A word about spontaneity. People who love to eat, whether they admit it or not, do so because it’s a sensuous act. Think of a memorable meal and you’ll be knee-deep in sensation: warm, crusty bread melting with butter, the juice of cold peaches in summer, the way mashed potatoes leave you feeling so satisfied you want to smoke a cigarette.
Now add to this the pleasure of being a cook, which is the deep pleasure of acting creatively, and you’ll understand the kind of mojo that goes into good food. It’s not about technique, but instinct—not training, but trust.
Great cooks cook from the hip. What I mean by this is, whether they drop by farmer’s market twice a week to see what’s lovely and bursting with the season, or open the cupboards and start pulling things out, they make something from nothing. They cook spontaneously.
Spontaneity does take a little preparation. But just a little. You can change the way you cook, what you cook, and how it tastes simply by having a few things on hand. Here are 12 things you should always stock in your kitchen to make spontaneous moments more likely. That way when you bring home husk tomatoes, basil, and a fat eggplant from the farm stand, as I did on Sunday, you can turn it into a garlic-basil-tomato frittata and eggplant pizza in one afternoon. Or, when you find yourself with a surplus of sweet peppers and onions, along with some shrimp that needs to be eaten, you’ll have shrimp cakes –some for dinner and some to freeze for later.
You don’t need to be a professional; you simply need to give yourself a few tools to help you be more creative. Remember: Be spontaneous. Be brave. And trust yourself.
12 Items for a Spontaneous Kitchen
- Fresh parsley – kept in a glass of water on the counter or in the fridge. In the summer, I also keep fresh cilantro on hand. When these start to go off, I turn them into pesto.
- Fresh garlic – (preferably organic—yes, it does make a difference). The garlic should exude juice when cut.
- Lemons – for acid, to brighten all flavors and for its zest.
- Fresh herbs – I always have bay leaves (good for sauces) and then grow favorite herbs in a pot (thyme, rosemary, basil). Cooking with fresh herbs makes all the difference.
- Good extra virgin olive oil – not the cooking stuff, but the stuff that you can drizzle over pasta or pizza or salad or very good bread, which will make any of them taste like they’ve come from a 5-star restaurant.
- Balsamic and rice wine vinegars – for dressings, sauces, and acid when you need it.
- Tomatoes – whether whole canned for winter pastas and stews or fresh for salads and salsas, the tomato is indispensable in the kitchen. I buy two or three kinds when I go to the market.
- Kosher sea salt and fresh cracked pepper – I’ve said it before, the #1 ingredient in the kitchen is the kind of salt you use and how you use it. And pepper from a tin is simply flavored ash. Blech.
- Panko bread crumbs – so great for everything from breading to making meatballs and shrimp cakes (recipe below).
- Some kind of grain starch or bread – I have quinoa pasta, wild rice, and polenta in the cupboard, and pizza dough in the freezer.
- Chicken Stock – You never know when you’ll need to deglaze something or add flavor. I keep a box of Swanson’s in the fridge at all times.
- Eggs – I always have a dozen on hand. Great for impromptu dinners when you’re starving. Just serve with a salad and you’ve got a meal.
Here’s what I’ve made recently in my kitchen.
1 pound small or cocktail shrimp, peeled and cooked
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
1 tbsp fresh herb (thyme or basil)
1 cup or more panko bread crumbs (use only panko)
In a pan, sauté the onion and pepper until translucent in about 2 tbsp butter. Add the parsley, herb and panko and stir until the bread crumbs toast just slightly. Add the shrimp and lemon. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat. Let cool and let flavors mix. Bind with just enough egg to make patties stick together. Form and let chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge. Dredge in more panko and fry in butter until just brown. Serve with lemon or make your own aioli with mayo, capers, lemon, garlic and a bit of salt.
The trick to a frittata is preparation. Get all the ingredients chopped and ready, the pan heated, and the oven hot, then go.
½ basket of husk tomatoes, husks removed, half the large ones
8-12 leaves basil, minced
4 eggs, scrambled with a bit of milk, plus a pinch of salt and pepper
Pre-heat the oven to broil and a pan on the stove top over medium to med-high for 3-5 minutes.
Lightly sauté a clove of garlic in 2 tbsp butter. Add the tomatoes and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs with the Parmesan and basil and keep the mixture moving in the pan with a spatula. If the eggs are not cooking immediately, your pan is too cool. They should sizzle a bit and cook in only a few minutes. When almost done, add the mozzarella on top and put under the broiler to finish. Serve immediately.
This frittata goes well with the arugula salad made by tossing arugula with salt and a bit of truffle oil and fresh juice of lemon. Serve topped with shaved Parmesan and toasted hazelnuts. The tart, peppery greens make a nice contrast to the eggs.
1/2 eggplant, skinned and sliced into disks
2-3 eggs and panko for dipping
1 basket of husk tomatoes (or super cherries or whatever you have on hand—about 2 cups), chopped
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Into a heated pan, pour a little olive oil and add the garlic. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, add the chopped tomatoes and parsley. Salt and pepper. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes cook down, then add the basil and a splash of balsamic to sweeten the acid of the tomatoes. Let rest.
In the meantime, dredge the eggplant in egg and panko and fry in olive oil (butter tastes better, fyi). Salt each disk generously and let brown. Drain on paper.
Preheat the oven to 425 or the BBQ to high.
Pull the dough gently with your finger, letting gravity “widen” it by letting it hang off the backs of your hand or from your fingers. This will make the dough bubbly and chewy. If using the BBQ, pre-cook the dough on the grill (top shelf) so it is just firm enough to hold its shape.
Brush the dough with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and the garlic. Spread the tomato mixture onto it. Layer with the eggplant. Drizzle with some good balsamic syrup if you have it or add a bit of mozzarella or Parmesan.
Bake until puffy and heated through—about 8-10 minutes. Serves 2-3