The Secret To Conjuring Up A Meal Out Of Thin Air

There are two types of cooks in the world.  TYPE A: This type of cook uses a step-by-step guide (a recipe) to show them what ingredients to use and how to use them.  It very systematic. Get this and that, then do this and that with it. Very organized and neat. TYPE B: This type opens their fridge and cupboards,  removes a few ingredients, and throws together a meal. Kind of a whirlwind of cooking activity with no rhyme or reason. I am a Type B, which is a rare type. Most people are amazed that I can cook a meal without a recipe. It’s as if I conjure up a meal from  thin air.

I have been asked a few times by my Type A friends to teach them how to be a Type B cook.  So in response to those requests, I am writing this blog post. This post is essentially me speaking out loud, so you can see what is going on in my head when I am preparing a meal.

First off, I’d like to say that there IS  rhyme and reason to what a Type B cook does. It’s not necessarily a flurry of unrelated activities that spontaneously combusts into a beautiful meal. Having said that though, it is not as simple as following directions. There is a lot of experience and sometimes guess work that goes into this process.

When looking at cooking, the way a Type B does, you have to take a couple of paces back. You can’t look at it close up. Instead of looking at cooking as a set of  step-by-step instructions,  look at it as concepts. There are some underlying laws, cooking laws if you will, involved in the process of making any  type of meal. Let me give you an example.

I know when cooking a meaty soup, there are always a few factors that will be present.

Factor Number One: There will always be certain ingredients.

1. Onions

2. Butter or oil

3. Meat of some type

4. Vegetable(s) of some type.

5. Starch of some type (usually potato, pinto beans, rice or noodles)

6. Spices of some type (I usually use parsley, basil, salt, pepper, and sometimes bay leaves.)

So armed with this knowledge, I go looking in my fridge for ingredients that might fit into this mold.

Factor Number Two: There will always be certain cooking processes.

With meaty soups, I always follow this process:

1. Melt butter and saute onions (and garlic if used)

2. Add meat and cook

3. Add vegetables and spices and cook some more

4. Add broth and cook some more.

I use the same formula for all the meaty soups I cook. If I look in the freezer and the only meat I have is chicken and spicy Italian sausage, then my soup will either be a chicken soup or a spicy Italian sausage soup.  Then I find vegetables and a starch that go with that particular meat. It is that simple.

So come with me as I look through my fridge, freezer and cupboards. Let’s see this process in action.

First I take a look at what kind of meats I have available. Now let me side-track here and explain the "Law of Elimination." There are some factors that will automatically eliminate some of your options. For example. I have only an hour or so till dinner, and the pork roast in this picture will take multiple hours to thaw.

This will also be the case with this frozen ham. I need more time than I have just to let it thaw, so it too is out of the picture.

Another eliminating factor is preference. I know my wife is not a fan of frozen peas, so I would only use this if it was just the me and the kids.

My wife does not like spinach either, so this is now out of the picture as well.

Another eliminating factor is my lack of knowledge. For example, there are only two things I know how to make with cranberry sauce. I know how to use it at Thanksgiving dinner and in a Jell-o salad my wife makes with pineapple and this cranberry sauce. So this ingredient is out because there are so few things I know how to make with it. In many cases, I can look up recipes on the internet, but tonight I don't have the time and I'm too dang lazy.

Another factor of elimination is what I just ate. I have chopped clams, but we just ate it last night in clam chowder. So it's out of the picture.

 

Okay. Now back to my meat selection. I have chicken...


Breakfast sausage...

Pork ribs

 

And stew meat. So here is my start.

Now let's look at what vegetables I have available. I have zucchini. Oh wait let me take another detour. One factor that can narrow things down a bit for you is how many things you have that are ready to expire. I have only had these zucchini for a couple of days, but they are looking like they need to be used. So despite the fact that my wife does not like zucchini, I may use them anyway. But let me see what other veggies I have.

Canned diced tomatoes...

Broccoli...

And carrots. Since the zucchini needs to be used, I will use it as my vegetable. Now this brings me to...

 

The Focal Point Principle. You should focus your dinner around one ingredient or dish. Since I have decided first to use this zucchini, I am going to create the rest of the meal around it.

Now that I have a central focus - zucchini - I am going back to my meat options and picking one that will match. Stew meat could work, but I really want to save this for a real stew. That is why I bought it in the first place.

Breakfast sausage? I think not.

 

I am sure I could figure out something with chicken, but this is not bonless chicken and I don't want to deal with all the work involved to debone it, etc.

 

Pork seems the most sensible choice to me. Now let's look at what starch we want to use.

Pinto beans. Probably not. Although, I could make some kind of soup, but I am not in the mood for that.


Stove top could work. I could grill the pork and zucchini and serve it with stuffing. I want to be a little more interesting tonight though.

 

Lasagna noodles? Out.


Sweet potato could work. Again, I could grill the pork and zucchini and boil and mash the sweet potato with butter and brown sugar.

Whole wheat spaghetti noodles? Nope.


Bread? Way too boring. But I could make a pork and zucchini sandwich type of thing.

Barley? Possibly, but I don't know how I would use it. I don't have enough experience with it.

Rice? Immediately I think Oriental. I have this killer broccoli Beef recipe that I made up and my wife LOVES it. I could use that recipe and substitute the broccoli with zucchini and the beef with pork. That's what I am going to do.

Here is my recipe:

1/2 cup sesame seed oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic (I use the pre-minced variety)

1 lb stew beef  ( I will substitute that with pork)

1 bunch of broccoli ( I will substitute that with 3 small zucchini cut into chunks)

1 medium onion chopped into length-wise pieces

1/4 cup apple juice (didn’t have any apple juice, so I substituted it with red cooking wine)

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons corn starch

Again, I substituted the beef with pork. I chopped it up into cubes then set it aside.


Because pork has more fat than beef, I had to cut off the fatty parts. I cooked them up and fed them to my dog Emma.

I chopped up the zucchini and set it aside.

I sauted the garlic for only a couple of seconds in the sesame seed oil (over medium heat)

Then I added the beef and cooked it. About 7 minutes.

Then I added the zucchini, and onions and cooked it until done (about 5 minutes)

Then I added the cooking wine, rice vinegar, ground ginger, and sugar then cooked another 5 minutes.

Then I added the corn starch to thicken it. If it gets too thick, thin it with water, apple juice, wine, or vinegar. Or a combination of any of them. You will only need a little bit.

Here is the finished product served over rice.

Here is a testimonial video from my wife. Since she does not typically like zucchini, this goes to show how far a good recipe will go.

 









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3 thoughts on “The Secret To Conjuring Up A Meal Out Of Thin Air

  1. AWESOME post! And if I still lived int he neighborhood I would ask if I could come over! I also cook with recipes only once in a blue moon! But sometimes I have to look at the pics of a good cook book again (and of course read a bit) to get new inspiration! A student’s life can get mundane. Eat the same day in day out…

    • I think that puts you in category C. A category that I, before now, never even considered. But, it does exist. Most men fall into this category, so don’t feel bad.

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