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Monday, July 5, 2010

Cooking by the seat of your pants….or…skirt as the case may be.

Back in the old days of flying airplanes before there were many, if any, instruments to rely on, it was not unusual to say that a pilot flew “by the seat of his pants”. The implication was that he flew on instinct and his own judgment more than anything.

My parents taught me to cook this way. My mom was not a menu planner type. We ate what was on sale, what was in our pantry and what was in our freezer or fresh from our garden. Despite some assertions that you can save a lot of money by planning meal menus a week or month in advance, this method saved us a lot of money over the years, I’m sure. We didn’t make many last minute trips to the store for items we “needed” to make a recipe. We made things that we had the ingredients for to begin with. The point was that we stored a lot of our food needs, and we grew a lot of our own food in the summer.

So, in cooking by the seat of the pants, I mean cooking by instinct and one’s own judgment, AND cooking with what’s readily available at hand (provided that you keep a well stocked pantry and freezer). This was how I learned to cook from both my parents. (Yes, we did plan certain meals and buy accordingly, but we did far more “last minute cooking”, as it were.)

The first thing I have to say about this method is that you need to become familiar enough with basic cooking skills so that you aren’t afraid to cook something without a recipe. (We seldom, if ever, made baked goods by this method, by the way.) Having confidence in how to sauté, fry, boil, steam, etc. basic foods is important to being successful in this method of cooking. A simple chart on how long to cook meats will be helpful too, and a meat thermometer is a good investment for any style of cooking.

My mom’s cooking was largely emphasized on basic meals, so her cooking in this manner tended to be more along the lines of good, plain cooking.

Hot cereal (sometimes with special additions), toast, eggs in a variety of styles, but often boiled, covered the basic week day breakfasts. She turned out pancakes (used a recipe), French toast, and other goodies for Saturdays. Often the pancakes had M&Ms added for a fun touch. Sundays we ate mostly cold cereal as that was always a busy morning of rushing to get ready for church meetings.

Lunches involved sandwiches, quesadillas, cheese melted on bread with gravy, yogurt, and other simple meals. Occasionally, we had tuna or egg salad.

Dinners were more involved and usually had a meat, a carbohydrate, a vegetable and a salad. She tended to go to more effort on that than I usually do these days, but she had a family of 6 to feed, so she needed plenty of food. We ate a lot of chicken for dinner as it was cheap. :-) Fortunately for me, that is my favorite meat, so I wasn’t unhappy about that.

Mom also did a lot of her own canning (with help from her favorite kitchen helpers – us kids!). Her spaghetti sauce was famous. She put up a variety of jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, sauces, pie fillings, vegetables and even some meat and stocks. She also froze a goodly portion of vegetables, fruits and meats. This was a huge help to our budget and it also made cooking by the seat of the pants much easier.

My dad’s contribution to this style of cooking for me was a bit different. He didn’t use recipes for much that he made, but his cooking was much more exotic than Mom’s ever was. He was big on herbs and spices, and trying unusual things. We generally figured that when he decided to cook something it would be either delicious or disgusting. His cooking was seldom mediocre. :-) His egg rolls were fantastic, but his shark stew ended up fertilizing something in the garden. ;-)

My own style of cooking came out somewhere in between. I learned a lot of good, plain cooking skills from Mom, along with the ability to invent meals on the fly from what’s in the cupboards and freezer. From Daddy I learned to season and spice with more confidence than Mom usually had, and to try some more “exotic” things. I tried to be somewhat bold with my cooking, but not to the point of creating too many really awful dishes. ;-) My favorite meals tend to be flash-in-the-pan, and usually one or two pot meals.

I am going to try to share some “recipes” here for some things that will require you to use your own judgment – cook by the seat of your pants, as it were. I will share the basic idea – ingredients and methods of cooking – but will leave you to figure out the amounts and sometimes even spicing to your own tastes. You will need to have some courage in trying these recipes. However, with this kind of cooking it is important to remember that, aside from burning or scorching something or making it really unpalatable, it’s kind of hard to do it “wrong”. If you like the way it turns out; or if your husband or family like the way it turns out (even if you don’t), then it was a success! And, remember, if you want to make it again the same way you have to write down the amounts, or at least what you used! :-) I suggest a small notebook or blank book for this. Hopefully, these additions to this blog will help someone learn to be more brave in their cooking and to have the confidence to cook without recipes or menus, using only ingredients that are at hand.

I suspect that people who need to can and freeze their own food and buy in quantity in order to save money tend to learn this type of cooking more than people who buy according to a pre-made menu. I consider it a useful skill and something that cooks should cultivate. Some people will find it burdensome to have to think of things to make on the spur of the moment, even I do at times. If you are strongly that type, you had better stick with the menu planning for most of your meals. But, for those who can think on the fly, so to speak, it has a certain amount of freedom. I don’t have to think up a lot of menus, and I don’t have to take the time to sit down and write one out and then try to find the best prices on what I need. I tend to shop more for what’s on sale that I know I can store and we will use in a reasonable amount of time. Having a variety of useful foods ready at hand makes this method work really well, and the savings is in buying mostly sale items, mark downs, and in bulk.

Having a nice variety of herbs and spices that you like is helpful also. Dried is, of course, the more practical way to go with herbs and spices. I freeze some in order to get that fresh taste. They turn out darker, but they have a fresher flavor than the dried ones.

One caution: It is important to rotate your stock of things and use them up in a timely manner. Put dates on canned goods you make or buy so that you know how old they are and which to use first. Keeping dried goods such as flour, pasta, rice and beans in a good rotation can be more of a challenge. Flours, especially, can go “rancid” in taste, and so it’s best to make sure you use them quickly enough. This part is harder to get down and I’ve had trouble with it myself. Remember to always store almonds in the fridge or freezer. All nuts will be better stored in the freezer if you will not be using them up in a few months. (Nuts can also be canned.) Herbs and spices will lose their flavor over time, but they tend to last longer than flours, nuts, etc. if stored in a cool, dry place. Keep things out of the sun as much as possible, and out of especially hot places, as well. Even home canned food should be stored away from the sun (because the glass jars allow the light to reach the food).

Also, be sure to store dried goods and herbs/spices in sealed containers. Bugs can ruin your stored food if you don’t do this, and air or moisture will make them go bad or lose flavor quicker.

I’m sure you can find web sites that offer information on storing food items if you need more help with this.

If you’d like to try this style of cooking, dig in and enjoy! Remember – it’s supposed to be fun to cook this way. Think of it as an adventure in the kitchen! The only “wrong” way to do this is to burn it or actually make it taste bad, and that’s possible to do with any recipe. :-) So, be brave! And, if you have questions, just ask.

1 comment:

  1. my mother also made a lot of 'recipes' up in her head - but in the years before the Lord took her home, I'm happy to say that she wrote most of them down for us!! :)
    I like to make up my own recipes or take a favourite recipe and make it in a variety of ways... The problem is that I'm not sure if it will be a favourite with the family, and I never think to write the quantities down so each time I make it, it is slightly different!! :)
    We tend to do most of our cooking by what is available in our pantry or freezer, but we do sometimes plan meals well in advance and then we can often find the extra items needed at a good price. :)