Last weekend, I challenged myself to cook without recipes for the rest of the week. I had been feeling bogged down by the amount of time I was spending researching recipes and planning menus and shopping lists. I wanted to test my creativity and ability, and push myself to be more spontaneous. I went to the supermarket Friday without a list and without a plan.
The results: a mixed bag, but more positive than negative. The good news was that I know more about cooking than I gave myself credit for. Everything I made was at least edible, and some of it was really good.
I started strong on Sunday with a Mediterranean-influenced soup, using ingredients that I knew went well together but hadn't necessarily seen combined in this way. I sautéed some chopped onion and garlic, then added a can of chickpeas, some leftover canned chopped tomatoes, chicken broth, a little sherry and some spices. After it was heated I stirred in a spoonful of tahini, which gave it a little creaminess and a delicious flavor. I threw in some chopped fresh spinach until it was just cooked, then blended about 3/4 of the soup so that it would still have some chunks. Finally, I added some leftover cooked rice and let it heat through. The soup was filling and flavorful, and I had just enough left over to bring for lunch the next day.
On Monday, I decided to adapt a macaroni and cheese dish I've tried before. In order to cut down on fat and sneak in some vegetables, I had once tried a recipe from, I believe, Food & Wine magazine that replaced part of the cheese with pureed carrot. It was good, but slightly sweet, so I wanted to try the same idea with a different vegetable—cauliflower. I steamed and pureed it with some milk, then mixed it with shredded extra sharp cheddar and jack cheese and a little ground mustard, paprika and cayenne pepper. Then I stirred it into the cooked macaroni, added some chopped tomatoes and chopped green chilis, sprinkled more shredded cheese and Parmesan on top and baked until it looked done. Another success: it wouldn't beat out a good creamy full-fat version, but it was surprisingly satisfying. I considered the fact that my partner, who doesn't watch calories, voluntarily finished off the leftovers the next day a good sign.
On Tuesday the problem with my laissez-faire grocery shopping became clear. That is usually my partner's night to cook, since I work on the blog then. Although he has recently taken up baking (a hobby I wholeheartedly support), his cooking repertoire is mostly limited to pasta or pizza (using pre-made crust). I had bought the crust but failed to check to see if we had mozzarella left. We didn't. He finished the leftover mac-and-cheese, and I heated up some boxed soup.
Wednesday I made chicken fajitas. Again, my lack of a shopping list came back to haunt me—no lime juice for a marinade. I improvised with some lemon juice and what seemed like a good idea at the time: the juice from a jar of Spanish olives. I won't say that it was bad, but I wouldn't use it again. A side of chopped mango and avocado sprinkled with cayenne pepper and lemon juice (again, lime would have been better) somewhat redeemed the meal.
Thursday was my final night of winging it. On the excellent advice of some of our commenters, I decided to riff on a recipe I have made before, acorn squash stuffed with vegetables. The recipe I usually follow calls for chopped carrots, onions, red bell pepper and celery, sautéed with garlic, ginger, soy sauce and white wine, and topped with shredded cheese. I decided to use the rest of the cauliflower, plus red bell pepper and onions, left out the ginger and used balsamic vinegar instead of soy sauce. I also added a bit of cayenne pepper (few things can't be improved with a little heat, in my opinion). The flavor was good, but without consulting the recipe I didn't know how long to bake it. I should have let the squash cook all the way through before putting the filling and cheese in; the squash was slightly undercooked and by the time I realized my mistake it was too late because the cheese was already browned.
Overall, I am pretty happy with how things came out. I would make both the soup and the macaroni and cheese again, and it was liberating, and confidence-building, to improvise each day. I saved money and was less wasteful because I didn't have a list of specific ingredients I had to buy for recipes; instead, I used what I had available, including leftovers.
On the other hand, at times I felt a little lost without the guidance of a recipe, especially for knowing how long to cook things and at what temperature. From now on, I'll try to use recipes as a starting point, rather than following them slavishly.