How to Cook Without Recipes: Aromatics

August 27, 2015



There is nothing like having the ability to cook without recipes.

To do so, you need two tools: you must first understand cooking techniques.  Blanching, searing, roasting, broiling, poaching, sauteing.

Then, you need to understand the anatomy of how to construct a dish.  You have to know your aromatics, your flavor agents, and how to best coax the flavor out of your ingredients through good techniques.

For that, you need to understand how most dishes are constructed.  Today we’ll start with step 1.

First, you need an aromatic base.

Onions, leeks, scallions, shallots. Garlic. Ginger.

Celery, carrots, red, green or spicy peppers.

Many cuisines have their own aromatic bases – mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot in France, sofrito of onion, peppers and herbs in Spain/South America, and more.

You need an aromatic base for:

  • Soups
  • Stews
  • Curries
  • Stir-Fries
  • Sauces

This means EVERY time you make one of these dishes, you have to start with a base of the aromatics above, whether it’s onion, leeks, shallots or garlic.

You can add carrots, celery, or peppers but the onion family is the primary base.

Because this is the base flavor of your dish, you must take care to cook the aromatics carefully.

A soup, curry or stew will benefit from having the onion cooked on medium heat with plenty of olive oil for 7-10 minutes.  It is not a process you should rush.  Garlic only takes a minute to cook and is easy to burn, so always wait until your onion is well cooked to add garlic.

I see people undercook onions a lot, even seasoned cooks.  Skipping this step leads to a dish with less well developed flavors.  And is there anything worse than a half cooked onion?

Let’s look at how this might apply in a dish.  Say you wanted to make a soup without a recipe.

The first step?  Always an onion.  You’d saute your onion in plenty of olive oil (3-4 tbsp) for 10 minutes on medium heat, then add your vegetable.  Say, here, cauliflower florets.  Add a cauliflower, saute for 3-4 minutes to intensify the flavor as it mingles with the onion.  Then add vegetable or chicken broth to cover approximately a half inch over your cauliflower.  Season with a good amount of salt. Bring to a simmer (don’t boil soup, ever!) and cook until the cauliflower is soft, 12-15 minutes, and puree.

You can repeat this process for broccoli, carrots, potatoes, etc.

But you cannot skip the techniques involved: the long, slow cooking of the onion. The simmering at a low bubble until your vegetables are soft. And using the right amount of salt, which is typically more than you think.

Next we’ll be deconstructing flavor agents, and how to build the next layer of flavor for your dish.

Stay tuned!




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