning to cook freely, without the confines of a recipe to guide you.

And when dinner is on the line and you don’t have time to mess up an entire meal and start over just for the sheer experience of kitchen play, here are some tips to guide you into learning the intuitive tricks of a “natural chef:

1. Survey what you have on hand.

Pull out produce (oldest first) and those random grains, beans, dried peppers or mushrooms you’ve been planning on using but haven’t gotten around to it. If you used half of something for a recipe, try to use that other half in your improve cooking. Lay it all out on your counter top and grab a pen and scrap paper.

2. Jot down a quick plan.

My plan typically changes slightly as I go, but by jotting down my initial ideas, I know how small to chop my veggies, what to get on the stovetop first, and what temperature to set the oven. I know what oils and spices I need, and pull those out, too. Every good chef knows that cooking improv starts with a loose plan based on what they have, and that plan gets embellished as you start the cooking process. “Oh, these sweet potatoes could use some rosemary for flavor. I have out back in the yard! I’ll add it now to the water as I boil them and eventually quick roast them.”

3. Use the four meal balancing basics: color, texture, shape, and flavor.

When you formulate your loose plan, take into consideration these four, building blocks of menu planning. Aim for a variety of color, texture (something fresh, crunchy, creamy, chewy, etc.), shape (is everything round?) and flavor (sweet, salty, sour, spicy, savory). Leaning on these four principles makes an average meal a well-balanced, memorable one.

If all you have in your kitchen is cauliflower, white rice, white beans, and an onion, you can still use these principles to yield a balanced meal (though it’d be great to have something green, too!)For example, add turmeric and curry powder to sautéed onions and white beans along with other spices to make a quick curry, and roast the cauliflower whole to get a crunchy yet nicely browned, structural vegetable side. Toss a cinnamon stick in with the rice, and a hefty teaspoon of paprika if you want more color. Cook the rice in chicken stock and voila! You have a colorful, mostly well-rounded meal made of mostly white ingredients 🙂

In short, to cook on a whim and improv dinner, rely on these three basic steps to make magic. Here’s why, as a review:

  • By laying out your ingredients, you will utilize what you have.
  • By jotting down a plan, you will start chopping and cooking the ingredients that take the longest first, and have the finishing touches ready to go at the end. Timing is everything.
  • By using the four balancing basics, you will build a menu that is satisfying in flavor, color, texture and shape.

Soon you’ll feel like a natural in the kitchen, and you’ll lean on recipes only as a jumping off point to make your own sensational creations! Channel your inner actor and make kitchen theater in your home tonight!

To learn more about the art free form cooking click here.

Happy Cooking,

Chef Abby

P.S. – Stay tuned next week when we announce our next pop up dinner dates! Sign ups start October 9th.

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