I rarely use recipes. I mostly just use them for baking, but even then I often take liberties with flavors. Straying away from recipes can be terrifying for some people, for me it’s like an adventure! Growing up my mom made dinner quite regularly. In fact she would plan out a months worth of dinners (including leftovers, so she wasn’t cooking every single night.) Then shop for that month all in one trip, which usually involved a few hours to at least two stores. It seemed to work out really very well for her. She would go through cookbooks and magazines find recipes she thought the family would like, in addition to the tried and true favorites. You can save a lot of money by doing it this way, only going to the store once a month or so. “What a great system!” I thought to myself, and when we first got married I gave it a shot; I made myself blank meal planning calendars, I had (/have) a binder of recipes that I wanted to try, and that I knew I liked, I made my grocery lists, I went shopping, I brought the food home, and made the dinners. First of all, that’s a lot of work. Second of all, I have no idea what I want to eat a month from now! Thirdly and most problematic is that unlike my mother, I can’t remember which ingredients are for recipes… Then it occurred to me, this really goes against the way that I cook. Starting in highschool-ish (my timeframe for my childhood is all blurry…) I began experimenting in the kitchen, making chicken and ground beef dishes, stir fry’s etc. Sometimes it turned out well, sometimes it didn’t. Usually I would just go through the pantry and freezer and find things that looked interesting/tasty and try to make something out of them. Actually…I take that back…I started experimenting in the kitchen much younger than that. When I was 9 or so, my parents would leave us kids at home while they went off to meetings and whatnot. On one particular occasion, I was looking for a snack, so I concocted this dish: Shredded cheese! Because who doesn’t love cheese? and Sour cream…because I loved sour cream. Mix these two together and eat with a spoon or chips if you want to get fancy.
I’ve come a long way since then haven’t I? One of the other big influences on my cooking style has been the cooking that I do as a Historic House Interpreter. We have a larder full of ingredients and have to create a historically appropriate meal. More often than not I have no idea what sort of pantry I’m walking into the next morning. What there is for leftovers, what fruit or veggies are going bad, etc. So even if I DID plan my recipes ahead of time, that could all be derailed by the state of the pantry. The rules are, if there are leftovers you have to use those up first, If anything is starting to go bad that gets used up next, only THEN can you get into the new stuff. This is the way it would have been done historically do eliminate as much food waste as possible. Apparently that mentality has embedded itself into my kitchen habits. So now, rather than looking up recipes and planning menu’s, I open up my pantry, freezer, fridge, determine what if anything needs to be used and go from there. This includes utilizing leftovers to their fullest potential;
This is a bread pudding that I made at the Biddle House this summer in an 1830’s kitchen. We make bread at the Biddle house almost every single day. Besides being the one of the few things we are allowed to share with visitors, it’s also a favorite snack of most of the staff. There is nothing like a hot piece of bread right from the oven with butter melting into it… Even with everyone eating bread, we still have leftover bread often. We make bread crumbs, cream toast, bread pudding, etc. This bread pudding was a cinnamon sweet bread, I broke it up into chunks, added cream, an egg or two, a splash of vanilla and cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Decorated it with some dried cranberries and baked it in a dutch oven until it was done. It was good.
One of the best way to use up odds and ends of vegetables and meat is to make a soup! Above is an autumn stew I made a few weeks back. I was cleaning out the freezer to get ready for a big meat order coming my way. I had a venison roast, and frozen veggies. I slow roasted the venison then cut it into soup sized bits, added potatoes from the garden. a butternut squash and some canned green beans and tomatoes, and a handful of fresh herbs from my pots outside. Anytime I have a big piece of meat with bones I make soup. After every turkey dinner a few days later we have turkey soup, same thing for chicken and beef and pork. If I have the space in the freezer I’ll save the bones from any kind of smaller pieces of meat I cook for later. In fact as I type this, there is a big pot out on the stove with the leftover ham bone from thanksgiving, a couple of chicken bones and a pork bone boiling away. That is destined to be a hearty split pea and ham soup.
Lets go back to the 18th century for a moment. This fall I worked for the first time at our Colonial Fort here on the mainland. So I was in the kitchen about 3 days a week, with little time to research dishes and just a basic grasp on the history. My studies in household history are generally 19th century focused. However cooking in 1770 is essentially the same as cooking in 1830, we’re still on open hearth’s and in dutch ovens. Although the 1770’s kitchen is a bit smaller and more rustic than the later one. It was bit off-putting at first, however I soon got into the swing of things. The best part about cooking at the fort in the fall, is the gardens. The staff put a great amount of time and effort into planting and caring for some great vegetable gardens. So first thing in the morning I would head out with my basket, and my hat.
and raid the garden’s for the day’s vegetables and herbs! The food I was making was very simple, usually soups or roasted vegetables along with some fresh bread, but boy was it tasty! (Note the awesome striped socks, which earned me several funny witchy comments from visitors.) I would also like to mention here that colonial stay’s are the most uncomfortable of the historic supportive garments I’ve worn…
I had this beer in my fridge for well over a month, not being much of a drinker I decided to put it to good use and made some beer bread! Which then led to me using up some hard cider I had hanging around to make Cider bread! Which is equally delicious.
So rather than coming up with recipes and menu’s, I stock my pantry with staples. Grains, noodles, canned fruits and vegetables, the freezer is full of a variety of meats, and now when I go to the store it’s usually just for eggs, milk and sandwich bread, and I shop the produce section snagging whatever seasonal produce there is. Now when I go to make dinner, it usually means walking into the kitchen opening the pantry and putting something together! The food is simple, but tasty and hearty. Rob jokes that I just walk into the kitchen, sprinkle some magic dust, and the food just makes itself. ha!
So if I may, encourage you to ditch your recipe’s every now and then and create something deelicious! It’s like the culinary choose your own adventure. Not sure where to start? Soup is a great place to start. Broth, vegetables, meat, (noodles or rice are a bonus!) It’s a very forgiving dish.