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Intuitive Cooking: 5 Ways to Find Your Inner Chef

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Intuitive Cooking: 5 Ways to Find Your Inner Chef

I write a lot about intuitive eating. Just as important, and the first step in the process, is intuitive cooking. But it’s hard in our world. We’re pressed for time, and accustomed to looking outside ourselves to the experts — the celebrity chef, the cooking show stars, the cookbook authors —for the latest word on what to buy and how to cook it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for education in culinary and nutritional topics; it’s how I make my living. At some point, though, it’s exhilarating to rely on an internal compass rather than external directions. It’s not like celebrity chefs or we food writers have cornered the market on cooking. Food preparation is the most natural, instinctive activity in the world, right up there with nest-building and baby-making. And I believe it’s as important as intuitive eating in terms of our relationship with food.

Cooking by availability and intuition — shopping the market, choosing produce that looks fresh and appealing, and then combining it with ingredients on hand, according to taste and personal preference — is perhaps the oldest and most authentic way of food prep. My southern grandmothers cooked this way, without recipes or elaborate meal planning. They simply gathered vegetables from their garden, combined them with ingredients on hand, and added a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tasted good. At the end, it was invariably a feast.

Cooking without a recipe requires only a little skill, plus a lot of imagination, and a willingness to be bold and inventive. These five steps will get you started:

1. Head to local farmer’s markets. That’s where you’ll find an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce. But don’t write off our local grocery stores; Whole Foods can’t be beat for its high-quality organic produce selection and vast array of herbs, spices, oils, nuts, cheeses and specialty items. Vitamin Cottage has wildly competitive prices and a full selection of organic produce. And some mainstream grocers are doing a pretty good job of offering more organic and local produce.

2. Start with color. It will be one of your main guides for choosing ingredients. Begin with one main ingredient — asparagus, for example — then look around the market or produce section for seasonal produce that would compliment their bright-green color. Look for what appeals to you–the pale hue of green onions, for example, and the soft tan-gray of wild morels.

You could sauté these in olive oil, then top with a little black sea salt and shaved Asiago cheese. How would you cook them? Maybe make them into a soup with a light broth, a little cream and nutmeg? Or sauté them in sesame oil with garlic and ginger, and top them with black sesame seeds? You get the idea; anything is possible. Don’t overlook fruit; pears, berries or citrus fruits compliment many vegetable dishes with a subtle, fresh sweetness.

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Lisa Turner

Lisa is a chef and nutritionist with more than 30 years of professional experience and formal training in food, nutrition and product development. She’s written five books on food and nutrition and is the creator of The Healthy Gourmet iPhone app, and has been a featured blogger for many national sites, including Huffington Post and Whole Foods Market. Lisa is a faculty instructor at Bauman College of Culinary Arts and also teaches food and nutrition classes and workshops to individuals and corporations. She's a black belt in Ninjutsu, an active volunteer in the Boulder Valley school lunch system, and an avid wild food forager.


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9:53AM PDT on Sep 16, 2010

After making a massive batch of veggie soup with most of our fresh veggies, we haven't had a lot of veggies lately. So I decided to sneak some into my food. I grated up a couple of carrots, then tossed them into the eggs for an omelet. When I was slicing up my peach to go on the side, I realized that would be an interesting taste. I tossed them on top. The next time I sauteed them with the onions. AMAZING. Didn't need anything else.

5:59AM PDT on Sep 10, 2010

Thanks for all the tips.

4:00AM PDT on Jul 21, 2010

Thanks =)

1:55PM PDT on May 20, 2010

Good reminder: simple recipes--no more than 10 ingredients, including spices and seasonings--are the best to adapt. And baking is not the best way to start experimenting with intuitive cooking! It's too exact, with precise measures and way too many pitfalls. Soup is ideal, salad dressing, anything that allows for tasting and adjusting. Thanks for the comment ~

9:11AM PDT on May 20, 2010

Super article, thank you! If you are nervous,start with something easy. I began my intuitive cooking (I had no idea that was what I was doing) by making my own chicken broth. It was sooo easy (add the veggies you like to water and chicken) and sooo tasty... I freeze it (in glass containers) and keep it on hand. I thoroughly enjoy intuitive cooking!

9:21AM PDT on Apr 22, 2010

noted thank you I love to cook

12:52AM PDT on Apr 17, 2010

Somepeople love to cook, others don't.
My wife loves to cook but as we are just the two, she doesn't bother much because I eat very little and do not like cooked food!
The article is much fun though!
Keep it up you cookers!

9:18AM PDT on Apr 15, 2010

Hi Ellen,

Love your comment. Before cookbooks were invented, that's how we cooked: we did what we wanted. We used foods that were available and in season, and we messed around with them until it tasted good. Now, in the days of celebrity chefs and "experts," we think we have to look outside ourselves for rules and procedures. Look within, instead. As with anything else, you are your own best teacher and expert.

9:16AM PDT on Apr 15, 2010

Hi Kay,

Maybe you can encourage your recipe-seeking friends to experiment on their own! You can create a written recipe from your standard soup by basing it on one pot size; if other who follow the recipe use the same pot, they'll have similar results. Have fun ~

9:35PM PDT on Apr 14, 2010

My friends are always asking me for my soup recipes -- but it's just one basic recipe: a beef bouillon base with chopped onion. Everything else is optional, depending on a combination of what's in the fridge and the mood I'm in. I like to have at least 2-3 other vegetables besides the onions, I almost always throw in some thyme, and I usually add starch of some kind (anything from barley to rice to turnip or potato to noodles). Every pot is different, so how can I boil it down to a precise recipe with specific, measured ingredients?

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