This post is inspired by Tamar Adler's piece on cooking with leftovers, which encourages people to step outside of the cookbook and make delicious meals out of leftovers. The Amateur Gourmet does a really good job documenting this process as well. It's not as sexy as the first meal you make from all those fresh and delicious farmers market ingredients, but is definitely important to keep in mind when you have all but one stalk of a bunch of celery left in the crisper or half a can of anchovies.
Being able to come up with a meal using what's available is something I aspire to and is part of my definition of what makes a cook. I'm starting to get there, which means I saute whatever vegetables I have in the fridge and call it a stir fry or jazz up old soups and curries by adding a fresh ingredient or two. But I often get stuck in a rut by using ingredients the same way every time and don't do much with leftovers aside from taking them for a spin in the microwave.
What Tamar Adler describes in her article is the important process of putting ingredients in categories. What do I mean by that? It's important to understand that certain ingredients play similar roles in making a dish and may be used interchangeably. For example, garlic, ginger, scallions, leeks, and onions are all potent aromatics. They provide the flavor base for a dish and are often used in small-ish quantities at the beginning of the cooking process. So if you have any of those things lying around, you might use them in the same way. Similarly, all green vegetables such as spinach, chard, and kale have similar flavor profiles and can often be interchanged in a recipe. This way, when you look at a ingredient (say spinach), it's not just in the context of that one dish (a salad), you can also make it like you made that really delicious chard soup, or kale chip, or beet green pasta! And it's knowing what roles ingredients play helps build a dish without a recipe.
Experimentation with ingredients and new recipes are opportunities to reformat and expand these categories. When you use ginger instead of onions as the aromatic, you learn how it changes the flavor profile of the dish. And then there are exciting recipes that teach you new ways to use familiar ingredients. The aromatics I mentioned don't always have to be used in the same way. Instead, leeks can be braised, garlic can be pureed into a soup, and onions can be the main ingredient of a hearty meal!
So, as important as it is to learn how to handle new ingredients and master techniques from recipes, there's definitely room to go off-book in day to day cooking. I know I definitely tend to make a big deal out of everything I cook, so this article was a good way to remember that cooking can be much more free-form than those perfectly styled and manicured recipes suggest.