Learning to Cook Creatively

In reference to cooking, I often hear, “I’m just not the creative type” or “I just don’t have the talent.” Both of these things can be easily learned in terms of food.  Below are a couple of pointers:

I often browsed through recipe books or websites, only to find that I was missing a specific ingredient. Rather than dismissing the recipe altogether, try to find a substitute. Google has made this particularly easy; simply search for “substitute for xxxxx”. Some results from a recent search:

Agar-Agar | Gelatin
Bamboo shoots | White or green cabbage
Bok Choy | Celery or swiss chard
Chili sauce | tomato sauce + brown sugar + cinnamon + vinegar + cloves
Hoisin Sauce | ketchup + molasses

… and so on.

Chili recipes are an especially good starter to experiment with, as you can add or replace ingredients with pretty much any edible substance. Chili powder covers a multitude of sins.

Secondly, draw inspiration from common foods. One of my fallbacks tends to be pizza. I take the basic format of crust + sauce + toppings and internationalize it. For instance:

Mexican pizza: masa (corn) flour + water for the dough, top with salsa as the sauce, then sprinkle on cheddar cheese followed by cooked shredded beef or pork, black beans, chopped onions, green chiles, minced garlic, tomatoes, and so on. Bake at 350 for half an hour or until cheese is bubbly and brown

Asian pizza: cooked sticky rice mixed with an egg and pressed into the bottom of a casserole dish for the crust. Top with peanut sauce or teriyaki sauce, then a mild white cheese, followed by bean sprouts, scallions, shredded carrots, cooked chicken or pork, garlic, etc. Bake at 350 for half an hour or until the rice forms a lightly browned crust and everything is cooked through.

Greek pizza: pitas topped with hummus, red peppers, olives, etc

You get the idea.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette — a book by Amy Dacyczyn that I highly recommend — has a similar formula for casseroles:

1 cup main ingredient (tuna, chicken, turkey, ham, etc)
1 cup second ingredient (celery, mushrooms, peas, carrots, etc)
1-2 cups starchy ingredient (potatoes, noodles, rice, etc)
1 1/2 cups binder (cream souce, sour cream, cream soup, etc)
1/4 cup goodies (seeds, nuts, olives, water chestnuts, etc)
Seasoning (rosemary, garlic, tarragon, chili powder, curry)
Topping (potato chips, cheese, bread crumbs)

Basically mix everything but the topping together, dump it into a casserole dish, blanket it with the topping, and bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes.

She also has another template-style recipe for muffins as well.

So as you can see, it’s not necessary to have precisely what you need for a specific recipe, or even have a recipe at all. Draw inspiration from what you already like and don’t be afraid to experiment. If it doesn’t work, toss it out and try again (by the way, Cucumber Melon Gazpacho doesn’t taste nearly as good as I thought it would).