Small-scale cooking looks like this: Your kitchen is stocked with evergreen items across the board. On your way home in the evening, you stop off to pick up a nice fatty pork chop and a big bunch of mustard greens. You breeze through checkout (express lane, always) and spend the rest of your commute mentally planning your meal. You can draw on the ingredients and inventory waiting for you at home.
You can sauté the greens with olive oil, some mustard seeds, and a drained can of white beans, then round that out with a knob of butter while the chop pan-roasts in a skillet on the next burner. Or, you can thinly slice the meat off the bone, cook it hot and fast, then deglaze the pan with red wine vinegar to make a warm, smoky vinaigrette to dress the washed and torn greens. You might pound out the chop, coat it with Dijon mustard and bread crumbs and broil it before topping it with a zingy slaw made with thinly sliced mustard greens and lots of fresh lemon juice.
In each scenario, the chop and the greens carry the meal, but the already-stocked items at home provide flexibility, flavor, and options.
It’s been years since I shopped with a recipe in hand or a concrete plan for the week ahead. Instead, I start roughing out a recipe in my imagination while I decide what to buy.
If I come home with a lot of greens, I draw on my pre-stocked inventory to find a way to make them the center of my next meal. That could mean using the wheat berries in my pantry drawer to make a big grain bowl, or slowly cooking the greens down with olive oil and garlic, then adding them to a dozen-egg frittata.
As I reckon with the multiple quarts of carpe diem strawberries I bought, I will decide to make a compote, and because I already have cinnamon and star anise in my spice drawer, that’s ample reason to add one of each.
I apply the same thinking and methods when I shop for meat and fish, too. I might choose polenta to go with the chicken thighs I just brought home, then decide to braise the thighs with canned tomatoes because I like the idea of something saucy for that combo.
Each time, the shopping and cooking pattern is the same: I purchase a perishable and pair it with things from the stable of ingredients I keep at home.
It’s not always peak growing season, and there are not always warm berries and heavy melons and squeaky corn to be had. There are many stretches of the year when there’s no farmers market to speak of, and the best ingredients come from afar (here on the East Coast, that’s November to April, which is why I turn into such a freak come spring).
But it doesn’t matter where you shop, it matters how you shop. If you’re excited and care about what you buy, you will waste less food. When you let go of the idea that you have to shop for a specific list of ingredients, you’ll develop the confidence to wing it and make substitutions based on what you find in your own spice drawer. You will cook with all your senses and you will derive more pleasure from your meals.
Simply put: This strategy will make you a better cook.
The realization that cooking begins before I’ve set foot in my kitchen is the inspiration for my book. Cooking begins with the idea of transforming something to make it taste better (like boiling a fava bean), or just for the purpose of enjoying it (putting salt on a cucumber). It begins when I decide what I want to bring home, and what someone else should deliver. Cooking begins when I take stock of what’s in the fridge and make a meal from what I find. (Before the fantasy gets out of control: Sometimes I stand at the kitchen counter and eat a bowl of cereal for dinner.)
Letting a dish come together in my head, patching dinner together without relying on a meal plan, inviting friends over because I want to cook everything I’ve bought, and drawing on basic, functional ingredients that let me flex this way or that—that’s the way I love to cook. I believe that anybody can shop, cook, and eat like this.
Excerpted with permission from “Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook” by Carla Lalli Music. Published by Clarkson Potter.