How to Cook Without a Recipe

Cook for a Crowd

One of the most important parts of my college experience has been the food co-op that I cooked and ate in for three years. The challenge of preparing a healthy meal for 30 people based on the sometimes limited ingredients that were available, while also providing for the vegans, the lactose intolerants and a host of other specific dietary needs, brought out a certain kind of focus and drive that I was seldom capable of outside of that kitchen.

cook bookHere’s a few pieces of advice, and maybe some good anecdotes too, for planning and preparing meals for a large group.

Planning?  I’m being a little dishonest here.  I never really planned the meals that I cooked once a week for my co-op. My strategy was mostly based on a scan of the refrigerator 10 minutes before I was supposed to start cooking.  Anyway, my approach went something like this:

First, look for a few key ingredients. I never worked from a recipe, but would rather choose my key ingredients based on what looked good and fresh, and then find a way to build a dish around those main ingredients. Keep nutrition in mind here.  A good rule is to cook one vegetable dish, one source of protein and one starch.

Co-op food tends to take one of three forms – soup, stew or stir-fry.  In fact, the line between soup and stew is often blurry so hey, make that two forms. These are convenient because chances are whatever ingredients you picked out as the basis of your meal will work nicely in one of these ways. This is sort of a lazy way to cook, and anyone is certainly applauded for more creative ways of putting ingredients together, but the soup/stew or stir-fry option is always a solid fallback. Sometimes when you have two hours to get a meal for 30 ready, you have to make it easy on yourself.

Some examples.

Simple Lentil Stew

You can easily combine everything you need for a balanced meal in a nice stew, and it won’t be too hard. Seasonal vegetables, brown rice and lentils, seasoned with plenty of garlic and onions along with some black pepper make a perfect dish.

Sweet Potato Soup

Another dish that became one of my standards was a sweet potato and peanut butter soup. I added some tomatoes, plenty of spinach and lentils to the soup and, hey, there’s a complete balanced meal in one dish. (If you need to accommodate for a peanut allergy, just set a portion aside before you add the peanut butter.)

You are definitely going to want to do all of the prep work before you start cooking.  I’m talking about all of the washing, chopping, peeling and whatever else you need to do to get your ingredients ready to cook. Having all of your ingredients prepared and at hand for when you need them will take a lot of stress off of you.

The important thing is to stay open to inspiration while cooking. Pretty much the entire extent of my kitchen philosophy is that if you start with fresh ingredients and have some basic knowledge of what flavors complement one another, you’re on the right track.

So, to distill this all into a somewhat more cogent strategy for cooking for a large group of people:

  • Start with some simple and flexible dishes that you know work well.
  • Have good fresh ingredients on hand and ready to go.
  • Be ready to improvise and elaborate on your basic dishes, adding different flavors and seasonings.
  • Taste your dish as you go along and assess whatever you think is missing.
  • Then just make sure you have some good jams to listen to while you cook and you’re all good.
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One Response to How to Cook Without a Recipe

  1. Harriet says:

    The sweet potato soup sounds great–do you use anything for the liquid in addition to the tomatoes?

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