I have been thinking a lot lately about cooking without recipes. For my daily home cooking, I still use all those techniques and methods I learned as a chef. Back in the days when we had the restaurant, we practiced recipe free cooking daily. We would come in and do a visual assessment on what needed to be moved in the inventory. Since we bought mostly fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats and seafood, there was always something to use up during it's peak freshness. Soup du Jour was one of those things that we made every day and we were known for our soup. We drew crowds to buy it because it was made from scratch and always nourishing. Our secret to it's success was having the basics on hand so we could be creative with ingredients. Staples such as onions, carrots, peppers and garlic were always the starting point for our tasty soups. Our customers craved vegetables so we made sure the stock was chocked full of chunky, flavorful vegetables.
I have some tips if you want to explore the world of recipe free cooking. Soups are a great place to start- you have the option of making 3 styles of soup- a traditional thin brothy style soup, a Stoup which is something in between a soup and stew or a Thick, rib sticking stew.
Here are the steps for making a recipe free soup-
1. Take an assessment of what is at peak quality in the fridge. Make sure you have enough base vegetables called the mirepoix in French kitchens. It's a mix of 2 parts onion, 1 part celery and 1 part carrots. These are sometimes called aromatic vegetables because they are so flavorful and aromatic when cooked. If you are making a Cajun or Mexican soup, you will want to include peppers in the mix. Garlic is also a good idea to have on hand for optimum flavor profiles.
2. When you have decided on what ingredients you have to use, then you want to pick a flavor profile. If you are not sure what flavors marry well together, do a little research on what you like. As a chef these are things that are learned early in one's career and a chef never stops experimenting with different flavors. The trick is to layer flavors. If you layer your flavors and taste your soup everytime you add a flavor, you then get a good idea about what it tastes like in the dish and it will teach you how to distinguish different flavors in a dish individually.
3, When you have the flavor profile sorted out and you have the ingredients for the dish assembled, gather up all the equipment you need to make the dish before you start. This will save time and frustration once you start cooking. You will have everything you need to make the dish which will in turn speed things along.
4. Next step is to do your "mise en place" which in French means put in place. It simply means chopping your vegetables and getting everything ready to assemble or cook.
5. Once you have your mise in place organized, everything will come together quickly and easily. You will be amazed how talented you really are with a little practice.
Because I am known for teaching methods and not recipes, I will share with you a good formula for making Vegetable soup on the fly.
Base Parts to a soup:
herbs- thyme, parsley, bay leaves
Soup is made in stages- The first is to cook the vegetables in a bit of fat- this could be olive oil, a little bacon fat or butter.
If you are using olive oil or a high heat oil such as avocado oil, heat the pot and then add the oil. If you are using butter, put the butter in a cold pan, because you don't want to burn the butter throwing it in a hot pan. You will want to cook the vegetables until soft. Remember garlic should be thrown in last so it does not burn, it only takes 2 minutes to cook garlic so add it after the other vegetables. As far as the amounts, a pound of aromatic vegetables to a half gallon of stock is a good place to start.
When the vegetables are cooked, add your stock or water. A couple of tablespoons of tomato paste make a flavorful stock when paired with dry Italian herbs. If you buy stock or make it yourself, it does not matter as long as it's got flavor and not too salty. I try to keep frozen stock on hand for soups but if I don't have it I use a good quality base with no msg and low salt. There are LOTS of options in the soup isle these days of the grocery store for stocks and broths. Stock up when they are on sale.
Here are some additions you can add to make a quick soup into a nourishing meal.
small shaped pastas- orzo
Israeli cous cous
Spiralized hard vegetables
Chopped canned jackfruit
Stay away from strong crops such as beets and Brussels sprouts
Add cabbage, Kale and other greens in the last 5 minutes of cooking
Top with a bit of fresh herbs for a delicious mid week meal for one of those nights you are running short on time. Soup is usually done in 30 minutes and if you keep some staples on hand you don't have to leave the house to have a great nourishing meal for little money.