Cooking without recipes

One of the biggest reasons for many people's perceived inability to cook is, I reckon, not knowing what to cook, rather than actually not knowing how to cook - and a lack of confidence that comes with that.

Basic cooking is not at all difficult, but I do think that with a lot of recipes being so prescriptive, it is intimidating for the amateur cook. He or she thinks that if they are lacking an ingredient, or mess up one stage of cooking, then the whole meal will be a wipeout, and you may as well throw it in the bin and start over.

Well, with the good Lord as my witness, I am living proof that it just ain't so. While baking is very reliant on following recipes and proportions to achieve the desired result, I reckon the best guidelines you can follow when seeking to prepare quick, fresh, tasty, cost-effective food at home are a) your tastebuds b) a little knowhow c) a decent store cupboard of menu staples d) an idea of what you would like to eat and e) a general adherence to eating what is in season and widely available.

Let me elaborate...

I am actually not that good a cook, I reckon. I have no formal training, cannot bake anything to save my life, and have a couple of chef friends on speed dial for when it all goes horribly wrong. But, the amazing thing is, you don't actually have to be very good to turn out a decent, edible plate of food! I reckon you need confidence, a little fearlessness, and a fundamental belief that everything is going to turn out fine.

I have a bunch of recipe standbys - things I have cooked so many times that I don't at all need to follow, or even check, a recipe to make them work. These include my slap-dash curry, roasted tomato spaghetti, beef salad, and my new staple, which I am going to call "egg and panko breadcrumb pretty much anything and it will taste pretty good".

I do know how to make a nice-tasting vinaigrette (it's not difficult), how to cook a steak perfectly medium-rare every time, how to dress a salad, and to break down a chicken - I probably learned these things from watching a TV show with Jamie Oliver, or Nigella Lawson, or Nigel Slater - people who showed me how unfussy you could be, and still make delicious food.

I think some of the most important things you can learn is how to "sub" something in if you have run out of something, how to add flavour without over-egging the pudding (so to speak), and how to pad something out to make it go further. Last night, for instance, I felt like eating a whole lot of veges (okay, so I had a Big Bad Wolf pork roll for lunch). I popped in to see my buddy Sanjay at Cuba Fruit, got some tomatoes, cucumber, green capsicum, spring onions, pumpkin and coriander.

In the Omni store cupboard, I always have olive oil, feta, garlic, dried lentils, za'atar, and lemons. I thought I might make a Greek salad - but hey; no olives. Or red onions, for that matter. Easy enough, though, to sub in some delicious salty capers for the olives (they will serve the same function), and the spring onions will make up for the lack of red onions.

I roast the pumpkin after rolling it through with some olive oil and za'atar, and I still have a couple of red eggplants left over from the other night's eggplant and paneer curry, so I blacken these on the gas hob of the new oven (NEW OVEN!), and mix them through the puy lentils I have cooked with a bay leaf, garlic, and lemon zest. I dress this mixture with a soy and sesame oil and honey dressing, which will make it taste distinct from the lemony Greek salad dressing, and the za'atar-d up roasted pumpkin. Too easy.

The other meals I have made this, week, minus any sort of recipe other than a vague-ish concept of what I want to eat, have been the eggplant and paneer curry I mentioned, and a fried fish wrap with terakihi fried in the also aforementioned, and ubiquitous, egg and panko crumb. I also went to my buddy Sam's place, where he knocked up some delicious panfried tofu with black sesame seeds and rice and steamed veges with a Thai-style dressing. Simple, thoughtful, well-flavoured food - totally achievable, if you just back yourself to cook something nice, that you would like to eat.

What are your go-to meals that you can cook without any recourse to checking a recipe - please feel free to share ideas for a quick, easy dinner idea. Any other tips for swap-outs for something you have run out of? And - how did you learn to cook without a recipe (if you do)?

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