Cook here now

Ignore recipes and cook what tastes good to you to avoid the everyday hassles of making dinner

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A bowl of beef green chile, coconut milk, and potato stew.
John Lehndorff

Chile-cumin steam wafted up from the creamy broth, vegetables, and beef when I sat down to eat. My TV dinner—paired with toasted corn tortillas, a lager, and a new show, “What We Do in the Shadows,” was everything I needed that evening. 

Less than an hour earlier I had no idea what I’d cook—I just knew I was hungry with little energy, mood, or time to make anything after a long day. I needed easy, but not restaurant-delivery easy.

I didn’t look at “quick & easy” recipes or search cooking videos on TikTok. Instead, I practiced a culinary meditation technique developed over time. 

To make food in the moment, you have to relax and empty the noise from your brain temporarily as you stand in the middle of the kitchen. I wall-off the mental crap in the living room like a puppy. Leaning on the open door, I start by contemplating the glow from the open fridge, scanning the condiments on the door, the cheeses, pickles, and the bins of vegetables I’d forgotten about. 

I’m hoping the ingredients will speak to me, and, if they do get chatty, that it’s in English. 

Focus shifts to the freezer jammed with bags of vegetables and cut, cubed, and ground meat and seafood plus fruit and sauces. The light’s been out for months, forcing a tactile rummage that helps me say “no” to chicken, pork, and shrimp pieces, and “yes” to steak strips frozen loose in a bag. 

Protein decided, a seasoning scheme needed to pop out. Supplies in my pantry mean I can guide it toward Italian, Indian, and many other cuisines. My stellar lineup of starches—the gnocchi, rice, grits, tortellini, millet, and farro—just sat there on the shelf while the canned roasted whole green chilies and boxed vegetable broth beeped across my scanner. 

At this aha! decision moment—actually, just five minutes of suspended animation—a Yukon Jack potato, a carrot, and a piece of sweet red pepper came to mind. 

Into a wide, deep saucepan over medium-high heat went some olive oil and fast-cooking chip-thin slices of potato tumbled with quickly chopped fresh veggies. A forkful of chopped garlic from a jar was added with Kroger frozen chopped onions and sweet kernel corn stocked for just such an occasion. Convenience is not a crime. It’s survival.

Coconut milk from a can and boxed broth started to create the sauce with beef added last. With the pan turned down to simmer until the spuds are softened, the final meditation is at the spice rack. Central American flavors seemed right, meaning salt, black pepper, dried cumin, coriander, and oregano. 

Now, recipes always blithely state: “Adjust seasonings to taste,” as if that told anyone who hasn’t made it before how to actually make it taste good. 

This seasoning moment is actually many moments over time adding more spices. Without a recipe as your security blanket, you, your taste buds, and nose must be present, paying attention, and on alert. 

Cooking by feel means tasting and seasoning the dish many times as you see what it needs. The only rule: It’s easy to add more habanero or allspice or whatever, and impossible to add less. The only option is to thin out the sauce with a lot more broth or water. 

Under-salting is a home cook’s demon in the kettle. We crave restaurant fare in part because it’s generously salted, bringing out the flavors. 

The same holds true for herbs and spices. Listen: Just hold a tablespoon of any given herb next to a pot of soup or sauce. Does that paltry amount look like enough to add that accent to the dish? 

Go ahead, add more. In fact, taste and season in stages as you make something, not just at the very end. Add enough carefully and the dish will be bright tasting and far from bland.  

Ready to dine, fresh tiny orange tomatoes from my patio garden and a spritz of lime juice topped off the bowl with oven-toasted fresh corn tortillas and a beer on the side.  

The aha! moment was smiling over forkfuls of a cool hybrid—a cross between a stir fry, a curry, chile verde, and my mom’s goulash. The aroma was outstanding. 

A double batch is always wise, leaving me with classy leftovers to make tomorrow’s dinner even easier. The flavors always get better the next day. If you’re making a mess anyway, make it worthwhile. 

If you follow this practice, you can enjoy food that suits your spirit and your body.  

Local food news

Boulder’s award-winning Black Cat Bistro has permanently closed on 13th Street, with dinners moved to the Black Cat Farm. The former Bistro space is now part of chef Eric Skokan’s next door Bramble & Hare restaurant . . . Nude Foods Market, Boulder’s zero-waste grocery store, has reopened at 3233 Walnut St. . . . Boulder County businesses including restaurants may be able to have staff and diners go mask-free indoors this winter under a new program if 95 percent are fully vaccinated . . . After being shuttered since 2018, The Millsite restaurant has been renovated and reopened by new owners near Ward on the Peak to Peak Highway . . . Erie’s historic Miner’s Tavern will close October 2. 

Words to chew on

“What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.”—Writer Nora Ephron

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, kgnu.org). Comments: nibbles@boulderweekly.com