8 cooking principles for tasty meals without recipes

Since we’re all stuck at home and most likely cooking several times a day, it’s probably a challenge to cook something exciting. How can you make varied meals and not feel like you’re eating the same thing all the time?

If you’re like me, you might get overwhelmed with cookbooks and don’t necessarily enjoy following recipes all the time, just trying to make a meal taste nice.

I’ve been planning to write this article for a while, but my original plan was to explain how I fill my lunchbox. For more than a year, I’ve been getting up every morning and starting my day by cooking a lunchbox. I use an Ecobrotbox lunchbox to keep the meal warm and have learned that keeping food in an airtight container improves its taste, too! However, with the coronavirus and now making meals three times a day, I realized this post might be helpful even for those who aren’t planning to cook in the morning.

Instead of sharing recipes, in this article, I’d much rather explain my cooking principles and how I make decisions about cooking varied yet seasonal meals. I’ll also explain what I have in my pantry at all times.

Principle 1: The rule of three

I first became aware of this rule when I started making a lunchbox every morning. My lunchboxes are like a cylinder that you can fill with goodness, and, for it to taste good, I’ve learned it needs three layers. I’m someone who gets easily bored with food, so I always make sure to create three different components.

  • For the first layer, I make a base with some kind of grain.
  • The second layer is usually a veggie combination with some kind of protein, which is mostly tofu or soy flakes.
  • And the last layer is another veggie combination with some seeds.

One of these three layers is usually creamier. You might have bigger pieces in the meal to give you something to chew on, too. One component is most likely spicier than the other. I like to create a balanced variety.

In a lunchbox, the grains serve as the base. Then, I decide if the creamy component should be the middle layer or if I want the creamy component to impact the other veggie component; if so, I’d put it on top.

If I serve a meal on a plate, I make a salad, which is either the third component or becomes an extra, fourth part of that meal. I might also add something pickled to the plate to maximize the diversity of the meal.

Principle 2: Seasonality and staples

I like to do my shopping at the farmers market once a week to make sure the food we eat is local and seasonal. The grocery list is never too long: vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, and tofu. Sometimes, I also buy meat replacement products, but I only use them for food that’s served immediately. With my zero waste approach to cooking, animal products don’t feel right because you can’t really keep them in the fridge for too long without them going bad and potentially making you sick.

When it comes to veggies, I buy whatever I get at the farmers market. If you try to implement my principles in your kitchen, you’ll soon understand that you don’t need a great variety or even exotic produce to create a unique dish. Five to six different types of veggies are enough for a week.

When it comes to staples, I must admit I’m a food hoarder. I always tell myself it must have something to do with growing up in a post-communist country, where people always kept an impressive amount of food in their pantries.

As for me, I keep grains and seeds in glasses. I have boxes full of pasta and Asian noodles. I have a whole drawer filled with spices. And I also keep a box with ferments and tins. Needless to say, I can come home after a four-week vacation and still cook a decent meal without going shopping.

However, even though I stock up on food, it’s all food that doesn’t go bad — the expiration date means literally nothing. As long as things are kept in an airtight container or glass, you can have your food ready for whenever you feel like cooking with these ingredients and then stock up on fresh produce once a week.

Principle 3: The style of cuisine

I use cooking as a way to travel without leaving the house. In culinary terms, I never like to spend breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the same country. You might like to hear that’s actually very easy to accomplish! :)

The grains, veggies, and “tastemakers” (I’ll explain “tastemakers” a little later on) you use usually determine your culinary destination.

My rule of thumb is that, based on the herbs and “tastemakers” I choose, I can transform the meal even if I use the same veggies and grains. A carrot can taste like you’re in Mexico, Indonesia, or France. And so can every other veggie, protein, and grain depending on how you decide to prepare them.

Because herbs are the main secret of localized cuisine, let’s take a closer look at them.

For this technique to work, you don’t have to be an herb and spice expert. At least as long as you think of yourself as a seasoned traveler.

Being adventurous in the kitchen means you can determine what culinary region you’d like to explore. If you stick to a family of herbs and spices, your meals will taste lovely, and you’ll soon feel like you’re exploring the culinary way.

Here’s a short overview of what’s used in different countries — without claiming this list is in any way complete! If you get a base of herbs and spices, you’ll be able to cook creatively without much effort. Just don’t forget salt and pepper; you’ll need those two for every meal to make them taste right.

Southern & Western European

Herbes de Provence, thyme, rosemary, cumin, sage, basil, parsley, oregano, garlic, saffron…

Eastern European

Paprika, bay leaves, dill, garlic, cumin…

Middle Eastern

Cinnamon, za’atar, berbere, thyme, cumin, cloves, mint, saffron…

Latin American

Coriander, red pepper flakes…

Asian & Indian

Chili, curry, mango powder, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, saffron…

If you’re still unsure if you’ll get it right, I can highly recommend Sonnentor’s herbs mixtures to help you get the right taste.

Principle 4: Longevity

When I started making meals for my lunchboxes, I realized that some meals are simply better when you eat them immediately and some get better the longer they sit in their own juices. Risotto, for example, tastes best al dente, so having it sit in a canister all day won’t bring much satisfaction when diving in hours later. Jasmine rice, however, tastes better when you put it in the canister before it’s fully cooked and give it time to slowly unfold its taste with all the other goodness in your lunchbox. Pasta is another carbohydrate that doesn’t do well if it’s kept warm for hours.

Generally, I switch between rice (I keep different kinds of rice in my pantry), couscous, bulgur, barley, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. If I’m planning to eat a meal immediately, I might go for any kind of Asian noodles or pasta.

You can keep most of these in glasses in your kitchen and don’t even need to worry about the expiry date. These things will be good for years, too!

Usually, when cooking any of these carbohydrates, I boil them in water with a small spoon of salt. As a rule of thumb, I use one cup of my chosen grain and then add two cups of water for two people. With couscous, it’s only one cup of water and a small spoon of salt. Potatoes, pasta, and Asian noodles will need much more water.

Principle 5: Texture matters

Your meal will feel much more exciting if you have different sizes and textures to chew on.

A carrot tastes different depending how you cut it and how you prepare it. You can fry it or put it in the oven. You can grate it. You can boil it, too. And every time, that same carrot will give you a different sensation. If everything in your meal is the same size and the same texture, you’ll quickly get bored eating it. So don’t hesitate to experiment with this approach.

Whenever I’m cooking, I like to add seeds. I keep sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia, and sesame in my pantry. Again, you can simply keep them in glasses in your pantry and not worry about the expiration date. You can also use legumes. Beans or lentils are perfect and very suitable for most cuisines.

As a protein, I usually add tofu when I feel like it fits. Neutral tofu is just fine because you can always rub it with herbs and spices or a sauce or pesto to give it extra flavor before frying it in a pan. To make meals more exciting, you can also add corn or capers.

Principle 6: Acidity tricks

Whenever I’m frying veggies in the pan, I make sure to add some acidity to allow them to unleash their full flavor.

I heat up the pan and add chopped up onions (due to my partner’s eczema I’m actually no longer adding onions, but if you don’t have skin issues, I’d add them), then I add whatever veggies I’m making. I fry them for maybe a minute before adding some wine, beer, or apple or orange juice for the veggies to soak up. I never add a lot of liquid. Just a little bit to give the food some moisture. Sometimes, lemon juice will do the trick and give the veggies a special taste. You can keep lemon juice in a tin if you don’t have fresh lemons at home or if you don’t have anything else to add flavor to your veggies.

When making veggies in the oven, I first roast them without anything but some herbs and only later will I drizzle some oil over them.

Principle 7: Use “tastemakers”

Let’s get back to the approach of traveling when cooking meals. Each and every cuisine has its secret ingredient that can make a meal taste just like a trip to that country.

Thus, in our pantry, you can find vindaloo paste, mushroom-soy sauce, pesto, coconut milk, balsamic, mustard, and hot sauce. I also keep dates on hand to make a meal feel Moroccan, for example.

It’s with the help of these “tastemakers” that the meals I cook usually have a rich flavor.

As you might’ve noticed, I haven’t mentioned tomato paste and tomato sauce. Due to allergies, we stopped using tomatoes in all forms. Instead, we usually use pesto or add coconut milk to make meals taste creamier. You can also always roast veggies in the oven, then blend them to create a creamy, sauce-like ingredient, too.

Principle 8: Leftover-afterlife

Whenever we have more than we need, I’ll put it in a container and store it in the fridge. It doesn’t matter how much or how little there is; it can always be added to the next meal, and, with just a few extra ingredients, it can be turned into a whole different meal you won’t even recognize.

You can, for example, add extra water and soy sauce (and ideally miso or sesame paste) to turn a curry into ramen. You can add some vindaloo paste to pre-cooked veggies and make them taste like an Indian side dish. You can turn roasted veggies into a rich soup by just adding a veggie bouillon and some extra water and then blending it. You can also use the same veggies for a curry.

There are no limits to what you can make out of leftover food. The one rule is that you might want to use up the leftovers within three days to make sure the food is still safe to eat.

What I also always do, especially before I’m about to leave for a longer trip, is chop up whatever I have in the fridge and store it in the freezer so I can use it in the future. That way, I always make sure we don’t throw away any food.

I hope this reflection and my guiding principles on how I cook will help you come up with new dishes. If you’d much rather have some actual recipes, I can highly recommend Circular Chefs by Instock and The Zero Waste Küche Book by Sophia Hoffmann, in case you speak German.

If you’d like to share pictures of your creations, please use the hashtag #minifeast. I can’t wait to get inspired by your pictures!

Berlin-based freelance community strategist, author, and TEDx speaker. Find out more about my work: http://mkanokova.com

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