My approach to cooking is this: I know how to follow recipes, and I'm good at following recipes. I also know how to select good recipes. I menu-plan for the week, by finding recipes that look/sound good (I have a few "standard" places I check), and then buy what I need to make them.
The problem is that when I'm in the kitchen, if I don't have a recipe to follow, I'm sort of at a loss. It's like the recipe is my security blanket, and I can't cook without it. I don't like to experiment in the kitchen. What if I mess it up? What if all the time and energy (and ingredients) I put in to a meal don't pay off with a tasty product?
But since I've been working at the farm, I'm loosening my grip on the security blanket a little bit. Every day, the farm community eats lunch together, and lunch is cooked, on a rotating basis, by the Live-In Volunteers and Interns on the farm. They use what's available to them at the time-- whatever staples are on-hand, and whatever vegetables have been harvested from the garden that day or week. You don't always know ahead of time what's going to be available. But some really great meals have been served at the farm. These folks have inspired me.
I'm not quite "there" yet in my own cooking, but I'm working on it. Last night I stood in my kitchen at home, no idea what to cook for dinner. I hadn't been to the grocery store for the week, and I still had vegetables not yet used, from last Tuesday's CSA harvest (To read more about what a CSA is, click here: http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ ... note, this is not our farm's website, just a site I found that gives a brief overview of how a CSA works). We pick up our CSA veggies every Tuesday, and knowing I would be getting more veggies the next day, made me determined to use up whatever we still hadn't used from last week.
So I didn't look up a recipe. I just started chopping. We had a little bit of bacon that needed to be used up, so I chopped it up, and put it in a skillet. I found some potatoes, so I chopped those up and added them in. We had all sorts of veggies from the CSA, so I started chopping those-- onions, greens, etc. We also had some head lettuce that needed to be used, as well as some radishes, and some spinach-- which combined together to make a beautiful and delicious salad.
When Billy came in the kitchen and asked what I was making, I said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm just putting stuff in the cast iron, and hoping it works out." He said, "Wow. You've been working at the farm a little too long. It's not like you to not have a plan for dinner."
And. Dinner was great! Nothing fancy. We just ate what we had on-hand, and everything we ate was in season and fresh. That's the way we're supposed to eat. I mean, I know everything is "in season" at the grocery store, but we really are trying to be more intentional about eating what's actually in season.
Now. I won't go so far as to say that not following a recipe yesterday was stress-free for me. It was kind of a risk for me, but it turned out well. To help with the seasonal eating, we've found that this cookbook is great. It's filled with simple recipes, and it's broken out by season. My friend Carrie gave it to me for my birthday, and we also sell it at the farm. It's a great resource.