One of the big moments in my evolution as a cook was when I gradually began to think like a chef instead of a recipe collector. I am not talking about taking up molecular gastronomy or wearing a toque and clogs in the kitchen or hiring illegal immigrants to wash dishes and prep produce. I mean I learned to stop thinking in terms of recipes and start thinking in terms of ingredients and/or categories of dishes. That is not to say I never think, “I’m in the mood for Mom’s Tuna Casserole” and make that for dinner, because, well, who doesn’t? But mostly I think about ingredients like this: The basil is in its final glory in the garden. What can I do with basil? The wheels start turning and I start thinking of the other good ingredients I have on hand and soon a whole bunch of possibilities are before me:
–Tomato Basil Pie or Tarts
–pieces of Brie and basil leaves rolled up in strips of prosciutto — one of my favorite summer snacks
–Tomatoes Caprese (sliced tomatoes w/ fresh mozzarella, garlic, basil leaves, olive oil, etc.)
–pesto: on hot pasta, in pasta salad, stirred into vegetable soup, stirred into mayo for a cold salad plate with hard-cooked eggs, green beans, salmon, etc.
–on top of a freshly baked pizza
–in tomato sauce
–chiffonade (sliced into thin ribbons) mashed into soft cheese and used to stuff squash blossoms or chicken breasts or pork chops or tea sandwiches or for stuffed eggs or spread on crackers or dolloped onto cucumber rounds or…
There are more, lots more, ways to use fresh basil, of course, but you get the idea. We can do the same with onions or ham or a hunk of good cheese. Knowledge of various types of dishes is what helps us here — to know that these dishes exist and to have an idea of how to make them prevents us from being chained to a specific recipe.
Taking things a step further, we can learn to keep certain prepped ingredients on hand, at least part of the time, so that cooking interesting meals feels more effortless and natural. If onions are on sale, I might get 10 lbs. and slice and saute most of them during the afternoon when I am home. They will cook down to a fraction of their former size and can be stored in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks to be used in sauces, soups, casseroles, omelets, on hot sandwiches, and more.
On the other hand, we can approach meal planning from a somewhat opposite direction by understanding that there are categories of dishes and choosing one of those and then picking components to switch up in order to make dozens of variations on the same dish. For example, I might want to make a quiche. Instead of finding a recipe for Ham and Cheddar Quiche and buying the ingredients and making it, if I think like a chef I realize a quiche is simply a kind of egg custard base baked in a pastry crust with protein/vegetables/herbs added to it. There is usually something from the allium (onion) family included, so I can use yellow onions (my sauteed onions find a happy home here), scallions, shallots, or even fresh chives in my quiche, all to good effect. For protein, I can pick bacon, cheddar cheese, cooked salmon, ham, Parmesan, or whatever. For other veggies, almost any soft cooked version is possible. Experience with pairing ingredients and taste imagination skills help me make good choices — like realizing broccoli is better than beets in a quiche.
So three skills and one habit — knowledge of various types of dishes, experience pairing ingredients, and taste imagination, plus the practice of keeping prepped ingredients on hand — are what I want to work on in order to think more like a chef and less like a recipe collector, and doing that makes me a happier, more versatile cook.
What have you learned that has made you happier in the kitchen?