Winging it in the kitchen

No, not chicken wings. At least not in my case. What have you just thrown together in the kitchen – impromptu-like – that turned out to be at least edible?

Last night I cooked some ground beef and added a packet of taco seasoning mix. There was some corn left over from the BBQ last week, so I tossed that in. I cooked some macaroni pasta and mixed it in when it was done. I didn’t have any tomato sauce, so I squirted in some catsup.

It actually was fairly tasty. Guess what’s for breakfast? :smiley:

My meatloaf and soups are always a bit of this, some of that affairs. I disappointed someone tremendously about three months ago when they were raving about my meatloaf.

Yes it was one of the better ones I’d done in a while, but no, I had no idea exactly how much of what was in it. Best I could offer was “well, there’s hamburger, bread crumbs, some onion, some garlic. Probably was some worcestershire sauce, maybe a bit of A1 steak sauce. Think there was a handful of leftover olives in there…”

I consider myself quite the bachelor chef.

Yesterday I made fried rice with chicken and shrimp and some left over peas and carrots. I spiced it with paprika, fresh ground pepper, and a touch of curry powder. How much of any of it I have no clue.

Most everything I cook winds up like this since I’m far too lazy to follow recipes. I’ve done it long enough that I haven’t cranked out anything that was actually inedible or even not fairly tasty in years (mmm…tortured syntax, gotta love it).

My favorite winging it usually involves pasta and whatever I have in the fridge that’s fairly fresh and tasty. Veggies, meat, anything sauce-like or that can potentially be hijacked into a sauce-like substance, whatever.

I don’t like to use recipes. My cooking technique was long ago contaminated by my approach as a painter: I don’t like to make the same dish twice, and I don’t like color-by-numbers. That coupled with watching WAY too many episodes of Iron Chef, and I feel like consulting a recipe is somehow cheating.

I only follow recipes for baking, because you can seriously screw up a cake or whatever if the measurements are wrong. However, when it comes to additional ingredients like chocolate or different fruits, I’ll use whatever I have in the house instead of going out and spending money on something else.

I can’t remember the last time I followed a recipe when cooking a meal. I’m making meatloaf tonight and I wont’ know what’s going to be in it (besides ground meat) until I pop it unto the oven.

Me too.

I do usually start with a recipe when I don’t know how to make something, but very rarely stick directly to it.

In fact, I got an excellent beef stew recipe from this board but couldn’t resist throwing in some garlic cloves and other spices not in the recipe.

we “wing it” when doing stir fry and various “Sloppy Joe” type foods. In most cases, though, I follow recipes pretty closely.
My one exception, I find, is in making Grape Pie. I have evolved to the point where, aside from making the crust, I use no measuring instruments, doing everything by “feel” and taste. In part, it’s because I have to – the sugar content of the grapes uis highly variable, and if I follow a recipe I’m liable to get something too sweet or too tart. Ya gotta go by taste to get it right.

Basic cooking skill (as opposed to rote adherence to recipe books) stems from an ability to take simple recipes and improvise upon them. I’d say that virtually everything I cook, aside from the rare pastries and the like, are the result of some amount of improvisation.

When I get in the mood to prepare a real gourmand’s meal–rare these days, since it’s generally just me and it’s not worth the effort–I’ll generally crack open my Larousse Gastronomique (a great reference, if still somewhat bent toward Continental cuisine) and page through until I find something that sounds good, and then improvise from there, or I’ll flip back and forth though Fisher’s The Art of Eating until I find inspiration. Probably my favorite improv meal was a spinach, tomato, and carmelized onion torte that started out life as something called pissalideria(sp?); it lost the anchovies and gained sautéed spinach and a bechamel sauch with mascarpone, topped with parmigiano reggiano and toasted pinenuts. (Think a “dish pizza” but light and sweet instead of heavy and saucy.) It was actually robust enough to be paired with a pinot noir despite having no meat base, and was just as good cold the next day.

The only things you can’t really “wing it” with are baked, leavened goods. I suppose if you’re really an experienced baker you might experiment with different rise and bake times, but I’m not that and so I follow bread recipes and such to the T; for the most part, I’d just prefer to leave the baking to someone else, but sometimes a loaf or boule of bread straight from the oven is irresistable.


Yesterday, I had thawed out an inch-thick hunk of round steak. I poked it all over with a Jaccard Meat Tenderizer®, which is 3 rows of tiny daggers in a springy press. Then I made a simple marinade of orange juice, black pepper, curry powder, Kosher salt, and bourbon. After 6 hours of marinating, I pulled out the beef and began boiling down the marinade into a sauce. Mrs. Nott put together a spinach salad (spinach, tomato pieces, slices of Hungarian peppers, and romaine lettuce.

I broiled the steak on the gas grill, then sliced it into bite-size pieces. Mrs. Nott mixed a little olive oil into the sauce and drizzled it on the salad, with the steak pieces on it. I dripped some balsamic vinegar on the steak, and it was ready.

We’ve only recently bought the balsamic vinegar, and we have only the vaguest idea what to do with it.

Most of the food I make is jsut doen on the fly, adding things as I see fit. But my most impressive feat of improv-cookery, was when I made pondwater chicken.

You see, while in college, i was asked by the people I lived with what I was making for dinner the next night. Just half-joking, I said ‘pondwater chicken.’ I made up that dish right then and there, and realyl didn’t think about it, but then decidedto make it. Well, as it turns out, no one else out there had the idea to make pondwater chicken…or if they did, they didn’t post a recipe for it online. So, come the enxt day, I just baked soem chicken with a few spices, and boiled soem water. To the water I added many herbs, whoel bay leaves, corriander seeds, black peppercorns, and some oil. When it was done it did, indeed, look like pondwater. I cut up the chicken ,added that to it, and served it over rice. It was damn tasty, and I have made it a few times since, though never the same way since I never wrote an actual recipe.

Effectively all my cooking is done this way. If I have no idea where to start on something, I’ll glance at a recipe to get the general idea, then freewheel from there. It used to drive one of my ex-roommates mad, because he wanted to replicate my some of my “recipes”. He tried to work out how to make my smoked turkey baste for over a year–now he just invites me over when he wants smoked turkey.

The latest improvisation to emerge from my kitchen was a rather large serving of Natchitoches meat pies I brought to an office potluck. I had never made the dish before, but I’ve enjoyed them for years and decided to take a shot at making them. I browned ground beef with plenty of fresh black pepper, savory, Chachere’s, and a bit of sage. Once it was browned, I added green onions, yellow onion, and a whole pod of finely minced fresh garlic. I made the pastry shells from scratch without a recipe as well, though I suppose at some level I follow what I learned watching my grandmother and my father making piecrust. I had to fiddle with the pastry a bit to get it to the right consistency. Then, following hallowed Louisiana tradition, I deep-fried everything in sight.

You’ll note the presence of terms like “plenty” and “a bit”, and the distinct absence of “tablespoon” and “cup”. That’s normal. I knew what it was supposed to look/smell/taste like, so I threw things together until it matched the image in my head. The crust came out a bit fluffier than I had intended, but the experiment seemed reasonably successful–there were no leftovers from the large batch I took to the office.

I have several Indian cookbooks, and do use recipes sometimes. But once I got the whole coriander-cumin-cardamom-chili-ginger thing down, I started just using whatever combination of vegetables and liquids sounded compatible and available.

We made a cinnamon roll recipe this but made it into a loaf instead of rolls, and adjusted the rising time for our own convenience, leaving to rest in the fridge overnight - which also made for a really damn good crumb. Tonight I am going to make up the same dough but add raisins to the base dough, and then cut down on the brown sugar and butter in the filling, to make it more just a breakfast bread.