I am not one of those romantic cooks who improvs meals, tossing in a handful of this and a glug of that. It takes talent and intuition to do that, sure, and I could if it didn't drive me crazy. But it is too ephemeral. Sure, you'll have a unique snowflake of a dish, but you'll never be able to make it exactly the same way again. I am a scientist, and I want to isolate and understand how each variable contributes to a dish, and I want to document the ideal proportions. I want to be able to perfect my recipes. This is my idea of fun (nerd!).
For years, I used to keep a Microsoft Word document on my computer that I used to document each recipe I made. My friends kept asking for my recipes, and I realized that Word doc could easily be the seeds of a food blog. I've tested and tweaked every recipe several times before posting (seriously--I have tons of recipes in draft form on Blogger at any given time, just waiting to be tested a couple more times). And occasionally, after posting, I'll make notes of new tweaks I've developed.
Recipes should be creative, simple, healthy, inexpensive, and, of course, delicious. Having healthy recipes is particularly important to me. My husband has lost over 65 pounds in the past year eating healthy, low carb food from this blog. (There is also plenty of healthy non-low carb food on the blog, which I eat, and which he eats when he is in maintenance). Below are my tips for perfect recipes.
Don't cook unhealthy food. I refuse to learn to cook things that aren't at least somewhat healthy. You won't catch me buying a deep fryer. That's why I don't have many baking recipes. I don't want to enable myself to make cake and cookies for myself whenever I want them. I would rather devote time and innovation into creating things that are healthy and delicious. This is not to say I don't eat unhealthy food--I usually save that for a splurge when I go out to eat. Fortunately for me, I don't have the kind of budget that allows me to eat out enough to get fat from these splurges!
Make healthy food hearty. My husband and I could never stick with a diet that is all salad and steamed fish. It is just not satisfying. Hearty, saucy meals like stews, soups, curries, stir fries lend themselves really well to being transformed into healthy meals. I even follow this philosophy for salads. I like to make veggie and bean salads; they last several days in the fridge and make a complete meal. Personally, I feel like most lettuce-based salads are a waste of time (and calories from dressing). A serving size of raw baby spinach is 3 cups (about half a bag), which would get you 1 gram of fiber and just 6% of your iron, but most people don't eat nearly that much. Most people will eat a cup or so, and get more calories from the dressing than nutrition from the salad. On the other hand, if you were to saute that whole bag of spinach, it would shrink into a manageable 1/3 cup serving that you are much more likely to eat a substantial amount of. Of course, there is value to eating some raw veggies, since in some cases, they have more nutritional value. I'm just saying, don't pour yourself a wimpy handful of mixed greens and think you're getting your vegetable and fiber serving for the meal. For example, a stir fry of broccoli, peppers, and carrots in which the veggies are lightly cooked is much more nutritious and satisfying. Soups are also a great way to get your salad into a more satisfying state.
Cook in bulk. I have no patience for dishes that require stuffing tiny things into other tiny things. I want to make a lot of delicious food without fussing with it. If I am making the effort to cook, I want to be able to enjoy the delicious fruits of my labor for a while. Prepack your meals. Hearty one-pot meals, soups, and stews usually freeze well. Pack them into individual servings in plastic containers, and your complete meal will be ready to go with you to work, or to be popped in the microwave after a long day. This allows you to carefully monitor your portion control as well. I don't get tired of eating the same thing, because I always have several different meals in my freezer to choose from. Right now, I have biryani, red beans and rice, Italian soup, mullagatawny, and pulled pork in there. You can preserve your creations for months this way!
Pack it with veggies and beans. Use less meat. Add more veggies than the recipe calls for. Sneak veggies into food. My favorite trick is to add canned pumpkin to dishes to thicken them and make them taste creamier. Instead of adding flour to thicken a sauce or stew, a few tablespoons to a half a cup of canned pumpkin will thicken it up nicely, giving it a smooth, creamy consistency, without changing the flavor or color if your sauce was dark to begin with. (Here are all my pumpkin-containing recipes.) The more veggies in a dish, the less room for other, less healthy things!
Believe me, we still eat meat. My husband would have it no other way. But, I typically try to use about 2/3 the amount of meat a recipe would normally call for. The hearty meals I usually cook, like stews, soups, curries, and stir fries, lend themselves well to boosting veggies and reducing meat. This way, we are not denied the occasional fatty meat: sausage in red beans and rice or roasted cauliflower and kale soup. But in these dishes, there is only a bit of sausage in each serving, but plenty of flavor. in all of these dishes, a little bit of fat and meat goes a long way towards flavoring the whole dish. It is also more economical this way.
Make one-pot meals. I make a lot of one-pot meals that have all the protein, veggies, and carbs (if you're eating them) that you need in one dish. Sometimes I don't want to have to fuss with prepping multiple dishes, and if they were separate, chances are I would serve myself too much protein or carbs and not enough veggies.
Marinate or brine your meats! It takes almost no effort--you were going to have to season the meat at some point anyway--just a tiny bit of forethought. If you are using less meat and choosing lean meat, you want to be sure that it is flavorful and moist. I am a huge fan of dry brines. Just cover your meat with a liberal amount of seasoning and salt, and let sit overnight. One of our default meals is Adobo brined lean pork loin chops. Just sprinkle them liberally with Goya Adobo seasoning, place in a freezer bag, and let sit overnight or freeze. Sear for a few minutes and you have a deeply flavorful and moist protein! For Cajun dishes like jambalaya, I marinate my chicken with Tony Chacheries' seasoning. If I am making an Indian dish with chicken, I always throw the chicken in a plastic bag with about 1 T Sun curry powder per pound of chicken and let it marinate overnight. Sun curry powder has salt mixed in, which helps the chicken retain its moisture (a dry brine). If I'm making a stir fry, I'll toss cut-up chicken in a bag with Teriyaki sauce the night before.
Switch whole grain, high fiber carbs for simple carbs. I eat a lot of rice. Cajun cuisine is rice-based. I switch out brown rice for white in my jambalaya and red beans and rice. white basmati for brown with my curries and biryanis. Switch whole wheat pasta for white, and swap quinoa for couscous!
Use dessert as an excuse to eat your fruit. I still crave sweets at the end of a meal. I try to use this as a chance to get some fruit in my system. I love snacking on grapes and bananas. I make a crustless fat-free pumpkin pie, which is mostly pumpkin. On lazy, chilly winter days, I'll make a lazy two-ingredient pear crisp: pour half a can of pears in juice, drained, into an oven safe bowl. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of low-fat granola on top and bake or microwave until warmed. Or, make homemade popsicles out of fruit juice, smoothies, etc.
Focus on flavor. Use more spices. The recipes you find on tv and in cookbooks seem to be made for the faintest of palate. I usually double the amount of garlic in a recipe, for example. I always add tons more pepper--but that's a different story. I grew up in Louisiana and love spicy food. Flavorful food is satisfying food.
Keep in mind the 5 tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. One of the most common mistakes people make when learning to cook is not salting food properly. If your food tastes bland, add salt before adding other seasonings. I am an advocate for salt; you can't taste your food unless you have enough of it. You won't be able to tell what seasonings it needs until you can taste it properly. Salt does not have calories or make you fat. If you are trying to lose weight or keep a healthy weight, and you don't have dangerously high blood pressure, be sure to salt your food adequately. Adding acid wakes up a dish and makes it taste fresher. Adding a bit of sweetener to some dishes rounds out the flavor and reduces harsh acidity. Use Splenda or Stevia or fruit juice to add sweetness and balance flavors in dishes.The trick to a well-rounded curry or Italian tomato sauce is to add a pinch of sugar. Umiami adds that rich, satisfying, savory flavor. You don't have to use meat to achieve this. Soy sauce, worchershire sauce, parmesan cheese, and tomato paste are natural sources of umami. Adding umami to your dish will make it taste much more satisfying.
Taste your food! No matter how much I've fine-tuned a recipe on this blog, each one will require some common sense and tasting. Every ingredient has its own personality. Your zucchini might be extra ripe and sweet that day, so you may need to balance it with more salt and garlic, for example. I always have a jar of garlic powder on hand in case the dish is almost done and I find it needs more garlic. Yes, garlic is that important to me. Of course, it is always best to use fresh garlic, and I do in my recipes, but if my stew is two minutes from being done and it turns out not to have enough garlic, throwing more fresh garlic in at that point is going to overpower the dish with raw garlic flavor. A little bit of garlic powder just enhances the garlic you put in earlier and rounds out the dish. Same goes for the other spices in a dish. I often find I need to re-up the spices when a curry, soup, or chili is almost done.
Learn how to doctor recipes to fit your preferences. I build my recipes from cookbooks and blogs, and then change them to suit my tastes. I add more veggies, spices, garlic. Try to streamline the recipe as much as possible. Test it out, and when you've perfected it, double the recipe!