Hola! We got back from Mexico last weekend to welcome the very first signs of Torontonian spring (i.e slush, melting snow, fog, and a very dirty dog). I’m excited to finally get my hands in the dirt and start the garden and to be back here to share this post with you guys :)
If you missed my first post on intuitive cooking, I talked about how to follow a recipe to start becoming a more intuitive cook. This is part II. We’re not talking about recipes, but rather some first steps on how to start cooking without them.
I often get asked how I know that certain ingredients are good matches and how I’m able to just throw things together without looking at a recipe. I’m certainly no expert, but this is something that I’m constantly exploring and getting better at, so I’d like to share some of my tips. This post won’t cover it all, but we’ll talk about where to start and then how to figure out which ingredients will work well together in the context of creating a Moroccan Millet Bowl.
Start with Motivation
Creating an interesting salad, a seasonal bowl, or really anything where you can throw together a mess of ingredients without too much fuss is the perfect way to start experimenting and learning. There are no rules and no complicated techniques or cooking methods required. A salad or a bowl is a perfect blank canvas, but where do you start?
Asking yourself a few questions. What’s your motivation? Hunger? Obviously. But hunger can be taken care of with a cold piece of roasted chicken dipped in BBQ sauce…and it sometimes is ;) I’m taking about a different type of motivation.
Are you craving a specific flavour or ingredient?
Are you trying to use up some limpy ingredients in your fridge?
Are you totally pumped about the asparagus that just made its first appearance at the market?
Are you working on a nutrition goal and trying to experiment with ways to incorporate more…say…fibre into your diet?
Are you inspired by something you ate at a friend’s house or restaurant? A colour? A texture?
Whatever’s driving your desire to cook something new, use it. The answers to these questions are the best starting points for creative and delicious meals. Once you’ve picked your starting ingredient (or ingredients), it’s time to do some ingredient matchmaking!
My #1 very best piece of advice is to let yourself play around, have some fun, screw up, take notes, and try again. Embracing the uncertainty may be a bit of a challenge, but once you realize that the worst thing that can happen is a culinary flop (that you can usually fix or eat anyway), the freedom that you’ll start to discover is worth everything.
My second best piece of advice is to invest in either the original Flavor Bible or the new + updated Vegetarian Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dronenburg (see the note below for a comparison of the two book). These two books are genius ingredient matchmaking encyclopedias. They list out all the common (and many not so common) ingredients, alphabetically, then survey chefs and culinary experts to come up with a list of other ingredients that they often pair with the ingredient in question. What you end up with is a list that looks like this (i.e. millet)
From here you can start to map our your ingredient combinations. I’ll give you a little example with the Moroccan Millet Bowl…
I knew that I wanted to create a grain-based bowl, so I browsed around various grains. Landing on millet, the first thing I saw in capitalized bold letters was “NORTH AFRICAN CUISINES” (bigger/bolder text = a more common and promising match). I immediately thought of the harissa recipe that I bookmarked from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. A Moroccan millet bowl was in the works!
Not only do these books go through ingredients, they also list ingredients common to specific cuisines. Under “MOROCCAN CUISINE” (p.341 in The Vegetarian Flavour Bible), I went through the list for Moroccan ingredient ideas, some of which you now see here. Broccoli didn’t appear on that list, but I wanted to add something green to the bowl and I know that broccoli is adaptable and plays nice with many different flavour combos, so in it went. Sometimes its good to crosscheck ingredients against each other as well. For example, oranges go well with garlic as well as strawberries, but it doesn’t mean that garlic and strawberries are good matches. Or maybe they are? It’s worthwhile to check if you’re not sure.
There’s more to creating this bowl – i.e. knowing how to prepare the individual ingredients, figuring out proportions, etc… Those are topics for another day. The point of this post is to give you some insight to the method behind the madness when it comes to deciding which ingredients will work together.
Remember that you can be inspired by a cultural cuisine without having to create anything authentic from that cuisine. I’m sure noone in Morocco has ever seen this “Moroccan” Millet Bowl, and may even be a little confused or insulted that I called it Moroccan. But the liberty to be inspired by flavours and ingredients common to a cultural cuisine, without having to reference any authentic dishes, creates opportunities for new ones! Morocco will forgive me, I hope.
The Habit of Learning
Touching back on my first post on intuitive cooking…to get better at something we have to observe, take notes, and learn. Just going through the motions of following instructions or recommendations may get you immediate results, but you’re not making any learning progress until you can make it a habit to stop and think about what worked about the process/result, what didn’t, and what could be improved. The same applies to following recipes or creating your own. Your knowledge bank grows as you pay attention to tastes, smells, textures, and ideas. If you use every experience in the kitchen to grow your knowledge bank, you’ll start to just know what flavours work together without having to google it or reference a book.
This is a three part recipe with many steps and ingredients. While it’s delicious and you’re than welcome to make the whole thing, I’m mostly hoping that you’ll take bits and pieces of it (or just ideas), and do your own thing!
Moroccan Millet Bowl
Makes 2 – 4 servings
- 1 can cooked chickpeas (about 1.5 cups)
- 1 Tbsp. coconut oil
- 1/4 tsp. turmeric
- Orange Scented Millet w/ Currants (recipe below)
- 1/2 small head of broccoli, broken into bite sized florets, steamed
- 1 large or 2 smaller carrots, noodled or julienned (I used a julienne peeler) and lightly steamed
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
- Harissa (recipe below) and fresh cilantro, to serve
- olive oil and salt, to taste
- 2 small lemons, cut in halves or quarters
- Sautee the chickpeas in coconut oil, with the turmeric and a pinch of salt for a few minutes until warm and fragrant. Set aside.
- Toss the steamed broccoli with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt.
- Divide the millet, sauteed chickpeas, dressed broccoli, and carrots between bowls (about 2 – 4, depending on portion sizes)
- Top with slivered almonds, harissa, and a sprinkle of salt.
- Dress with olive oil and serve with lemon half/quarter on the side.
Orange Scented Millet w/ Currants
- 1 cup of millet, soaked overnight
- 1 cup of freshly squeezed orange juice
- 2 tsp. orange zest
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3 Tbsp. dried currants (or sub. raisins)
- Drain millet, then combine with juice, zest, water, and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, for 10 – 15 minutes until all of the liquid is absorbed.
- Remove from heat, add in currants, cover, and let stand for another 15 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork before serving.
Adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi
- 1 sweet red pepper
- 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
- 1.5 Tbsp. olive oil
- one small onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced or finely chopped
- hot red chilies (see note below on quantity suggestions)
- 1.5 tsp. tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp. salt + more to taste
- cayenne pepper, to taste
- Place the red pepper under the broiler, turning occasionally, for about 25 minutes, until blackened on the outside and soft. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Peel the black skin off the pepper and discard the seeds.
- Toast the spices for a few minutes until fragrant, then grind with a mortar and pestle (or in a coffee/spice grinder) to a powder.
- Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, chiles, and salt, and cook for about 8 – 10 minutes on low heat until soft and starting to caramelize.
- Combine the red pepper, onion mixture, lemon juice, and spice powder in a food processor and process into a paste, adding a little more olive if needed. Taste and adjust with salt and cayenne pepper.
- Store in the fridge for up to a few weeks.
The recipe in Jerusalem calls for 3 red hot chiles (without seeds), but I only used one (with seeds) and was pleased with the result for my palate and spice tolerance. Cooking with chiles can be a bit of a gamble, as you never know how hot they are and how they will impact the final dish. It takes practice and my suggestion is to start with a variety that you know, use a little, then kick it up with ground cayenne pepper at the end if you’re still wanting more heat. Take note and use more of the same chile next time or try a hotter variety.