Smart Guides to Winging It In the Kitchen

We’re big fans of recipes at NOURISH Evolution, and we invest a lot into developing recipes to inspire your time in the kitchen. Over the years, recipes have helped me master skills, get acquainted with new ingredients and discover innovative flavor combos.

Sometimes, though, you want to wing it. Most often, I’m moved to improvise when I need to use up leftover ingredients, and often, that’s motivation enough to just get on with it. But occasionally I need a little inspiration, and we’ve found a quartet of great resources to help.

My favorite these days is The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook by Niki Segnit. Segnit is a passionate home cook who set out to boost her own understanding of flavors–why one ingredient works with another, the different qualities that make up taste and so forth. The result is 99 ingredients gathered around a flavor wheel with items grouped by qualities, such as “roasted,” “meaty,” “green & grassy,” “fresh fruity” and “woodland.” Segnit doesn’t claim her list is the last word (how could it be?), but the way she writes about flavors and ingredients is engaging and inspiring. She covers plenty of classic combos (chocolate and chile: “one of the original ‘wow’ flavor pairings”) as well as some surprises like pineapple and sage.

Lia’s a huge fan of Sally Scheider’s The Improvisational Cook, which inspires readers with seemingly endless suggestions to embellish, alter and modify recipes. Caramelized onions easily morph into onion jam, onion soup, bruschetta topping or onion dip–and that’s just to start. I love this approach because it really encourages you to take a recipe and run with it.

Another favorite of mine is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, which is a very straightforward listing of ingredients, their qualities and what goes with them. It’s a great quick reference to have on hand.

If you want to delve more deeply into how ingredients work together–turn to Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. “A culinary ratio is a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients relative to another,” he explains. “These proportions form the backbone of the craft of cooking.” If you already know how to improvise a vinaigrette with 3 parts oil and 1 part vinegar, you already know a basic ratio. Ruhlman’s book explains the details behind the ratios for everything from bread dough to sponge cake to sauces, sausage and custard. His companion smartphone and iPad app puts the basics at your fingertips.

You intuition is a good guide, too. If it tastes good in your mind’s palate, it’s definitely worth a try. Chances are, it’ll be delicious. And if not, so what? In cooking, even failures can lead to future successes since, at the very least, you’ll know what doesn’t work. Here are 3 simple strategies to keep in mind:

  • Pair foods harvested in the same season. The old adage–”if they grow together, they go together”–really works. Lia’s recipe for Roasted Winter Veggies is all about using whatever seasonal root vegetables you find. It doesn’t matter which ones–they all play well together.
  • Foods that hail from the same region are harmonious. Consider wine pairing as an example. As New World cooks, we call on an enormous range of flavors, cuisines and ingredients, which can make pairing wine and food challenging (what should I open with that Indian dish? what works with that Vietnamese recipe?). Old World cooks had it much easier–they simply opened a bottle of local wine to serve with traditional dishes made with local ingredients and it worked because everything had the same terroir.
  • Experiment with fusions based on similar ingredients. Fusing cuisines can be tricky and has been known to inspire some kooky combinations. It can also be inspired, especially if you look for similar ingredients to create a happy marriage on the plate.

Here’s an example: The other week, I had some leftover Carnitas de Lia, which I’ve wanted to use in a riff on a banh mi, the popular pork-filled Vietnamese sandwich. Other fillings that typically go into a banh mi also figure in Mexican fare: cilantro, carrots, cucumbers, hot peppers. So I made a simple guacamole of avocado, salt and lime juice, which I spread on a fresh baguette as a substitute for the more traditional mayonnaise or pate. Then I layered on the carnitas, grated carrots, thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers, some leftover Quick-Pickled Red Onions and cilantro, and topped it with a generous dollop of Sriracha hot sauce.

The result: a thoroughly satisfying improvisation that made our leftovers taste entirely new.

Nourishing Issues 2011: The Evolution of Local

This is part 2 in our Nourishing Issues 2011 series, in which we’re spotlighting a few key topics: food safety, local food and nutrition. The list could be much longer, of course, but these are three biggies that we’re sure to revisit throughout the year.

At NOURISH Evolution, we’re all about enjoying local food. It’s fresh, seasonal, inspiring fare that supports farmers in your community and a safe, sustainable food system. But over the last few months, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the local-food movement.

There are certainly many signs of local food going mainstream. Overall, that’s a good thing, because it encourages continued growth of local production. It’s a top trend among chefs, according to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2011” chef survey in which locally sourced meat, seafood and produce topped the list (closely followed by sustainability). That’s hardly surprising when you consider a Penn State University study that found diners are willing to pay almost 20% more for dishes made with local fare.

Local food has become such a hot-button issue that large corporations are looking for ways to jump on the bandwagon. Last year, McDonalds worked with the Italian government to create the “McItaly” burger made with 100% beef sourced from within Italy. Italian critics were not impressed–hardly a surprising reaction in the country that birthed the Slow Food Movement when McDonalds opened in the heart of Rome 20 years ago. Here at home, the fast-food giant launched its From Here microsite to show Washington State patrons how much of their Happy Meals are sourced within the state, including potatoes, apples, milk and fish. But it doesn’t address questions like whether that 43 million pounds of Pacific Northwest fish is sustainably sourced, which prompted accusations of localwashing.

Last fall, America’s mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced a global initiative to source more produce from small- and medium-size farmers, pledging to double sales of locally sourced crops in the U.S. alone. How this will play out for farmers and consumers remains to be seen. One question that comes to my mind is whether farmers will get fair prices for their goods. Wal-Mart is known for driving hard bargains with its vendors in order to ensure rock-bottom prices for patrons.

We’ve also seen outright abuses of the local-food trend. A few months ago, we reported on Los Angeles-area farmers’ market vendors caught selling wholesale warehouse-sourced produce (from as far away as Mexico) as “local.” Stunts like these make consumers confused and wary, and could undermine reputable local growers.

Of course, “local” is a loosely defined term when it comes to food. The Locavore movement, which launched in San Francisco in 2005, defined it as food that was grown and harvested within a 100-mile radius of where you live. But the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act adopted by Congress is much broader, defining “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as being sold within less than 400 miles from its origin or within the state in which it is produced. In large states like Texas or California, that means your food can come from much farther than 400 miles and still be considered local or regional. Hmm, by that definition, the Los Angeles farmers’ market vendors selling produce from Mexico might, technically, have been selling regional food, even if shoppers didn’t agree.

But the expansion of “local” to embrace regional isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Barry Estabrook noted in his Politics of the Plate blog, a strong regional food system may be the most realistic and sustainable solution. And, really, when it comes down to it, we support anything that brings safe, sustainable, affordable food to America’s tables, whether it’s as local as your own back garden or sustainably produced fare from your region.

Also in this series:

What Will It Take to Make Our Food Safe?

How Do You Define “Locavore”?

Last week, historian and author Stephen Budiansky raised quite a ruckus with his controversial New York Times op-ed piece, “Math Lessons for Locavores.” He took issue with the argument that buying local fare saves “food miles” (i.e., energy) and scolded local-food advocates for tossing around misleading and selective numbers to support their side.

Citing numbers from the University of Michigan Centers for Sustainable Systems, Budiansky noted that the big energy hog in our food system is the American household, which accounts for almost 32% of food-related energy use (from procuring food to storing, preparing and cleaning up after it). Transportation–the actual miles it takes to bring food to your table–uses less than 14% of food “energy.”

The piece unleashed an avalanche of responses. In her Huffington Post rebuttal, Kerry Trueman, co-founder of, dismissed Budiansky’s “deeply unserious” piece as “another flimsy, flammable straw man [made] out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric.” She notes, quite rightly, that consumer-related food-energy expenses have nothing to do with whether we buy our food locally or not.

On the other side, “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert (who is sponsored by ConAgra, by the way), praised Budiansky’s “terrific” piece and declared, “One thing is clear to me: It is the beginning of the end of local.” He accuses locavore advocates of often distorting facts, which has confused consumers and eroded their confidence in the local-food movement.

Clearly, it’s not a black-or-white issue. “Local” often depends on where you live. If you’re in Southern California, like me, it’s pretty easy to get most, if not all, your food within a 100-mile radius year-round. If you live in Montana, where the growing season is fleeting, you may need a seasonal approach to local fare, as well as a broader definition of what’s “local.” In his blog, Politics of the Plate, Barry Estabrook suggests a regional approach to food may be a more realistic solution for many Americans.

As with so many food-related issues, we believe this takes a nuanced approach based on your needs and values. Lia is going to address this issue in more depth next week.

In the meantime, let us know what local food means to you.