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.

3. Try something new. The first time I saw a rutabaga, I was consumed with curiosity. I purchased the monstrosity, which looked something like a mutant potato. At a loss, I chopped it up, boiled it and served it with butter, salt and pepper. It was delicious — sweet, clean, with a mildly nutty, cabbage like flavor. Try something new — celery root, cardoons, chanterelle mushrooms, tomatillos, fiddlehead ferns, chayote squash, kumquats. Ask for cooking suggestions at the market. Start by seasoning simply with a little salt and pepper, and branch out from there. You’ll know.

4. Stock up on basic cooking ingredients. An artist needs the proper paints, brushes and canvas upon which to express her creativity. You’ll need an assortment of oils, vinegars, salts, spices, fresh herbs and other ingredients, to make the most of your cooking artistry. Basics include:

  • A good olive oil and grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
  • Balsamic, sherry and red wine vinegar
  • Kosher or coarse salt, sea salt and, if you like, a finishing salt, such as fin de sel, to be added after cooking.
  • Seven or eight spices you love (try cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, chili powder, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and curry powder) and a wide selection of fresh herbs, garlic and onions.
  • A selection of dried beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds.
  • Canned tomatoes, canned beans and a good, basic broth or stock.

5. Start with a great recipe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having guidelines for a dish you love — pasta, salad, soup — creates a basic framework, the scaffolding upon which you can lay your own original design. A basic soup recipe, for example, might be 6 cups of broth, 2 cups of vegetables, 1 cup of beans, 2 tablespoons of oil or butter, and 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Start with a recipe you love, head to your favorite market, and be willing to be bold. At the very worst, you’ll discover what doesn’t work — and that’s a valuable life lesson in itself.

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Megan Poettgen
Megan R.5 years ago

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.

Joy Wong
Joy Wong5 years ago

Thanks for all the tips.

Aoife O Mahony
Aoife O Mahony5 years ago

Thanks =)

Lisa Turner
Lisa Turner5 years ago

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 ~

Nancilee I.
Nancilee I.5 years ago

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!

Grace Johnson
Grace Johnson5 years ago

noted thank you I love to cook

johan l.
paul l.5 years ago

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!

Lisa Turner
Lisa Turner5 years ago

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.

Lisa Turner
Lisa Turner5 years ago

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 ~

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS5 years ago

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?