Cooking on my feet

Growing up, my kitchen heroes weren’t recipe reliant. There were recipes used, certainly for baking, but they didn’t feature prominently for everyday suppers. Either the recipes were internalized, or the meals were based on more simply prepared components rather than ‘dishes’.

So when it came my turn to take charge of my culinary fate, I took a similar route. I love reading recipe books, and I’ll reference them for ingredient proportions or temperature and cooking times, but I rarely be a slave to the rules. Often as not, there will be one or more ingredients in any recipe that I don’t like – or don’t have – so I carry on regardless.

That’s not to say that I never proceed without a plan. At the beginning of the week, I have some idea of what’s to be made (whether that’s before or after a grocery shop is a toss-up). It’s just that even the best laid plans can be upset by the unexpected.

This week, there was a sale on mushrooms at our local shop. I don’t often shop there, and the ‘shrooms in question were packaged (I usually get the loose kind), but these were locally grown and a really good bargain. The Fella was already going, so I had him pick up the mushrooms for me. That meant I didn’t get a chance to look at them before I was ready to cook them.

When I did finally lock eyes on them, they were on the dirty side, and a bit brown overall. There were also more than I’d thought there would be. The plan was to just quarter the lot and build a chili around them, along with red kidney beans, black beans and sweet peppers. If I used all I had in that one application, it would be overwhelming and unbalanced. Yet if I didn’t wash and cook them all right away, they’d be on the fast track to Slimesville. Throwing out half the lot of a bargain turns a good deal to bad.

What to do?

Well, we also got a 4-pack of sweet peppers and a huge red onion. The chili didn’t need all the peppers any more than it did all the mushrooms, and the onion was well big enough to split between two dishes. So, I quartered about 2/3 of the mushrooms for the chili, then sliced the remaining 1/3 and did a quick saute of it with the onion. Now, they’ll keep for a day or two until I’m ready to do a fresh fry-up of the remaining peppers, maybe a dose of sauerkraut and some spinach, and put the whole business on a bowlful of baked barley.

Another small hiccup were the mushroom stems. I’m often torn about whether or not to use the stems, and it really depends on what’s being cooked. Sometimes, I cut the stems up first and have them cooking while I finish cutting the tops, and that usually works out well. But for quick cooking, like stir-frys and such, you want really nice stems if you’re going to use them at all. And these stems were not so great. Some were woody, some were split, many were mangled.

What to do?

Wash them well, bung them in a pot of water and simmer the lot for up to an hour. You could chuck in a pinch of salt and a bay leaf, but I decided to keep the flavour simple this time, largely because I have no plans for the stuff. I already took out a dose of turkey stock from the freezer (made from the carcass of our catered Xmas bird), so it’ll most likely be soup of some kind. If I really couldn’t think of anything, I can always freeze it for another time. The point is, if you’re already chugging away in the kitchen, and you’ve got a spare burner, why not make broth? You were going to throw that stuff out anyway. All you’re really doing is throwing it out a bit later on, only now you’ve got a litre (or two) of fresh, homemade broth.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always get these little extra things done. Sometimes, my head’s not in the game. I’m too tired and I just can’t even. That’s fair enough. The point is to try and make little changes to thinking and behaviour so that, over time, this stuff becomes second nature. Being able to go with the culinary flow is integral to better eating, because it helps to see cooking tasks as no big deal. It helps you make food when you have the energy so that later on, when that energy has vanished, you won’t be deciding between junk food and starvation for dinner.