I've been cooking for years. Although, if you ask my husband, I've been screwing up fried eggs for just as long. (His secret: Fry them on low to avoid cooking the egg too quickly.) So I am no genius in the kitchen, but I am getting better.
I used to follow recipes exactly, afraid to deviate at all. (Didn't have all the ingredients? Find another recipe!) But then I discovered a recipe in a cookbook that had the same basic ingredients (meat, pasta, diced tomatoes), but the recipe authors gave suggestions on how to use different spices (chili powder or Italian seasoning) and cheeses (mozzarella vs. sharp cheddar) to totally change the taste of the dish.
Since then, I have been trying my hand at doing a little kitchen experimentation. And I came up with “Flexipes” or flexible recipes. (Uh, at least I thought I coined the phrase. I guess not.) Flexipes are recipes that allow you the flexibility to create delicious, delicious dishes while using up what you have in your pantry.
And how does cleaning out your pantry help you from cleaning out your wallet? Wasting less food, fewer last-minute trips to the grocery store, maybe even relying less on eating at restaurants. Because once you gain confidence in your own meal creation skills, you may prefer the challenge of creating a delicious meal out of random parts, so to speak.
I often rely on skillet dinners (dinners that can be cooked entirely in one pot) to feed my family. And sometimes this means I give myself points for fewer dishes to wash later.
If you're just starting out with flexipes, a skillet dinner is an easy place to start. Much like a universal muffin recipe from Amy Dacyczyn's “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” here is one of mine.
Lisa's universal skillet recipe:
Around one pound of meat and/or beans Because I'm trying to cut down our meat consumption, I will usually use half a pound of ground beef, along with a cup or two of beans (black, cannellini, and pinto beans are favorites).
Vegetables If I have onions (which I usually have since they're cheap and store well), I use them in all my skillet creations. Diced tomatoes (or a can of salsa), celery, frozen corn, garlic, sliced cabbage, bell peppers, green chiles, and greens have all had their turn. Denser items like carrots and potatoes may need to be chopped into small pieces and precooked or added at the beginning.
Pasta/grains While I haven't branched out too much beyond macaroni and brown rice, I see no reason why quinoa, couscous, or other grains wouldn't work. Another original recipe called for Minute Rice, which cooked right in the pan. Dried macaroni also can cook in the pan if enough liquid (water or tomato juice) is present. However, if I am using something that takes longer to cook (like brown rice), I cook the rice separately (creating another dish to wash) and add it at the end.
Extras Depending on the flavor I'm going for (and what I want to use up), I may add some sliced olives, green chiles, or cheese — but it's usually cheese.
Herbs/spices Chili powder, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper are just to get you started; but the sky's the limit when it comes to spices, as long as they're complementary (which is not to be confused with complimentary: My, paprika, you're looking good today.)
A flexipe example
Here's how a recent meal went down.
I had about half a pound of a ground-beef-and-black-bean mixture left over from another meal. To that, I added some brown rice, chopped up a very ripe tomato, added another can of diced tomatoes and green chilis, some Mexican blend cheese, salt, pepper, chili powder, and a couple of diced bacon strips (because bacon makes everything better). I served this with corn tortillas and it didn't taste at all like leftovers. Sophisticated? No. But it was good, gave us some fiber, protein, and veggies for a quick and easy meal.
Other dishes that make excellent flexipes are soups. Vegetables can easily be swapped in soups, along with the liquid base and different types of proteins.
Egg dishes like quiches and frittatas can easily be manipulated, depending on what you have on hand. Use a basic quiche recipe and then create a spinach and artichoke version. Have tomatoes to use up? How about a tomato and basil quiche? Stratas use bread, eggs, milk, cheese and, sometimes, vegetables to make a delicious meal.
Meeting flexipe challenges
One of the challenges with flexipe cooking is finding flavors that do complement each other. Since I discovered Leanne Brown's Eat Well on $4/day cookbook through one of April's recent articles, I have been (literally) devouring it. Her recipes lend themselves to flexible cooking, and she also gives tips on adapting the recipes.
When you're just starting out, you can also look for inspiration in the restaurants and recipes around you. This is a very simple example, but I see mushroom and Swiss burgers everywhere. So this morning, when I sauteed some mushrooms and added some scrambled eggs, Swiss cheese was thrown in, too. Simple and delicious.
And that's the thing. These meals probably won't bring gushes of admiration from your dinner table diners, but if simple and delicious peasant fare (check out the comments on this excellent article) is what you're going for, this will probably be enough.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a refrigerator to raid…
My ideas are undoubtedly influenced by my farming/Midwestern background, so I am interested to see how this is received in other areas. Can you create meals from your pantry, fridge, and freezer that don't follow a recipe? What are some of your favorite flexipes?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).