The 6 Skills of Everyday Kitchen Wizards Who Cook “Without Recipes”

Photo: Getty Images/Roberto-Westbrook
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As the Disney movie Ratatouille illustrates in a striking allegory about a rodent, there are two types of cooks in the world. Those who eat grapes and move on with their lives, and those who bite into the juicy fruit and imagine infinite flavor combinations. I'm pretty confused about food myself, so I decided to ask an expert how to cook. Or, more specifically, how to accomplish the breezy ease in the kitchen that warrants phrases like, "Oh, this? I just threw it together!"

One glance at the Instagram feed of plant-based dietitian Catherine Perez, MS, RD, explains why I reached out to her for help. With an endless reel of dishes that look just as delicious as they are easy, I'm lucky she spilled all her secrets to me. "If you think of your plate like a pie, I'm generally aiming for at least half of that pie to be filled with fruits or veggies," she tells me. "That's trying to make sure you get your fiber and your nutrients." Next, she adds one quarter of lean protein and another of whole grains or starch. Now that you have a general idea of how your meal might look, let's get down to the hot tips of a dietitian who keeps her cool composure in the face of dinnertime.

Here's how to cook by just "throwing a few things together" in the kitchen

1. Know your kitchen

To kick things off, Perez recommends taking full inventory of the ingredients already lurking in your crisper, pantry, and freezer. "Knowing your kitchen is a very important skill," she tells me. "What things you have on hand can often spark a lot of really good ideas." Perez raises a good point: How can you decide what to make if you don't know what components you have on hand?

For that reason, the dietitian says one smart move to keep you from gazing forlornly into the fridge is to keep an ongoing list of every food item you have at any given time. That way, you're viewing your options on paper and beginning to think things like, Tomatoes might go well with my crushed basil, and yep, I use those two things with chopped onions for a sauce. It's like going grocery shopping in reverse. You already have the ingredients; you just need to make the list.

2. Start in your spice cabinet

We all know how cravings work. You get a hankering for pad Thai or a zesty cauliflower pizza. Flavor starts with spice, so Perez recommends opening up your spice cabinet and considering what combination of spices your tastebuds desire. For example, if you're craving something with a hearty, powerful flavor, cumin and smoked paprika will bring a smokiness to each bite. Garlic and ginger, on the other hand, will coat what ever you make in an aromatic sweetness.

One of Perez's pro tips is to skip Italian seasoning for meals like gnocchi. Instead, reach for the add-on ingredients that are often served at pizza joints: oregano, parsley, and crushed red pepper. This trio will work again and again as the base for your pasta night.

3. Hone your basic knife skills

This doesn't have to be Iron Chef-level stuff. Perez's point is that, if you know how to cut an onion safely, you're more likely to feel comfortable adding onions to your Taco Tuesday menu. "If people feel uncomfortable with their knives, typically it makes the whole process a lot easier from start to finish," says Perez. There's no shortage of videos to teach you how to wield a knife properly, but this one will show you how to tackle garlic, basil, onions, and carrots. (Hey, that's a soup base right there!)


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Better late than never, but happy Registered Dietitian day to all my fellow RDs! ? I’m very fortunate to know a bunch of incredible RDs and RDs in the making. ? . For those of you that are seeking quality information and direction, I hope that you consider working with an RD. There’s too much misinformation out in the world and too much profit being made from it too. So choose a reliable source, go at your own pace for change and keep yourself up to date on the ever changing world of nutrition. ❤️ . Dinner tonight...a sea of green! Featured are some green tea buckwheat noodles I got from the Asian market, frozen edamame I reheated in the microwave, sautéed mushroom and onion, airfried broccoli, avocado and greens. ?Over top the avocado is a mix of soy sauce, maple syrup, garlic powder and ginger. Good for noodle dipping or to pour over your bowl for extra flavor. ? . PS: sorry for delays in comments and IG videos...I can’t comment or upload videos. I assume it’s an IG thing. ??‍♀️

A post shared by CATHERINE PEREZ, MS, RD (@plantbasedrd) on Mar 13, 2019 at 8:29pm PDT

4. Stock your pantry and fridge with the basics

"Make sure that when you're in the grocery store, you're picking up the ingredients that provide the base for most recipes," says Perez. If your whole grain choice is a bed of quinoa, get it every week. You never get tired of eggplant? Make it a permanent installment on your grocery list. You finally learned to make tofu crispy and you're obsessed? Add it to the cart. The last thing you want is to run out of brown rice when you're really on a role with playing chef.

5. Write down an ingredient plan—not a meal plan—for the week

The idea of planning out an entire week of meals makes my head spin. Which is why, instead of focusing on constructing 21 separate meals, Perez advocates for singling out ingredients you want to use up instead. "I find that when you write those things down, you have time to actually think about it through the week," she says.

If you bought three cans of chickpeas beans for some long-forgotten reason think about how you could pair them with other ingredients. "I think, 'Okay, what might compliment chickpeas in a dish? Do I want to incorporate some fish and some greens?' That gets the ball rolling for you to consider duos you've loved in the past, like stew and rice, cauliflower and cranberries, or chicken and pecans. Your palate naturally knows how to balance flavors with other flavors, so let ingredients, not full dish ideas, guide the way.

6. Experiment and make mistakes

Trial and error. Period.

Be sure to join our Facebook group dedicated to everyday cooking. It's the most delicious place online, promise. 

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