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How to cook with what’s available

March 28, 2020

AKA, how to cook during a pandemic. Orrrr… how to cook with the few items left in the grocery store. Or how to create and adapt recipes to what you have. And hopefully, by the end of this post, how you’ll cook most of your meals, because it’s also how to cook more resourcefully.

With many of the major supermarkets out of random things, following recipes is tough right now. If you can afford those organic produce boxes but are unsure about how you’ll handle a bunch of random ingredients, this is also for you! This post is for people who can follow home cooking recipes already, but want to turn limitations into an opportunity for creative learning.

As we make history by staying home if we can, here’s how to put dinner on the table with what’s available. This is a long post, so make a cup of tea, curl up, and nestle in.

Shop by food group rather ingredient

Start thinking about the role ingredients have in a meal, rather than the ingredients themselves. Most fall into the following two categories. Food groups = carbs, proteins, veg (+fruit), and everything else is what I call “flavour boosters.”

Flavour boosters are basically sauces, seasonings, herbs, spices etc. Their role is to add extra:

  • Flavour – sweet, salty, bitter, sour. And umami (eg. soy sauce, parmesan). Knowing your plant-based-umami will help you stick to more plant-based eating.
  • Texture – crunchy/crispy (toasted seeds), creamy (plain full fat yogurt)
  • Characters – earthy (mushrooms), zingy and refreshing (lime), rich (butter), herbaceous

When you shop or think of what’s already in your kitchen, ask yourself: what food groups do I need, and which ones do I already have? For example, my personal meal ratios are 1 part carb, 1 part protein, 2-3 parts veg, and a dash of booster. I’ve stopped thinking: I need rice, chickpeas, broccoli, carrots, soy sauce and honey. Instead, I look at what’s available and figure out what I’m cooking based on what happens to be available, “on spesh”, and in season.

If you’re new to this, use famous cuisines to guide your flavour booster selection. For instance, if you like Chinese flavours, keep the following stocked up where you can: ginger, soy sauce, and spring onions (otherwise known as “shallots” in Australia, or “scallions” in the US). And if there’s one super flexi booster to have on hand as much as possible, it’s passata (tomato puree) – it’s a little sweet, sour, salty, and umami all in one, and is just waiting for you to decide which way you want to amp that up. There’s a reason canned tomatoes fly off shelves!

Bonus tip: Pick mostly long-lasting, or freezable veges (eg. not more than 1 lettuce for 2 people in a week), so you aren’t left with heaps of slimy stuff to chuck at the end of the week!

Making meals with your new food groups

Whether you do meal planning (which I’d advise if you’re new to this) or want to cook on the fly, this is usually the creative fun bit!

For weekly meal planners:

I keep rough lists of my food groups, which get updated each time I do a shop. Next to these lists is where I plan out the week with meals for each day, starting with the most delicate ingredients (like lettuce, which I actually never buy for home cooking anymore because it tastes meh and I can’t ever get through it in time – plus it doesn’t freeze).

If anything doesn’t look like it’ll last a week (eg. spring onions and kale are almost always in my freezer), chop it up and freeze it when you get home (I love silicon bags which are a plastic-free alternative to zip lock bags, but you can also up-cycle some takeaway containers). This is your chance to put some music on for a kitchen boogie!

For frenetic cooks:

If you can’t plan to save yourself, that’s fine – you’re probably better off shopping once every few days rather than doing a whole week of shopping at a time. It’s still helpful to have (digitally or in your head) a list of what you have in each of the food groups.

Either way – here’s how you make your recipe magic

For a home cooked savoury lunch or dinner :)

  1. Start with your veggies (if those are the bulk of your ratios) – if you can, pick a variety of final textures and flavours. Eg. crispy bitter lettuces will love something sweet and soft, like roasted carrots, or a beautiful ripe tomato.
  2. Add a carb and protein that will, as much as possible, fill any texture gaps you might have. Eg. slaw goes so well with mash and chicken because the crunchy, hopefully punchy sweet/sour slaw balances with soft mash and a mild umami protein. If you’re vegetarian, super-soft chickpeas and something like avocado would be a great addition to a slaw instead – those all achieve similar roles.
  3. Fill the last flavour or texture gaps you have with your choice of flavour boosters, or think of a flavour you’re craving at the moment and amp it up. Eg. If I feel like something refreshing, I’ll usually pick sour and zingy as my dominant flavour, so I’ll turn to lemon or lime juice as the main component of my dressing with something like avocado to mellow it out a bit. If it’s winter and I want comfort food, I’ll be assembling every bit of umami I can (vegetarians, I got ya back here).
  4. Assemble in the order of longest to shortest cooking time. Eg. If I’m doing stir fry on rice, I get the rice cooking first, then prep everything else while it cooks.
  5. Use fat, salt, and acid to taste, and keep tasting as you go – and match the fat to what you’re cooking too if you can. If your dish is still bland, add a bit more salt and/or fat depending what’s lacking. Then taste, really engage your senses, and balance from there. If it just tastes like salt, broaden the flavours with sweet or sour sauces, herbs or spices. I still struggle with curries and usually end up adding a ton of palm sugar, and that usually fixes it (also, makes me realise how much sugar must go into take out). Always taste before you plate something you’ve made for the first time.

Optional but bonus tips

Layer fat and salt. “Salt from within” is one of my favourite terms from chef Samin Nosrat (her book and Netflix show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a seminal read/watch). It’s basically what happens when you marinade in something salty, salt your cooking water before your food even goes in, or brine anything – and then add finishing touches of salt later.

Layering fats means that instead of only cooking in fat, you might drizzle with a complementing oil when you’re serving (like a fancy olive oil). This adds a kiss of life for a dish and takes it from weeknight to special. Also, if the oil in your pan dries out, add more (I usually add some toum in the last 2 minutes of whatever I’m cooking at a medium high heat). If you’re worried you’ll eat too much fat, you can reduce your animal proteins and up your veggies to balance out.

Browning is your friend. Golden brown roast potatoes. Letting your stir fried veggies get a speckle of char. Searing your meat, haloumi or tofu to get a brown crust in the pan. These all mean caramelisation (or a Maillard reaction if you wanna get food-nerdy). And they add depth to your flavours.

A touch of sweetness goes a long way. For a long time I was slightly ashamed to admit there was something missing from my home made tomato sauces. Now I realise that was sugar (or brown sugar for extra deliciousness). When you first switch from commercial to home made sauces, you’ll notice this pretty quickly. If you miss it and you’re trying to eat less sugar, do it gradually, and prioritise sweet things that bring you the most joy. Then cut back sugar where you don’t miss it as much.

Start deconstructing and adapting recipes. My hope with this post is that you’ll also start seeing ingredients in a recipe for the role they play. That makes it much easier to make a recipe your own, switching out specific ingredients with the ones already in your kitchen and community any time of year. While the need for that is more urgent right now, I hope it’s something you can carry with you.

I’d love to hear how you go, and learn from your tips too! I’ll be monitoring comments on this post for the next 2 weeks and will try to reply if you have any questions (and edit my post where things are clearly confounding people).

Stay food-curious friends xx


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