If you’re a slave to recipes you’ll be all too familiar with the sight of a fridge full of partially-used ingredients you don’t know what to do with. They either go off or languish in back corners until they’re eventually thrown out – contributing to all this food waste. Or, you end up eating the same thing over and over again (because you don’t have time to learn 365 recipes to keep things different every night of the week), and you know what, any meal gets old after 5 nights in a row. Knowing how to cook without a recipe will give those odds and ends the chance to live their best lives, and means you don’t have to eat butter chicken every night for a week.
In this series we’re going to take you through the basics of how to cook good food with what you’ve got. Once you’ve got the knowledge, bring your friends on board for a Salvage Supperclub to pool your random ingredients and make a feast of it.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around what makes a meal it’s time to make your seemingly random collection of ingredients taste amazeballs.
Broadly speaking, there are 5 flavour groups to be aware of:
Sweet and Salty, Sour and Bitter, and Umami (this is the “mmmm-gimme-more” factor that’s in meat and seafood, cheese, mushrooms, soy sauce and miso for example).
The reason we’ve grouped sweet and salty is that these play off each other nicely. The same applies to sour and bitter.
Ready for some seriously mindful eating? Let’s play a bit of a game.
List out what’s ingredients you have available right now (or what you usually like to stock your fridge with). For each ingredient, think about what it predominantly brings to the plate:
Which flavour(s)? How intense? For example, a tomato is both sweet and sour, whereas vanilla ice cream is just sweet
Which texture(s)? For example, is it dry or juicy? Crunchy or soft?
What will make your meal delicious is if it’s nicely “balanced” – aka, it isn’t just full of one kind of flavour or texture. Sure, you might want to pick a dominant flavour (usually this is sweet or savoury). However, the best foods have a little of all the flavour groups and textures. Even just pairing sweet and salty, or sour and bitter, can work well. Think of salted caramel, for example.
Here’s how balance plays out for two of our favourite foods:
Pizza usually has some sort of tomato as the base sauce – why? Tomatoes bring the sweet and sour factor, but they also have natural umami (that mmm-factor). Tomato sauce usually contains salt. Add to that a melty, soft cheese (more salt and umami, plus delicious, wonderful fat). All on top of a dough base which hopefully has a crispy base.
Hummus and crackers/crunchy veggies
Hummus has chickpeas and tahini, which are both earthy (fancy word for “a little bitter”) and umami. The bitterness is balanced out with lemon juice (or some companies use vinegar or food acids) and usually some garlic. Chickpeas are a bit dry, so the tahini and olive oil bring in their good fats to save on the mouth puckering, and the lemon juice also adds a little moisture to make it more easily dippable. But hummus by itself is kinda just globby, so some crackers or crunchy veggies make it extra awesome. The mild sweetness of carrots or red peppers are what makes them especially nice to dip into hummus (which doesn’t have a whole lot of sweetness otherwise). It’s also why roasted pumpkin, carrot, or sweet potato hummus is so freakin rad.
The same principles apply to a meal. Give it a taste if you’re still a little unfamiliar with flavours, and then decide what’s missing. Most of the time people avoid veggies because they tend to sit in the earthy bitter category – but all they need is a little balancing out. For example, if you’ve made a super earthy salad of kale and beetroot, you’ll need a nice sweet, sour dressing. Think lemon honey mustard with a little salt, for example. Or instead you could add fruit, like apple, or orange, then some feta for salty umami. Top it off with some crunch (like nuts or croutons), and you have yourself a pretty rad dinner that’s overall pretty good for you too.
Put aside your feelings about fat in itself for a second. If your meal is mostly full of vegetables (which were 99% fat free way before it was cool), you can get away with adding some fat in your life. In fact, you’ll need it, both to feel full, and stay full. Without feeling full, you’ll just revert to eating crap again as a result of THE CRAVINGS (and yes, they’re in all caps, because they are hangry and loud).
Also, fat = creamy, which rhymes with dreamy for a reason.
Here are some good fats according to health experts who like to use big words.
Add generous amounts of one or several of these if your meal is a little on the dry/vegetable-y side.
+ olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil (or other vegetable oils that aren’t palm oil)
+ avocados (yussss)
+ nuts and seeds
+ oily fish (more sustainable sources can include anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and MSC certified or pole-caught salmon and tuna)
The others to add in moderation you probably need no help using – butter, coconut oil or cheesy goodness.
If you need a little more specific guidance, we recommend The Flavor Bible. It’s essentially an index of ingredients, with their flavour profiles, and what other ingredients they go well with, developed by some pretty rad chefs.