Cooking Off-Script: Part III

Last week I chronicled my exploits in grocery shopping and meal planning, hoping to unearth a few guidelines for those seeking a balance between sticking to a budget versus sticking to a list. This week, after taking a few extra days to think about it, I’d like to present some conclusions. (You can find the first two installments in this series here and here.)

To recap from Part I, here is the problem I’ve been trying to address:

The hardest part about learning to cook might be shopping for it. Chefs talk about “being inspired by ingredients,” but for a neophyte cook that sounds like a pipe dream. So what if I find lamb chops on sale? I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know what I ought to buy to go with them. I can bring them home and put them in storage, but there’s an ease that disappears when you cook from a recipe. When things go bad in my fridge, it usually happens because I wasn’t confident about how to use those things, and I didn’t have the energy to follow someone else’s directions.

After last week’s experiment, I’ve concluded that the key word in that paragraph and in shopping itself is “inspired.” Where do you, as a home cook, find inspiration? How you answer this question will determine how you navigate the store.

You’ve probably heard the advice that you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, because you’ll want to buy everything in sight. In this case, your inspiration is coming from your taste buds, just as it does when you view the menu at a restaurant. Alternatively, if you’re inspired by an entry in one of your cookbooks, that recipe will dictate what goes in your cart. When it comes to food, there is a point at which each of us says, “Wow, that sounds/looks delicious.” That moment is the moment of inspiration, and it can happen either before or during your trip to the store (or both).

Paradoxically, I suspect that the best thing you can do for your grocery budget is to flood yourself with inspiration. Now, this may sound like another great way to buy everything in the store, but the fact is that almost everything goes on sale at some point, and in order to take advantage of those sales you have to have a framework for what each ingredient can contribute to your plate. Having a reference point for many different foods will allow you to suppress your inspiration for items that are off-season or very expensive and will allow you to get excited instead about what’s most affordable. When it comes to cooking, images are usually the best inspiration other than actually tasting a dish, so seeking out ideas means spending a certain amount of time browsing the cookbook section of your local library or bookstore; taking in cooking shows or food documentaries; and ordering things you haven’t tried yet at your favorite restaurants. When you do this kind of study it can feel like a waste of time, especially if you’re paging through a truly complicated cookbook or binge-watching reality TV. But cooking off-script turns out to be a lot like advertising: the more exposure you’ve had to an idea, even if it’s subconscious, the more open you’ll be to trying it. This is how it came about that I served chicken alongside roasted apricots on Saturday night, and the meal was pretty tasty.

If the first step towards cooking off-script is to accumulate inspiration, the second is to make things easy on yourself. Why? Because inspiration dies when we hit bumps in the road. How many of your New Year’s resolutions are still going strong? In the kitchen and elsewhere, most of us find that our energy levels dip quickly after that first initial rush. So while inspiration may move you to put that lovely bunch of bok choy in your basket, inspiration isn’t going to be enough to convince you stand by your stove while you sauté it with garlic unless you happen to get a craving for Asian greens in the middle of the week. But that doesn’t mean you can’t increase your odds.

I found that my willingness to cook what I had purchased dramatically increased when I took pains to store my ingredients carefully, prep certain things in advance, keep my kitchen clean, and use high-quality appliances. Now, I am aware that most of us cannot run out to buy a spiralizer on a whim, but if you are going to buy a spiralizer (for example), take my advice and save your money until you can afford something that isn’t a stopgap. Anything that breeds frustration isn’t worth keeping in your kitchen, and it’s better to have one great knife and no vegetable peeler than a poorly-made version of each. Use that knife to chop anything that is going to need chopping and will keep just as well once it’s cut (such as broccoli or carrots or melon), and you will automatically be more likely utilize those ingredients. Roast things like squash at the earliest opportunity, so you can come home at the end of a long day and deal with reheating and eating rather than preheating and cooking. Remove any twist-ties from bunches of greens (they increase the likelihood that your greens will wilt), wipe off excess water, and store them wrapped in a paper towel or cloth napkin to absorb excess moisture. You can view more tips for storing your purchases here and here, but the point is that the better your storage techniques, the more appetizing your groceries are likely to look in the middle of the week, and the more likely it is that inspiration will rekindle itself when you open your fridge. Similarly, I’ve found that my kitchen looks least threatening when the sink is free of dirty dishes and the counter where I work is free of clutter.

Finally, acquaint yourself with the ingredients that act as canvases for others (I’ve referred to this concept before in my Sandwich Upgrades post). Scrambled eggs, rice, pasta, toasted bread, lentils, chicken breast, soup, and salad greens can all serve as foundational elements for improvisatory cooking. If you find yourself with leftover ingredients, chances are your leftovers will pair well with one of these components, and if you keep several of them on hand in your pantry you’ll be able to use up what you have when you find yourself scratching your head. Sometimes you’ll create something so successful it becomes part of your regular menu, and sometimes your meal will be merely functional. Either way, it’s a step towards a greater sense of confidence in the kitchen.

Good luck! If you come up with something fabulous, share a picture on Twitter with the hashtag #cookingoffscript. You never know, you may inspire someone else.

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