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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