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Which way around do you cook?

I used to (when I started out cooking) find a recipe and then go out and get everything for that recipe. It's kind of an expensive way to go about things in the beginning, because you don't have things like red wine vinegar or sesame oil if you don't cook.

But now I'm getting more into seeing what's around and then finding a recipe for it. I'm guessing this is what most people do?

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  1. I do it both ways. Sometimes I will buy what's needed for a recipe, but if it contains many ingredients I won't use often (and would waste otherwise), then I often just make some substitutions and tweak the recipe to my liking. I find it more fun to get in the kitchen and be creative than to just follow recipes, anyhow.

    1. Both ways now. Because I have a very well-dressed pantry, my shopping lists are rarely long. Usually what I'm shopping for is the vegetable component. But I also cook plenty from what's on hand. Recently I fixed two dishes from the current COTM with things I already had.
      BTW, I just counted yesterday and have SEVEN vingegars which I think is excessive and yet I'd be hard pressed to get rid of any of them :)

      1 Reply
      1. re: c oliver

        You're just starting. At last count I have 10 vinegars. Different uses call for different vinegars.

        To the OP, I "do it both ways now." Or... either/or. Since I'm usually cooking from the COTM I search that book for likely recipes then do a pantry & fridge search to see If I have to buy any ingredients. Like coliver, I have a very well stock pantry so most of the ingredients I need a "fillers" like produce or a main ingredient.

        Of course the situation changes when I'm at the farm and see a vegetable or piece of meat I simply must have immediately. But, with my experience and cookbook collection I can pull something together suitable for that purchase.

      2. It sounds like you're getting into the swing of cooking! My progression was: 1) choose recipe and buy ingredients; 2) Buy ingredients that look good and then find a recipe for them, and 3) Buy whatever looks good that I feel like eating, and make my own improvised dish without a recipe.

        Still I do sometime buy ingredients for a particular dish, but most often when I go shopping I let the inspiration of whatever looks yummy and fresh (or is on sale!) guide me.

        1. I either plan my meals around what I already bought (on sale) and have on hand in the freezer or pantry, using the inspiration I find here for new recipes: or my other option is when I see something on weekly special; for example this week eggplant is 69cents a lb so tonight we are having eggplant parmigiana. But the days of seeing some gourmet recipe and going out to buy 10 ingredients (half of which will probably involve a treasure hunt) are long over for me. Too much work for one meal.

          5 Replies
          1. re: coll

            +1 to everything you said, coll!

            I do have a meal plan that involves rotating meal "concepts" while looking for the best prices on items to fill out the slots (i.e., meatless monday, pasta tuesday, soup wednesday, etc.), but I rarely use it. I cook pretty intuitively and can make a dozen decent meals out of my pantry stores. The ability to cook with what you've got is, to me, an essential.

            The only time I find myself having to shop with a recipe in hand is when I'm branching out into new cuisines altogether. I recently made a foray into Indian food and that has required several special trips to the Indian grocery. Now that I've built up my store of spices, I can improvise much more easily.

            1. re: LauraGrace

              You're more organized than I am having days of the week! I usually do one or two major meals a week, and then riff off of them, only because of time constraints, but it's mostly just "What do I have around that I'm also in the mood for?" However, when I get to Trader Joes or the Oriental supply store that's down the street from them, all bets are off, because all those exotic seasonings really inspire me. But I buy those first, because I heard about them somewhere, and then figure out how to use them. Like a science project!

              1. re: coll

                That is definitely how I cook 90% of the time. I have the menu plan but only use it if I'm extremely busy -- since it's just me, there's not much planning required.

            2. re: coll

              Coll, may I suggest you look at Deborah Madison's recipe for Stir-fried Roasted Eggplant? It has tomatoes but the fresh ginger elevates it to addictive, and I'm not a big fan of ginger. I don't use the hot chile called for, and subbing canned whole tomatoes for fresh works fine. I've discovered that nuking the eggplant is easier and almost as good as roasting it (the latter mellows it more). You halve the cooked eggplant, scrape out globs of it and discard the skin. Saute it with tomato paste, soy sauce, (chile), minced ginger, brown sugar, rice wine or balsamic vinegar, scallion (or onion), garlic, and broth (I omit the broth). It is great as a pasta or bruschetta topping. I put it on toasted English muffins and melt cheese over it. I warm it in a pan, make a well, crack an egg into it, top with a slice of cheese, cover until the egg is cooked. I always plan to make lasagna with it but I can't wait that long to start eating it!

              1. re: greygarious

                Well, I love ginger so I will have to try it immediately. I already do Baba Ganoush but getting weary of it, the egg will make it so different.

            3. I almost always decide what to cook and then buy the ingredients. However, I find that the more and more I cook, I have less to buy, as some others have said. Often times I just have to buy the chicken or meat (and for my baked apricot chicken this week I had to buy apricot preserves). If a recipe has a lot of ingredients, particularly obscure ones, I usually pass on it, or save it for when I have company.

              1. I do sometimes go out and buy ingredients for a particular dish, but I also try to find another recipe using the same ingredient(s) in order to use them up. That way I don't feel like I made an investment just to use a small amount of something. Using buttermilk as an example, it is not something I always have on hand, but if I buy it for one thing I will definitely have another item or two in mind to use it up.

                1. I look at what needs to be used up and then figure out what to cook about 90% of the time. We belong to a CSA so there is always a lot of produce to use up. About 10% of the time I just really want spaghetti and meat balls or SO wants tacos.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: corneygirl

                    After reading more responses I want to clarify. I will notice I have a squash that needs to be used an also some shrimp in the freezer. I check cookbooks and websites for a recipe. **all this if I have time** Other wise I usually make pasta or soup or stirfry of whatever things I have around with a quick stop at the store. I'm spoiled well stocked corner store a block away and my main grocers about 4 blocks. I've never learned to shop for more than a day or two.

                  2. I might use a recipe for inspiration, but I rarely follow them anymore. I usually either buy whatever looks good at the store, or root around in my refrigerator and pantry, and then improvise.

                    When I do look at a recipe, it is usually just to see what the major ingredients are, and what the cooking method is. Then I wing it. Oh, except for baking, of course. ;)

                    1. I almost always go to the butcher and farmers market/vegetable stand to see what looks good first. Then I construct a recipe that feels right using those ingredients from my head/using cookbooks/websites etc... for inspiration. If I need anything I don't have, I go to the supermarket or wherever to get it.

                      Some days though I definitely just get struck by the urge to make a particular dish and set out about whipping it up...

                      Alternatively, when I have a bunch of stuff around the kitchen that's on the verge of being unusable, then I do my best to use it before it goes bad.

                      1. Strictly the first way. Never once have I let the ingredients I have on hand determine what I cook.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                          Really? Wow. I just don't have the time or budget for that. One of my personal joys in the kitchen is taking odd bits of things from fridge, pantry, and freezer and making a meal that people remember -- making something out of nothing. I think I would be missing out if I had to go grocery shopping every single time I wanted to cook!

                          To each his own! ;)

                          1. re: LauraGrace

                            I'm like you, LG. Right now, I have a little bit of lightly fried fennel and onion slices that are going into something in the next few days. Small portions of meat and vegetables that wouldn't make a meal on their own can be part of something that as you say we remember later. I love the challenge of saying "now WTF am I going to do with that?" LOL

                            1. re: c oliver

                              Exactly! When I came home from xmas vacation to an empty fridge, I did a cursory trip to the grocery, and then promptly got snowed in for four days. That's the ULTIMATE challenge! ;)

                              If I were ever home in the summer, I would love to do a CSA, just for the "Iron Chef" element of the unknown.

                            2. re: LauraGrace

                              It's like a game, making something delicious out of (sort of) nothing. The story Stone Soup (which we read in first grade I believe) made a big impression on me.

                              1. re: coll

                                "It's like a game, making something delicious out of (sort of) nothing"

                                AND it's a good party trick! ;)

                              2. re: LauraGrace

                                We grocery shop twice a week, on Tuesday evening and Saturday mornings. Those two shopping trips net all the ingredients we'll need for the dinners I make that week. The dinners are chosen in advance, of course, based upon a rotating recipe index I've devised. This index is incredibly variegated and voluminous, containing close to 250 recipes. This system means I don't have to waste time and energy trying to decide what to make while simultaneously assuring that we never get bored with our meals. We also KNOW they'll be delicious because I've prepared them before. (We toss any duds.)

                                As to creativity and whatnot, I personally gain more satisfaction from hitting a recipe out of the park and producing a delicious meal than I would from creating something de novo. My writing rather than my cooking is the outlet for my creativity.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  You're a writer?!? Wow. Cool. Do you ever get a little wild and crazy and say "to hell with the menu, let's have chili dogs!" or some such???

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    Actually, chili dogs are in the Almighty Recipe Index from Gastroparadise. And that is one dish for which I don't consult Emeril or Alton or Grady. ;)

                                    PS--To add to what I said earlier, I do create recipes from scratch, but I also commit them to paper and include them in the index.

                            3. Years ago, I had the energy to shop every day I was going to cook home. For me, the shopping (at NYC greengrocers, butchers and gourmet markets) was just as rewarding as the cooking.

                              Now, I'll go into the store and pick up a week's ingredients.

                              A visit to a specialty store (e.g., the Italian market) dictates we're going to have a lot of Italian food for a week or two.

                              1. Most of the time, I look to my pantry & freezer to come up with inspiration as to what the next meal is going to be..that said, I create recipes so I do have to shop at least once per week for things I don't have that I want to play with. I do have a spice shop in my cabinets including about 8 varieties of dried peppers, a few dried pepper powders, several salts, etc. so it really does not take much to whip something up.

                                I'm like others in that I like the challenge of seeing what I can come up with.

                                1. In the beginning I was very much a read a recipe, buy the ingredients and cook. I still am sometimes, but I have a better stocked pantry now and a lot less trepidation.

                                  Typical now, is search thru the frig and pantry, make a short list of what else is needed or improvise.

                                  I have not reached the level of seven vinegars yet, but I'm up to four.

                                  1. More often I plan my meals around whatever protein I see at the market that appeals to me. I'll think of what I have on hand and what I need to get and come up with the most cost-effective, taste-effective aproach, consulting a recipe or just winging it. On occassion I will see a recipe that I just have to try and will go out and get everything I need.

                                    1. I usually shop a bit every day; not so much recently, since this post-holidays segment has involved using up a lot of leftovers. As for planning, I'll look to see what I have, or else see what's good at the markets, and let that set me off. The other night I had some frozen cod that I was just going to sauté and have with a salad, then I noticed I had some leftover cabbage in quite a lot of broth, a good number of boiled potatoes that needed eating, most of a big can of whole tomatoes and a few other useful things. I wound up making yet another pot of codfish stew, quite delicious on a chilly night.

                                      And finding a 1 1/2 lb. bag of cooked frozen jumbo shrimp at Fresh & Easy, marked down to $6 from about twice that, impelled me to finally try shrimp and grits for Sunday breakfast. Very good, too bad about all the butter!

                                      1. When I'm cooking for guests, I always start with a recipe. I am single, and this is a time to make something I wouldn't cook for myself. When I cook for myself, I usually survey what I have and go from there. Every so often, I decide to go on a "clean out the pantry and freezer program". That's fun to do, but I often end up buying at least one additional ingredient.

                                        1. I was lucky enough to grow up in a well stocked kitchen filled with various ethnic ingredients from all over the world. This is how I learned to cook. So once I got my own place I stocked the pantry well and added to it if I discovered something new. I rarely cook from recipes though so I am not sure if others do this as well, eating new things outside of my house brings the desire to try out new ingredients. As my stocks deplete, I buy items when they are on sale so I do not run out of anything and get a good price. Living in NYC I can source the items for the cuisines I cook rather easily.

                                          As to actual vegetables and meats, I simply buy what looks good at the market and combine them in ways that taste good to me. To this I usually will rotate different starches like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, buckwheat, farro, quinoa, etc.. I end up eating fairly seasonally which is good for taste, nutrition and wallet.

                                          1. I do it different ways:

                                            1. My favorite way to cook is to leaf through my recipe books until I find something I like (or, sometimes, to cruise the internet), go out and buy the ingredients and cook the dish or dishes, preferably with all day to do it, a nice glass of red wine in one hand, and classical music or jazz playing on the stereo.

                                            2. Unfortunately, my girlfriend and I have extremely unpredictable schedules (we're lawyers) and I will often buy something to cook the next day, end up on the other side of the state for a few days (without having anticipated that this would happen), then get home from work very late a few more days, have a dinner commitment another evening, etc. Suddenly, my nice, fresh beef is looking a little grey and my crisp Boston lettuce doesn't look so crisp anymore.

                                            If I don't buy in advance, there is often not enough time to shop for what I want to cook and prepare what I want to prepare all in the same evening. So, my cooking from a cookbook seems to only happen on the weekends. The week night cooking is often improvisational and, frankly, it does not come out as good as when I follow a recipe. I'm often times trying to use up ingredients before they go bad or don't have exactly what I need and must make substitutions.

                                            11 Replies
                                            1. re: gfr1111

                                              I'd much rather "slum" with a recipe that produces something delicious than indulge my inner El Greco and create a culinary monstrosity, or even something merely underwhelming. There's little in this world--relatively speaking--worse than a disappointing meal.

                                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                I wouldn't say it is indulging my inner El Greco, I know what tastes good together. Through experience I very rarely have a meal that does not taste good. Most taste very good and some are well above that. I trust myself more than I trust some recipe.

                                                I don't fault those that do rely on recipes though, you can still cook great meals that way too. It just isn't the way I do it and I would imagine there are just as many if not more "monstrosities" and underwhelming meals by those who follow recipes.

                                                1. re: MVNYC

                                                  I trust myself to choose good recipes over bad more than I trust myself to whomp up something extraordinary ex nihilo. And incidentally, if you're a bad cook you'll still screw up a good recipe. There's more to cooking by recipe than simply following the steps--and even that is too much for many people. Hence the injuction: "Remove pizza from package before eating."

                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                    I SO agree with you, PK. The absolute BEST home cooks, on and off CH, that *I* know use recipes. My attitude is 'hey, they PAY these people to write these books.' And, right again, a bad cook can mess up almost anything. Not every recipe is a winner either and that's where our experience comes in. No way to prove it but I'd be willing to bet that those who say they never use recipes may not be turning out the masterpieces that they think they are :) I mean no offense with that but it's a very strongly held belief.

                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                      Probably most of us home cooks aren't turning out masterpieces, but I think the everyday meals I make without using recipes taste just as good as the ones I make with recipes. In fact, when I use a recipe, I often end up doctoring it anyway to get it to taste better.

                                                      And, having worked in several restaurants I can tell you that all the professional chefs I worked for did not use recipes. They cooked as they went, and created recipes around new main ingredients and seasonal produce. Of course they had a very good knowledge of techniques and basic recipes, which likely most home cooks do not possess.

                                                      1. re: visciole

                                                        I'd hazard a guess that *any* home cook could acquire a very good knowledge of techniques and basic recipes. It takes study, however. If one has the time to sit down and read most of The Joy of Cooking (I'm fond of my old '70s version) one gets a darned good education in the ways of the kitchen. I can't say enough good things about that book -- and am not ashamed to say that I've read it through, more than once.

                                                        1. re: shaogo

                                                          Shaogo, the Joy of Cooking is my go to when I buy a vegetable or piece of meat I have never cooked before. One of the best resources out there.

                                                        2. re: visciole

                                                          I am in agreement with visciole here. Most of the recipes I see have something wrong with them(take a look at anything on the food network site or uhm other sites that put up recipes-ahem cough-) and I end up doctoring to make better if I even make them at all. Other than classic dishes I also notice famous chefs leave things out of their cookbook recipes, they simply do not want you to produce things exactly.

                                                          I have used recipes to success, especially when its from a credible source and I have used them to less success and end up having to doctor them to make them better.

                                                          Again despite what c oliver has to say I have made masterpieces and my success rate is fairly strong. I learned how to cook from my mother who was an excellent cook and an executive chef and have been doing this for some time. It is simply a matter of knowing what to use on fresh ingredients to bring out their flavour and combining the right ingredients in the right proportions that go together. Combine this with an understanding of technique and you really don't need recipes. The thing is when dealing with fresh ingredients you are going to have a wide range of quality, levels of acidity, sugar, etc and you need to taste as you go to accommodate. No recipe is going to help you there.

                                                          I mean I am a food snob and would not continue to churn out mediocre drek when I could be following a recipe and doing a better job.

                                                          1. re: MVNYC

                                                            I hear what you're saying. I'm just thinking in terms of "dishes," i.e., carbonara, Bolognese, souffle, enchilada, vicchyssoise, banh mi, etc. Without a basic recipe (and a recipe can easily be something your mother taught you; it doesn't have to be in a book) or a very, very refined palate it's unlikely that one would be able to recreate those from scratch. And it's still a recipe even when you tweak it a little or a lot.

                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                              You are right about certain dishes, most likely the first time I made them I followed a either a written or oral recipe. Then it is done mostly from memory unless it is something that requires precise measurements but I rarely bake. Even the dishes I created that I make a lot are recipes in the sense you mention, anything made more than once would be one.

                                                      2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                        LMAO, even that can go wrong! I remember hearing a phone recording of a guy calling a supermarket to complain that his pizza had no topping - he'd opened the package upside down...

                                                2. I think one reason I rely on recipes (some of which I created) rather than just winging it is because I simply must have variety in my diet. And I can ensure variety much more easily by cycling through my 250-recipe index than by letting ingredients at hand dictate what I cook. If I went by the latter method I'm quite sure I'd wind up making slight variations of 25 recipes over and over again. Frankly, that would bore me.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                    When I first read this above, I thought 'oh lord, how anal!' :) But I think you make a really good point. I think I could use more organization in that regard. I have many, many recipes that I rarely if ever look at and I'm missing a lot of diversity in our meals by not doing that. Thanks for the nudge, PK.

                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                      Glad to be of assistance! ;)

                                                      And to assure that I don't wind up cooking the same "type" of dish a few times in a row, I've divided the recipes into categories (by nationality and primary ingredient) and dispersed them evenly throughout the index. And yes it is most assuredly anal. ;) But I can't argue with the results.

                                                  2. A little of both. I try to use mostly what I have on hand and only fill in produce, fresh herbs, various small missing ingredients. I have a pretty well stocked pantry too,( I haven't counted,but probably 8-10 kinds of vinegar:) so don't usually need much of the pantry type things....
                                                    Sometimes I see completely new recipes I want to try, so I will buy specific items for them. I do always try to plan a way to use them up, though.

                                                    1. I've taken the same route as you. For about the past year, I've done more shopping locally/in season, and then decided what to cook. Sometimes I crave a particular dish, and buy the necessary ingredients. I'm now also a lot more comfortable substituting an ingredient, rather than running out and buying something I don't have.

                                                      1. I do it one way, then the next.

                                                        First, I get inspired to cook something and go out and buy all the ingredients I'll need. Then, I find recipes to use up the leftovers. I made vegetable soup last week, and used up ALL of the scraps of vegetables in tofu-veggie wontons today. I had some raw slivered almonds in the fridge that I'd been using in smoothies, but I just dumped all the remaining nuts into a mix of brown rice, sauteed greens and peas. Once I've got almost nothing left, I'll do another big shop around a theme (I'm thinking next week will be mostly Indian food) and then have to find ways to deal with everything that's left.