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.