One of the interests listed on my profile is "improvisational cooking" and it's something I am a bit prideful of, I must say. Though my dedication to my grocery store is fierce, I'm not the type to shop for a couple of items every other day or so. I'm not sure I could make it on a small fridge, European marketplace type shopping routine. I like to load up my pantry and make do for weeks at a time if I can. When I was growing up, there was a term for this type of grocery run. "Are you going for a 'big load'" we would ask? If so, my father was often involved, we went to the grocery store where you had to bag your own, and my brother and I had the job of unpacking bags onto the countertops, in an organized way (cans here, boxes there, fridge stuff close to the fridge, etc.) and my mom would put it all away. H
Having a toddler who requires milk and copious amounts of fruit has put a cramp in my pre-children style of filling the freezer with meat and frozen entrees, but I still tend to work from a "big load" type of grocery getting. I'm also not that great at planning out menus, so every day tends to include some type of "what shall we have for dinner" conversation. My husband has yet to EVER answer that question with an actual suggestion, so mostly I have this conversation with myself, peering into the freezer and/or lazy susan cupboard. This is where the improvisation comes in. Say I want to have meatloaf, but I'm out of breadcrumbs. Crackers will do in place. But that's logical, you say. Crackers are a fine substitution. I agree. But sometimes I get a little off the beaten path when it comes to the subbing.
For example, I recently really wanted to make this curried cranberry chicken dish I love. I knew I had chicken, and I knew I had a bag of cranberries. No problem, right? Well, I forgot that this dish also required a can of Rotel tomatoes. I instead used half a giant can of tomatoes and part of a can of diced green chiles. Also, only a palmful of craisins -- no problem, I'll just up the amount of fresh cranberries. Oh, crap. No chicken broth either. (this is a strange lack in my cupboard -- I usually have at least three of those giant boxes). A search of the back of my spice cabinet unearthed chicken boullion. Certainly not the low sodium ingredient called for in my Eating Well recipe, but chicken-y and liquid-y nonetheless. I did not have coriander, but I think cloves are a similar flavor, so I just used a little less. I also for some reason recently dumped my bag of rice into a glass container, thus ridding myself of the directions for how long to cook the rice. I'm not even sure if it's basmati, brown, or regular white rice, which would all require different cook times. Guessing worked out fine, though the rice was a bit sticky. All in all, it was a tasty meal, though I always forget that when the recipe says "50 minutes hands on time" it really means it, and it took me far longer than I had budgeted to cook this, and required N. to scream in her swing a little bit while I accomplished some of the tasks.
The improvisational meal is a mental challenge for me each day, and usually I win. However, I can tell that I've had guests and have been cooking a lot of big meals lately, because yesterday, I was completely flummoxed by the ingredients available to me in refrigerator and pantry. I actually had to head to the store just so I could make a lame leftover turkey nacho concoction. I had committed in my head to making it, thinking I had a lime and a can of refried beans, but alas, those were not where I though they were. So it was off to the store for just those few ingredients. Yesterday, I lost.
By the way, I get this tendency toward substitution naturally. Last week, my mother told me that she was making my grandma's butterscotch cookies, which she was hoping she might finally get to taste right. But, she didn't have any walnuts, so she was going to use pecans instead. And because she's worried about trans fats, she was using butter instead of margarine (or oleo, as Grandma calls it). They actually taste really good, I think.
*this is what J. says about once a week when I produce a new meal for dinner, knowing that there is no way I've actually followed a recipe faithfully.