On Cooking without a Recipe

{The following is a guest blog from board member ‘JS’ on – you guessed it – cooking without a recipe}

I recently cooked a great dinner without a recipe. OK, I wing it all the time, now that I think about it, but it does usually fall down to the staples in my repertoire, or those favorites that are immersed in my cooking brain. See also: have a well-stocked pantry, farmers market addiction, and rotating relationships with new-to-me cookbooks from the library. Fun times!

Winter squash bounty at one of Portland’s many farmers market (I forget which…)

Winter squash bounty at one of Portland’s many farmers market (I forget which…)

The meal in question had its roots in the remaining half of a near-forgotten roasted squash. It’s the beauty and horror of winter squashes – they sometimes last so long that you begin to consider it more of an ornamental piece that you both admire and simultaneously feel a sense of past-season guilt when it catches your eye. You calmly and confidently assure yourself (and perhaps, the partner or roommate who questions it) that risotto is on the horizon! You mention, even to yourself, that a lovely puréed bisque or better yet, a take on that awesome butternut nacho sauce from Miyoko’s cheese book is seriously on your culinary radar. That this squash – a cute black futsu, in my case – will certainly be cooked and eaten before Spring arrives.

Long story short, I tackled the squash! This Japanese squash was originally acquired from a farmers market with visions of tempura’d slices accompanying bowls of homemade ramen, or perhaps, caramelized via brief roasting and simmered in a saucey pan of Thai curry with a congruent shade of hot red or sour orange. (Make this case #149 where I recommend over the internet or in person how much Sarah Jansala’s Thai Home curry pastes are worth picking up in Portland!)

Getting slightly closer to the point, I’m happy to report that the second dinner dream *did* occur. I’m not as thrilled to share that I while sliced and roasted half the squash, the other half was splashed with water, wrapped in foil, roasted, and consequently overlooked in my fridge for close to a week. Realistically, I knew there wasn’t enough for fateful risotto or as much nacho cheese as one wants in life. It was no longer suitable for tempura and while I could have swindled it into thickening a ramen stock, or a small mashed side (for me…or the sake of my cats’ digestion), the latter bored me and clearly did not hold my attention for potential meal-planning.  Almost there.

Spoiler alert: this lovely motley crew of bitter winter greens from my garden goes in everything, including this eventual meal

Spoiler alert: this lovely motley crew of bitter winter greens from my garden goes in everything, including this eventual meal

Then it hit me – I could and would make mac & cheese for one! The remaining roasted squash was just enough to be the base of a pleasant cheesy sauce and had bonus points for beckoning the orange vibes that even vegans can finding themselves longing for. Truth is, I’ve been vegan for a decade-and-a-half and have made countless mac and cheeses through the years. I’m not short on turmeric, for sure. I’ve certainly made squash-based macs, roux-based, tofu-thickened, seed-and-nut-starring, and even dabbled in the potato-and-carrot phase (more than a few) years back. The flavors, concepts and ingredients have made their way into my brain….and pantry. So, my point is, I decided to cook without a recipe.

Like I said, this wasn’t being brave; I just didn’t have an exact inspiration in mind other than dinner and needing to use this neglected squash! Long ago, I was sorta-magically bestowed with a Vita-Mix and into that the squash went – about ½ cup of roasted-’til-soft squash. Then, I added a slew of the usual vegan mac suspects: some fresh lemon juice, a bit of strong mustard, a few tablespoons of nutritional yeast, a spoonful of tahini and good smidge of red miso, a shake of tapioca starch for that goo-effect, maybe ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika, a bit of buttery olive oil, a quick grind of white peppercorn,  and a good pinch of salt. Getting there.

I topped that all with just-enough unsweetened oat milk so it would almost cover the purée, about 1/3 cup – perhaps, ½ cup’s worth –, and ah, then remembered a couple of cloves of roasted garlic that were also being saved for a rainy day in the fridge. Thanks, past self.

Look ma! No turmeric!

Look ma! No turmeric!

I puréed it all until smooth, and here comes the vital part of cooking without a recipe: I added more of this & that to taste. I tossed in a tiny nub of air-dried parmesan (again, credit of Miyoko’s Artisan Vegan Cheese), but you could opt for a bit more nooch aka nutritional yeast on your own cheesy journey, which, this remains a savory guide for, not a recipe (duh)! In went another fresh squeeze of lemon juice, a touch more salt and solid dash of Crystal hot sauce later (again, keeping in mind the salt, acid and heat it would deliver as promised), a final quick blend, and the sauce was beginning to warm in a saucepan. From there, the water begins to boil for the ⅓ box  of rotini I was looking to polish off, the pasta goes in – as does salt (duh, once again), and while that cooks, the sauce heats to a bubble & then kept warm, being thinned out with a splash or two of starchy pasta water.

At some point, within 25 minutes or so, I’d reckon, the pasta was drained, appropriately sauced, and I was sitting down to a bowl of cheesy goodness.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I topped my (freepile’d, for the record) bowl with a handful of sauteed bitter greens and herbed, baked tofu I had marinating in the fridge....how could I resist?

What meals do y’all cook without a recipe?