The result of this is that many people either stick to the few simple recipes they know, or feel that they always have to have a recipe from a book before they can cook something good. This is sad, because making up your own recipes and trying out new ideas to see what they taste like is the most enjoyable part of cooking.
What I'm trying to do here is to give you some basic pointers towards a more experimental approach, then present some simple techniques and recipes which you can adapt yourself according to the ingredients at hand or your own imagination.
Step 1: Guidelines for experimental cookery
Step 2: Fundamentals
Take it easy
I'm thinking here that one of the reasons people are reluctant to try out different ideas is because they are busy or worried about how it will turn out. This is fair enough in a way, but gets in the way of a more creative attitude towards cooking. So for your first attempt at experimental cookery, pick a time when you can afford to take your time over it, and the results aren't desperately important.
Use good ingredients
It's a lot easier to cook tasty food from good ingredients. If you've ever compared a recently picked carrot to one that's been through the supermarkets' supply chain, you'll know what I mean. So if you can, make the effort to get good fresh veg and meat. Organic is usually better for quality - it can be expensive but need not be if you bear in mind that you'll be cooking straight from raw ingredients rather than using processed ingredients like bottled pasta sauce.
Get good equipment if you can
Decent pans, knives and other cooking equipment make for easier cooking and better results. For example a proper cast iron frying pan sticks less and cooks more evenly than a thin bottomed aluminium or steel one. A good sharp chef's knife is quicker and easier - hence safer - to use than one which doesn't hold an edge.
Don't feel like you have to rush out and buy loads of stuff straight away, but if you can start to get together a collection of decent equipment it will pay off in time and enjoyment later.
Step 3: Technique
Techniques before recipes
There are millions of recipes in the world, but relatively few basic cooking techniques - frying, baking, stewing, boiling, steaming etc. If you learn a bit about how each of these techniques work and how to do them well, then you've got a solid basis for starting to experiment with different flavours and ingredients later.
A few things just have to be done right
With some meals, like a soup, stew or tomato sauce, there's a lot of room for experimentation - you can try out different ways of making them and still get edible results. However there are some things which just aren't going to work unless you start from a recipe, so bear this in mind when choosing where to start with this approach to cookery.
There are only two cases I know of where getting things wrong could actually make you ill - dried kidney beans, which have to be soaked then boiled before they are safe to eat, and green potatoes, which you shouldn't eat at all. Also you should be careful when cooking meat that it is cooked through right to the centre, not still bloody. (Apart from steak which some people like rare).
Apart from this, there are some things you need to get pretty much right for them to work properly, just because of the chemistry of the way the cooking process works. These include pastry, meringues, bread, cakes, and sugar based jams and preserves.
Keep it simple to start with
The aim of cooking experimentally is to gradually learn what to put with what and how much to use by trying out different combinations and then seeing how they turn out. If you start with too many different ingredients, you won't know which bit to change next time, so it's best to start simple and then add more things later when you've mastered the basic technique.
Less can be more
If you add too much of one flavouring, it can swamp the flavours of the other ingredients. Also it's easy to add more of something later if needed, but you can't take things out once they've gone into a sauce. So start by using quite small quantities of flavourings, then increase the amount if necessary while you're cooking or next time you try that dish.
While you're cooking, there are always going to be periods when you're waiting for something to happen. You can make the most of these by getting something ready that will need doing later on - e.g. chopping some veg which will go into a stew when the meat is done, putting on a kettle of water to boil pasta in later, or just tidying up a bit so you aren't working on a cluttered surface.
Step 4: Awareness
See how it goes
What I'm talking about here is having an awareness of what you're doing and how it's turning out as you're going along. Don't rush through the cooking, thinking about something else, but instead take the time to notice what's happening.
If you're cooking onions, they go through different stages of softening, becoming transparent and then starting to caramelise (turn brown). You can smell and taste a stew or sauce as you're going along to get an idea of whether it needs more salt, herbs or other flavourings. Boiling potatoes can be tested every now and then with a sharp knife to see if they are cooked through yet.
Savour and enjoy
Now's the time to eat it! If you've kept things fairly simple and watched what you're doing, the chances are you'll have made something pretty tasty.
If you had been doing an experiment in science, this would be the stage to see what the results are by taking measurements of whatever you're experimenting on. But the only way to measure a flavour is with our smell and tastebuds, so savour what you're eating.
The taste of a meal isn't just a single quantity - lots of different elements add to the overall enjoyment of eating. Most things have a taste and an aftertaste, for example. Texture is important as well as taste. If you've put more than one vegetable in a stew, each bite will taste slightly different. As you're eating, you can think about what you want to do differently next time - maybe a bit less salt, or a bit more chilli powder, or cook the carrots less so they have more bite to them. If you remember things best by writing them down, now's the time to do it.
Step 5: Experiment
Next time you cook, you can start to draw on the experience you've gathered from the last meal in the one you're cooking now. At the simplest, this might be working out how much salt you want to put in a stew for 4 people, but what I'm really talking about here is trying to develop your culinary imagination, so you can start to make up your own recipes and get an idea of what ingredients work together.
As you're thinking about what things to put in, try to imagine in your mind how they might taste together. If you're using herbs, have a smell of them to get them fresh in your mind, then think about which ones might go with the ingredients you're using.
If you've cooked a similar recipe before, try changing a few things to see how it comes out. You could try putting some vegetables in earlier or later if you're making a stew, or for a curry, try making it less hot than usual to taste the other flavours more.
You might think that working out your own recipes like this is some kind of mystic ability that only born chefs have, but I don't believe this is true - I taught myself to cook this way and I reckon most people can given a bit of time and perseverance.
Learn from others
Once you've got a bit of confidence to find your own way with what you're doing, you can broaden your range of techniques by trying out book recipes or learning from people you know. Just bear in mind that the aim is to broaden your own skills and intuition, rather than just rote learning a series of steps to prepare a specific meal.
Step 6: Some simple recipes
Pasta and tomato sauce.
Dhal and rice.
Step 7: Quantities and cooking times
You should be able to judge the quantities of these by eye, so I haven't put them in.
- Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips etc take 15-25 mins to boil, about 30-40 minutes to roast.
- Soft leafy vegetables like spinach don't take long at all to boil or steam - a few minutes.
- Fibrous leafy vegetables like cabbage and kale take a bit longer - maybe 15-20 minutes to boil or steam.
- Onions should usually be fried gently until they are somewhere between transparent and golden, depending on taste. This takes 5-10 minutes.
- Mushrooms, celery and peppers all cook pretty quickly - 5-10 minutes.
- Fresh beans and peas vary depending on size. Peas don't take long at all to boil, whereas broad beans might need 15 minutes.
Pulses are peas, beans and lentils. Usually these should be soaked for at least a few hours before cooking, though you can get away without doing this for lentils.
Lentils take about 15-20 minutes simmering to render down to a puree in water; longer if you're putting them in something else like a stew. Other beans take longer; up to an hour in some cases - e.g. chick peas.
The main thing with cooking meat is that it should generally be cooked until a skewer poked into the centre of it comes out juicy but not bloody. There are some meats which people eat with less cooking than that, like beef steak, but that's the general rule. I'm not an expert on times for roasting whole joints, so won't try to set them out here.
Herbs and Spices
With a few exceptions, you won't go far wrong putting 1-3 teaspoons of most dried herbs and spices into a meal for two. Start at the low end and then work up if you want it stronger. The main exceptions I can think of are:
- curry powder needs less - between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon.
- asafoetida is pretty strong and might need as little as 1/3 teaspoon.
- paprika is a fairly mild spice and you can put as much as a tablespoon into a meal for two.
My rule of thumb with salt is to use about 1/3 - 1/2 teaspoon in a meal for 2 people where the salt is going into the food you eat - e.g. with a stew or pasta sauce, and around 1 level teaspoon when you're putting it into water that will be thrown away after boiling something.
One thing to bear in mind with salt is that the time you put it in can be important. This is due to a physical process called osmosis, which means that two solutions in contact with each other tend to transfer water from the less concentrated to the more concentrated solution.
What this means in practical terms is that if you are boiling dried beans in water and you put salt in at the beginning, the salty water will be trying to draw water out of the beans, and stop them from softening. So you put the salt in at the end.
Step 8: Pasta and Tomato Sauce
The way I do it goes like this:
- put on a kettle full of water for the pasta.
- start by frying some onions on a medium heat (not full power) until they are starting to go transparent. If you listen, you'll notice that there's a point where the sound changes when all the water in the onions has been driven off and the heat goes directly into cooking the onions, which is about the time to start adding more ingredients.
- add garlic if you're using it.
- if you eat meat, now's the time you would add the mince, which needs to be fried until the outside has gone from red to a greyish colour.
- then add any other veg, chopped fairly small.
- you can also add ground black pepper at this point.
- keep frying this for a minute or so just to seal the surface of the other veg.
- at this point I sometimes add a little bit of water, put the lid on, and let the vegetables steam for a bit to soften them. You don't need to cover the veg - just add enough water that it makes some steam.
- now you add a tin of chopped tomatoes and whatever herbs you are using.
- simmer gently (i.e. so it is just bubbling but not boiling furiously) with the lid on until the vegetables are cooked. Keeping the lid on saves energy and also helps stop the aromas evaporating.
- if you are using vegetables which cook quickly, like mushrooms or peppers, you might want to add them here instead of frying them, depending on how crunchy you like them.
- add tinned beans or chick peas towards the end of the cooking.
- put the boiled water in a pan with some salt and bring to boiling, then add the pasta.
- wait until the pasta is cooked (should be tender without going too soft), then serve.
- you can top it with grated cheese.
Some ingredients you might like to try as well as the tomato and onions:
Carrots, celery, mushrooms, chopped olives, bell peppers, courgette or marrow, or aubergines, are all good. With aubergines, you'll need to remove the bitterness beforehand by slicing them, covering with a thin layer of salt, leaving until the salt has extracted some water, and then rinsing.
With beef mince, this recipe makes a classic bolognese sauce. You could substitute textured vegetable protein if you don't eat meat; this is best soaked in a bit of water and tomato juice beforehand.
I like to use tinned chick peas in this recipe. Other beans like butter beans or borlotti beans are good too.
Some good herbs for this meal are basil, oregano, rosemary (which goes well with sweet vegetables like carrots), thyme, bay leaves, and marjoram. A bit of fresh orange juice and / or zest added near the end sharpens the flavour nicely.
Garlic is good if you like the flavour.
Red wine adds a nice mellow flavour and is nice to sip while you're cooking!
Black pepper adds a spicy edge; you could also make it hotter by adding a tiny bit of chilli powder.
A little salt (no more than half a teaspoon in a meal for 2 people) helps bring out the flavours of the other ingredients.
Olive oil is best for this recipe, but you could also use sunflower or vegetable oil if that's what you have.
Step 9: Vegetable bake
It takes up to an hour to cook through, but the preparation is really quick and easy. The main thing to watch for is the amount of liquid you add - too much and you are left with a lot of sauce at the end, too little and the vegetables dry out. I tend to add a bit less than is needed to cover the vegetables. You can keep an eye on this as it's baking, and top it up if necessary.
Here it is step by step:
- chop the vegetables into thin slices.
- mix them in a bowl with some herbs and salt.
- add some chopped bacon, tofu or tempeh if you want.
- spread them out in an oven dish.
- a layer of very thinly sliced potatoes on the top looks good and keeps the moisture in.
- add some milk or stock.
- put into a hot oven, about 180 degrees C, for an hour or so.
Any root vegetables are good - e.g potatoes, carrots, parsnips, or turnips. Also onions, leeks, garlic, courgettes, pumpkins, aubergines and tomatoes.
Rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano and parsley could all go well in this kind of dish.
Chopped bacon is nice in a bake, but tempeh or tofu should work too.
Meat or vegetable stock is the obvious choice, but you could also use miso or yeast extract as a stock, or try milk (good with potatoes).
Step 10: Winter stew
As with the bake, you need to think about how much water to add - you need some for it to cook at all, but too much and you'll be left with loads of watery sauce at the end.
The way I do it is as follows:
- if you're adding beans, they should be soaked beforehand for at least a few hours, preferably overnight.
- if you're using meat, this needs to be seared in a hot frying pan until the outside has gone from red to greyish brown. Another way is to do this in the cooking pot towards the end of frying the onions.
- fry some onions in the bottom of a deep pan until transparent, and add the meat.
- if you are making a vegetable based stew, you would add the longer-cooking vegetables at this point.
- add enough water or stock to nearly cover the ingredients, and a handful of lentils or split peas to thicken the sauce.
- you can add soaked beans or pearl barley here too.
- add any herbs.
- bring to the boil, then reduce the heat until it simmers slowly with a lid on. It doesn't need to be boiling fast, just bubbling gently.
- if you're cooking stewing meat, it should be kept simmering for at least an hour to get it nice and tender before adding vegetables.
- any veg that cooks more quickly can be added as you go along. Don't cook potatoes more than about 20 minutes this way or they start to break up. Most other veg has a wider tolerance, so you can experiment and find for yourself when's the right time to put it in.
Any cheap cut of meat will work well in a stew like this.
Most vegetables can be added to a stew. The only thing you need to think about is what flavours go together, and when to add each one so they don't over cook.
Soaked dried beans or pearl barley.
Most herbs are worth trying, depending on the ingredients you've used. Tarragon is good with lamb and beef.
Ginger, black pepper, and / or mustard seeds give a spicy edge.
Tahini (creamed sesame seeds) is nice for a nutty flavour.
To add flavour to the sauce, you can use stock, miso, or yeast extract.
Salt to taste.
Step 11: Dhal and rice
- unless you are using split red lentils, which can be cooked from dry if you forget, you need to soak the dry pulses for some time beforehand (ideally overnight but a few hours is ok if you forget.)
- start by simmering the pulses in water. I use one cup of pulses to 2-3 cups of water for 2 people, including the soaking water. You want to bring the water to a boil, then turn down until it's simmering nicely with the lid on. Put most of the water in at the start, but keep a bit back to add later on if you need to.
- any large whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaves, and so on can be added to the water at this point.
- The time this takes will depend on the pulses you're using. Split red lentils take about 20 mins, but others take longer. They go through several stages while cooking. At first you'll find that the water they are in has a bitter taste, but this disappears quite quickly, then they gradually soften through. After this, they start to lose their individual shape and make a creamy sauce. I like to stop at the point where this has started to happen but there is still some of the original shape of the pulses left.
- salt should be added once the pulses have softened through - if you add it at the start it stops them taking up water so well.
- meanwhile, chop some onions. One or two is enough for two people.
- most indian spices are better if they are fried quickly before adding to the other ingredients. Whole seeds like mustard, cumin, coriander or fennel seeds should be fried on their own with a tiny bit of oil in a fairly hot pan with a lid on until they start to pop. This is a bit tricky to get right so they don't burn. With ground spices you can add them to the frying onions. A spice grinder is useful if you start doing a lot of indian cookery; ground whole spices taste better and last longer than pre-ground ones.
- the onions should be fried gently for a while on a medium heat. If you are using ginger or whole chillis, put them in towards the end of cooking the onions.
- now add the onions and spices to the boiled pulses, and start to simmer gently.
- give it a while for the flavours to blend, then serve with rice.
The interesting part of making this meal is in the flavourings you use. There is a wide range of flavours you can make using this basic recipe, from hot and pungent with cumin, ginger, cardamom and plenty of chilli powder, to mellow and creamy, with flavours like fenugreek, coriander and creamed coconut.
Red, green or brown lentils, black-eye beans, yellow split peas, and chick peas can all be used in this recipe.
Ground or whole seeds of coriander, cumin, or mustard.
Fenugreek seeds (these are too hard to grind but can be popped in hot oil the same way as other small seeds).
Whole cinnamon, cardamom, or cloves.
Ground turmeric or chilli powder. Be careful with the chilli - half a teaspoon is enough to make a meal for two pretty hot, so you may need less than that.
Fresh green or red chilli peppers.
Asafoetida powder gives an interesting musty flavour. Again, don't use too much (e.g. 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon for 2 people).
Lemon juice can be nice added near the end, as are chopped fresh coriander, grated creamed coconut or coconut milk, and 'garam masala', which is a ground spice mix that gives an aromatic head to the flavour.
Salt to taste.
Serve with rice
A good way of cooking rice (the 'absorbtion method') is to wash it several times if it's white rice to remove any dust, add two cups of water to every cup of rice and a little salt, bring to the boil, then turn right down till it's just barely simmering and put a lid on. Don't stir it - just leave it simmering until the rice has absorbed all the water. If you do it right, it comes out nicely fluffy and doesn't need straining.
Step 12: Stir Fry
For this to work right, you need to bear in mind a few things:
- it's all cooked pretty quickly (no more than 10 minutes), so chop everything beforehand and put it on plates.
- cut things in thin strips rather than big chunks, so that they can cook through quickly.
- only use a small amount of oil - maybe a dessert spoon full.
- the most important thing is to keep the pan really hot. Put some oil in, heat it till it's almost smoking, then start adding the ingredients.
- put the things that take the longest in first, then add the other things later.
- stir regularly with a wood or metal spatula.
- as you fry it, you add small amounts of watery sauce. This creates steam in the pan, which steams the ingredients at the same time as frying them. Keep just enough in there so that it's still sizzling, not bubbling.
- when you're not stirring, put a lid on if possible to keep the steam in.
- towards the end, you can add the rest of the sauce and maybe a little bit of cornflour to give it a bit of thickness. A teaspoon of cornflour made into a paste with a little cold water is a good start. Another way to thicken the sauce is with plain wheat flour, but this needs to be added to the wok and fried for a minute or so before you add the sauce. The aim is to get it thick enough to evenly coat the ingredients without going gloopy.
Now here are some possible ingredients:
Carrot, spring onions, white or red cabbage, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, beansprouts, chilli peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and celery all work well. Basically you're looking for something that will cook fast and end up slightly crunchy.
Any good cut of boneless white or red meat will work as long as you cut it thinly enough. Should go in at the start to make sure it's properly cooked. Chicken is a good start.
You can use tofu or tempeh to add protein if you're vegan or vegetarian, which are both made from soy beans. Both are available in wholefood shops. Cut them up in small chunks.
These are used to make the sauce you add while cooking. Boil some water, then add any of the following:
- soy sauce - the classic ingredient for chinese cooking.
- miso is a kind of vegetable stock paste made from fermented soy beans.
- tahini (liquified sesame seeds) or peanut butter can make for an interesting nutty flavour.
- coconut cream or milk.
- chilli powder.
- lemon or lime juice.
- tomato puree paste.
- salt to taste.
- tomato puree.
- five spice powder, which is a mixed spice blend typically made from ground star anise, cloves, cinnamon, sichuan pepper and fennel seeds.
- a little sugar and wine or cider vinegar if you're making a sweet and sour.
- chinese shops sell a variety of different sauces like black bean sauce, which you can try if you like.
- garlic and / or ginger (which are fried along with the vegetables instead of going in the sauce).
I would recommend sunflower oil to start with, but there are other oils you can add in small quantities for extra flavour like sesame or pumpkin seed oil. Olive oil doesn't fit so well with a stir fry in my experience.
Serve with boiled rice or noodles.
If you're serving with rice, you'll need to get it started before you cook the stir fry; with noodles you want to get them ready in a pan and boil a kettle full of water ready to put in when the stir fry is nearly done.