Written by Carrie Casselton Lowe Full disclosure - I’m not a chef. The topic for this article came up, I think, as a result of my love for potlucks. I love potlucks because of the collaboration, the equal distribution of effort, the delicious food and the conversations (the real life, face-to-face, no app required conversations). Often recipes are exchanged, verbally mostly, but when asked for one of my recipes, I am of little help. I generally don’t follow them; though cookbooks of all sizes line our kitchen counter. For one, I rarely have what the recipes call for, so I have to make substitutions. Secondly, I often think a particular ingredient will make it taste better or more nutritious. So my reputation has become one of a free style cook. Though I love to read cookbooks and search online for recipes, I am convinced free style cooking is fostered more effectively through conversations and sharing food with others, especially farmers. Farmers are a seasonally pragmatic clan, making good use of what’s available. Because I get to farm with three other women, there is no shortage of culinary ideas being shared in the rows as we weed and harvest.
So here is a little road map for freestyle cooking.
- Set an intention for cooking with love. Observe the beauty of the food you are preparing - colors, textures, flavors, smells. Know you are doing the best you can with what you have to nourish yourself and your loved ones. Nice music can help, and be careful with sharp objects.
- Take normal, everyday dishes and try to pack them full of nutrients by adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, bone broth, yogurt, etc into what you already like to cook. It might mean shredding or blending things to make it work, like finely chopped kale into egg salad.
- Challenge yourself to add as many different colors as possible to your dishes.
- Keep your pantry and fridge stocked with staples you like to eat and staples you wish you liked to eat but don’t.
- Hide the healthy stuff you don’t love in the food you do love. I don’t love lentils, but they’re great in spaghetti and vegetarian sloppy joe’s.
- Keep your pantry stocked with lots of different herbs and spices. Periodically buy spices that you’ve never cooked with before, then experiment with them (a little at a time!).
- When you can, give yourself a lot of time to cook. It’s hard to be creative when rushed, so maybe take a Sunday here or there and take it very slowly.
- Don’t sweat it if your food tastes awful sometimes. Just compost it, and eat peanut butter and jelly for dinner.
- Don’t give up on failures. Try it again, just differently. Isolate variables, especially when baking is important. This is real science folks.
- Share meals with others and listen, really listen, to how others cook.
Some examples of free style cooking:
- Oatmeal - Add some amaranth, millet, quinoa, or rice to the mix. Mix in different kinds of fruits (frozen and dried work fine). Peaches, blueberries, raspberries, finely chopped aronia berries are some standards in our house. We also add nut butters and various kinds of nuts and seeds like pecans, black walnuts, and sunflower seeds for a protein punch.
- Make a salad out of eggs, tuna/salmon/sardines, chicken, or ham then add herbs, fruits, and shredded vegetables.
- Vegetable salads are only as good as their dressing. Make your own dressing. All you need is oil and vinegar and some seasonings. The fun part is playing with the kind of oil, the kind of vinegar. Then make it into whatever flavors you are looking for. I love to season my dressings with things like soy sauce/tamari, maple syrup, lime juice, toasted sesame oil, ginger, garlic, herbs. The sky is the limit.
- Any grain + any protein + any vegetable(s) + flavor = a meal. Ginger, garlic, Indian spices, and coconut milk all are great starting places to flavor a simple grain and legume dish.
- Throw any mix of vegetables and/or meat in a skillet and top it with some eggs, or add any mixture of vegetables and meat with scrambled eggs. You can never go wrong.
- Take leftovers and top with a layer of dough from a simple biscuit recipe. It makes a nice pot pie type dish.
- When you run out of bread, make flatbread. An egg, some milk and flour make a nice base to which you can add shredded or mashed veggies for a savory flatbread or fruit for a sweet bread. I never use just wheat flour. I usually add some buckwheat, oat, or rice flour to the mix.
- When in doubt, roast it. Roasted vegetables, kept separate or mixed, are so easy, quick and delicious. The shorter you are on time, increase the oven temperature for crispy skins.
- Throw things in a crockpot. Any vegetable (left mostly whole), meat, or bean works. Add flavors like mustard, maple syrup, soy sauce/tamari, leftover pickle juice. It’s always delicious after 8 hours.
- Left over crock pot meat makes a perfect Mexican-style meal with tortillas and grilled vegetables.
- Make broth from left over meat. I’m a fan of the 24 to 36 hour simmer for leftover chicken bones.
- My farming mentor, Luci, once told me (who is quite healthy), if it doesn’t taste good, add salt, fat, or sugar. Enough said.
There you have it. That’s all I know for now. Hopefully we all can continue this conversation over a potluck someday. Until then, have fun experimenting in your kitchen!
Carrie is a farmer at Glacial Hills Community Farm, a Nourish Ambassador, and a member of Nourish's Program Development Committee.