ImageI was recently looking back at a post I wrote a couple of years ago, in which I talked about the “piecemeals” I used to cobble together from the motley collection of ingredients I would bring home from the grocery store. As much as I love eating PB&J, grapefruit, and wine for dinner on occasion, I’ve made a concerted effort over the past several months to plan my meals in advance. I’ve been pleased with the results: faster shopping trips, less wasted food and money, and more exciting dishes.

Far from the onerous chore I once imagined, meal-planning turned out to be one of the highlights of my week. I look forward to the time I spend over coffee on Saturday or Sunday morning, poring over cookbooks and magazines to find inspiration for the week’s menu. Sometimes I follow recipes to the letter, but more often than not, I use them as a basic outline and fill in the details based on what’s in season, what I have on hand, or what I’m craving.

For me, that freedom to improvise, to riff on a theme in the kitchen, makes cooking both a creative outlet and a form of stress relief. It’s a skill I’ve been picking up slowly, through experiments with varying degrees of success, and is something I’ve wanted to share with others who might not yet feel comfortable striking out on their own at the stove.

The weekly recipe column I started writing last month for DCist online magazine is giving me the chance to influence, in some small way, how readers view food and cooking. “Season’s Eatings” highlights local, in-season ingredients available at DC-area farmers’ markets, especially those readers may rarely (if ever) find at the grocery store. My mission is threefold:

1)     Give readers a sense for locality and seasonality of food (what grows when in our region)

2)     Inspire people to taste more mindfully, more enthusiastically, more broadly. Indeed, to experience food through all five senses more fully.

3)     Help others learn to cook more intuitively, with less fear and more confidence in their own ability to create something delicious.

ImageI’ve been dreaming up dishes for years, but have never written them down before. The process is making me pay attention to details I’ve never given much mind to: is “sauté until asparagus is crisp-tender” descriptive enough? How fine is “finely chopped”? I do my best to strike a balance between precise direction (for cooks who need more guidance) and encouragement of experimentation and modification (for everyone, to reinforce the idea that the recipes are, by and large, suggestions to give the cook somewhere to begin). Nearly all of them end with some variation of “adjust seasonings to taste.” The essence of intuitive cooking lies there, in that line.

Much as I depend on it, I realize how baffling this command can seem for novice cooks. A friend told me recently that seeing it at the end of a recipe has always left her feeling lost. “To taste what?” she wonders. If you have never tried an ingredient or a dish before, how are you to know what it should taste like?

The short answer is, it should taste good. When you come to the end of a recipe and sample the result, you should like what you taste and want to eat more of it. In most cases, that’s a perfectly adequate measure of the success of a dish. Part of the beauty of trying new recipes lies precisely in not feeling pressure to adhere to some kind of external standard. When you’re cooking, you decide. Learn to trust your tastebuds.

You can train your palate by tasting carefully, with attention. Over time and many meals, you’ll learn to look at a recipe you’ve never seen before and know what ingredients will be essential and which can be left out or replaced with something else. You’ll begin to understand which ingredients must be kept in proportion and where amounts can be tweaked to suit your own fancies. You’ll discover what to add in order to balance or bring out certain flavors; for instance, salt adds depth or “backbone,” acid creates brightness or “punch,” sugar lends “roundness” and calms excessively bitter or sharp flavors, and fat gives a dish fullness or “heft” and helps create a silkier texture.

Reading lots of recipes also helps, as does watching cooking shows and, more than anything, peering over the shoulder of a knowledgeable cook and asking lots of questions. And if, having “let go of the handlebars,” so to speak, you end up ruining a dish beyond all recognition, you may even be grateful for the excuse to eat cereal and ice cream for dinner.