Five Tips for Thinking Outside the Recipe Box

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Have you ever had the thought while eating a less-than-inspired meal, (prepared by your hand), "I wish I was a better cook"? Perhaps your husband thanks you for the food you concoct, but never raves about it like you wish he would? Do your children (and dinner plates) cry, "Not this again!!" Friends, the solution to these problems doesn't have to be several years of culinary school. If you are cooking at least one meal a day, you are already putting in the time it takes to improve your skills, and to produce delicious meals that will pique your family's interest and appetite.

Image credit: Jami Hepworth

Here are 5 tips to help you jazz up the food you already eat:

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 Tip #1: Get comment happy. When choosing a recipe from an online food blog or website (such as www.allrecipes.com—one of my personal favorites) read the comments! Taking the time to do this is like getting free cooking lessons. You have hundreds of food alteration possibilities lined up in one simple queue—just waiting for you to read and consider them. Do. You'll be surprised with what you learn.

 Image Credit: Jami Hepworth

Tip #2: Integrate substitutes—on purpose. It is a common occurrence in my kitchen, to realize that I lack an important ingredient. Instead of fretting, I try to see it as an opportunity to learn more about how food works. (Not having any buttermilk around once taught me that I could sour my own—with one cup milk and one tablespoon vinegar.) Beyond the emergency substitutions though, you should really consider substituting ingredients from your recipes on purpose every now and then. If your meal calls for pasta—try substituting spaghetti squash. If it is usually served over rice—try it over couscous, (red) mashed potatoes, Quinoa, or lentils (or a combination of these). Refried beans—try black or pinto. White flour—try whole wheat, or half white/half whole. Ground beef—try ground turkey, pork, or sausage. If there is an ingredient, there is a substitute for it. Type in "Substitute for. . ." in any search engine and the endless possibilities will practically throw themselves at you from your computer screen.

 

Tip #3: Find new recipes for meals that you and your family already enjoy. Like enchiladas? Spaghetti? Tacos? Pizza? Take a few minutes to search online recipes (or your dusty cookbooks) for meals that your family already eats on a regular basis. Reading about and trying the different variations on your comfort food favorites will help you to greatly expand your dinner repertoire.

 Image Credit: Jami Hepworth

Tip #4: There's a vegetable for that. Each time you prepare a meal, take the opportunity to throw in some additional fresh, frozen, or canned veggies you have around. Ask yourself, would a(n)/some __________ (bell pepper, onion, carrots, spinach, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, peas, green beans, corn, etc.) add something nice to this meal? You'll beef up—no pun intended—the flavor of your meal and make your leftovers last a bit longer (or not!) ;) 

Spices

Image Credit: srqpix on Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Tip #5: As Toucan Sam would say, "Follow your nose!"Become well acquainted with ALL the spices and herbs in your kitchen - especially the unopened ones with names you're unfamiliar with. As you are seasoning your meals, smell around your spice rack and add seasonings that smell good with what you're cooking. With this tip comes the additional advice to taste your meals as you cook/season them whenever possible. Doing this often will help you develop a sense for how much of a given spice or ingredient you should add to create rich interesting flavor. If you acutely develop this skill, you can take any meal from average to amazing.

How do YOU think outside your recipe box?

-Jami is "rekindling old-fashioned values in a modern world" on her blog, A Bit Backward. . .

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