Sometimes I try to follow a recipe on a weeknight.
I alternate between my phone's tiny screen and my spice cabinet, searching for the items and wondering why this cabinet never stays organized. I then begin to dig for my measuring spoons before realizing they were hijacked by my "helper" and are now at home in her play kitchen.
By the third time I've said, "hold on, I'm trying to make dinner," I'm feeling flustered and impatient (to put it lightly).
Bottom line, most recipes require more focus than I can spare on a weeknight.
But how can you add flavor to basic ingredients without following a recipe? It's hard to know which spices go together and how much of each to use. Most marinades take time and most sauces have a lot of additives.
So instead of spice rubs and marinades, I rely on a few go-to flavor trios to dress up basic meals, fast.
Here are three of my favorites.
1. Tomato + Basil + Olive Oil
You'll recognize these flavors from your favorite Italian foods. This combo works hot or cold and makes foods taste fresh and summery. I use about 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil per cup of tomatoes and then add basil, salt and pepper to taste.
2. Cilantro + Lime + Jalapeño
You'll recognize these flavors from your favorite Mexican foods. If you're not into spicy, you're not my friend. Just kidding, you can use green or red bell peppers instead of the jalapeño. Just a small amount of each will go a long way.
3. Ginger + Garlic + Scallions
You'll recognize these flavors from your favorite Asian foods. Ginger can be intimidating at first. Just peel off the outside with a spoon or vegetable peeler and use the golden part inside. Use equal parts ginger and garlic and three times as many scallions (scallions are also sometimes called green onions). For example 1 tablespoon each of ginger and garlic per three tablespoons chopped scallions.
Let's test this out.
Early in the week you bake or grill chicken with salt and pepper, you roughly chop raw broccoli, and cook brown rice. You make extras because you plan to use it for several days.
This takes you ten minutes of hands-on time and thirty - forty minutes more while the chicken and rice cook and you do other things.
Meal One: Tomato-Basil Chicken & Broccoli
You chop basil and tomato and you mix it with olive oil, salt and pepper. You put more olive oil in a skillet, add the raw broccoli and heat for five minutes until soft. You add the cooked chicken and rice and reheat for another five minutes. You put everything in a bowl and top with the cold tomato/basil mixture. You're enjoying Tomato-Basil Chicken & Broccoli in less than fifteen minutes.
Meal Two: Jalapeño Chicken & Broccoli
You chop a jalapeño and some cilantro and you quarter a lime. You add oil to a pan and heat the jalapeños and broccoli for about five minutes or until soft. You add the chicken and rice and heat for a few more minutes until warm. At the very end you add lime juice and the chopped cilantro. You mix it together and you have Jalapeño Chicken & Broccoli in under fifteen minutes.
Meal Three: Ginger-Garlic Chicken & Broccoli
You chop ginger, garlic, and scallions. You heat oil in a pan (I like sesame oil for this combo) and then add the ginger, garlic, and scallions stirring for about one minute. You add the broccoli and heat for five minutes or until soft. You add the chicken and rice and heat for five more minutes. In less than fifteen minutes you have Ginger-Garlic Chicken & Broccoli.
Now you're feeling like a culinary genius because you've managed to turn boring chicken, rice, and broccoli into three completely different meals in barely over an hour of total cooking time. And you've used only one pan and one cutting board per meal.
Now imagine the possibilities - next week you use a different grain or protein. You add parmesan cheese to the Italian combo or avocado to the Mexican combo. And suddenly you're cooking without recipes.
Becoming that person who can build meals without much effort in the kitchen is what Improv Cooking is all about and it's a beautiful thing.
P.S. Improv Cooking: A Crash Course will be launching this fall. It's self-paced and online so you can join from anywhere on your time. Sign-up below to receive an invitation when the course is live and you can become that person who effortlessly makes great tasting food.
Because the truth is food should taste good and healthy doesn't have to be hard.