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Three tips for improvising in the kitchen

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Now that you’ve learned to cook simple family meals for the last few months, are you ready to take off the training wheels?

Cooking outside the box means fearlessly improvising by using what’s on hand, substituting ingredients and tweaking a dish to bring it to another level and make it your own.

Cookbook author and home-cooking expert Lia Huber of Healdsburg has been busy lately helping friends hone their culinary talents as cooking skills have gone from “nice to know” to “urgently needed.”

“Nearly everyone on the planet is getting a crash course in home cooking,” she said. “And many feel like they’re failing. I’ve had more requests for help — or really more like ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ — over the past weeks than I usually get over the course of six months.”

Huber, who leads an online meal-planning program and real food community through her business, Nourish Evolution, has answered the call by creating a free webinar called Easy Weeknight Meals, and a monthlong course, Home (Cooking) School.

“I’m seeing this as a real call to allow our creativity to come forth,” Huber said. “None of it is rocket science, but unless you know these little core bits of knowledge, then your cooking is going to be an uphill fight.”

To help home cooks learn to fix meals without rigidly following a recipe, Huber shared three keys to improvising in the kitchen — flavor, ingredients and technique. She compares the process to music.

“The flavor profile is like the tone or the mood of the song that the musician is trying to set,” she said. “The ingredients are like the notes. The better your pantry is stocked, the more notes you have to play with.”

During the shelter-in-place orders, she strongly suggests a pantry well-stocked with vinegars, for more “notes.” A white wine vinegar can bring a very different note to the dish than a balsamic or apple cider vinegar.

“Suddenly you have a major and a minor scale and four octaves instead of two,” she said. “The more core pantry ingredients you have to draw from, the more freedom you have.”

Mastery of techniques gives a dish structure, just as scales give a jazz solo structure.

“Each of those scales has a very specific mood to it,” she said. “That’s the same thing in the kitchen. The technique that you are applying to a certain set of ingredients will achieve the mood of the dish that you are looking for.”

For example, steaming cauliflower gives you very different flavors versus searing it.

“Even if it has no spice, just searing that cauliflower produces a completely different result,” she said.

“You have the Maillard reaction (caramelizing), so there are a huge number of flavors that have been ignited, including that savory, umami mouthfeel.”

Meanwhile, steaming cauliflower results in a more bland result, so you may need to add extra flavor afterward, perhaps some olive oil and lemon zest.

The three keys to improvising in the kitchen flow together, each influencing the other like streams running into a river.

“You set the flavor profile and choose the ingredients to match that flavor profile that you want,” she said.

“Then you choose the cooking technique to give it structure.”

All about flavor profiles

It pays to do some research on flavor profiles before setting off down the path of improvisation.

For help, Huber suggests perusing Sally Schneider’s “The Improvisational Cook” (William Morrow, 2006) or Karen Page’s and Andrew Dornenburg’s “The Flavor Bible” (Little, Brown and Co., 2008).

To keep things simple, Huber likes to divide flavor combinations into seasonal, regional and cultural.

Seasonal exemplifies the old adage “what grows together, goes together.” In spring, that means peas and asparagus and mint and spring lamb, the basis of many an Easter feast.

For a spring recipe, Huber shared an appetizer that brings together peas, mint and radishes: Spring Pea Toast with Radishes. You also could improvise by using a fava bean puree with arugula and a fresh cheese like ricotta.

Regional and cultural profiles are somewhat similar, but not always.

The flavors found in Jewish cooking are not always confined to a specific region, due to that culture’s diaspora.

For a regional dish from Sonoma County, Huber imagined walking along the coast when the wild fennel is in bloom and mixes with the briny scent of the sea. She came up with a simple Poached Lemon-Fennel Salmon in anticipation of the local commercial California King Salmon season recently opened on the North Coast.

Cultural profiles that resonate in Northern California include the Mediterranean flavors — tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onion, olives — and the Southeast Asian/Thai flavors — fish sauce, garlic, chiles, cilantro, peanuts.

After a recent trip to Southeast Asia, Huber created a dish with all three profiles — regional, cultural, with a bit of spring thrown in — and an alluring combination of spicy, salty and sweet flavors.

Her recipe for Thai Ground Pork with Snap Peas is based on one of her favorite dishes from Northern Thailand.

Know ingredients

Once you begin understanding flavor profiles, you can take a deep dive into ingredients and start cooking off the cuff.

Some ingredients, such as potatoes and beans, can be substituted for each other without creating cacophony.

“One thing I recognize in all of this is how afraid people are to substitute,” Huber said. “If you don’t have pinto beans, use black or white beans.”

Ingredients such as cheese, meat, herbs and vegetables require a bit of knowledge.

Look at both the flavor and the texture, then substitute those that share similar characteristics, she suggests. Is the cheese super creamy, sliceable, grateable, crumbly? Is it pungent? Mild? Salty?

“Depending on the recipe, feta and blue cheese could swap out,” she said. “They are both pungent and salty cheeses.”

Any cheese with a hard texture and salty flavor can also swap out, such as Parmesan, Asiago, Pecorino Romano or Manchego.

With meat, she said, ask if it’s tender or not so tender.

“If I couldn’t find a chicken breast, I might go with a pork chop or a skirt steak — quick cooking, tender cuts,” she said.

“If I couldn’t find chicken thighs, then I might go with pork shoulder.”

Many culinary herbs share roots in the mint family: rosemary, savory, marjoram, sage, lemon balm and thyme.

“I would sub thyme for oregano, basil for mint and rosemary for sage,” she said.

“Broccoli and cauliflower can be swapped out.”

If you don’t have a lemon but you have a lime, go for it and see what happens.

“One of my favorite sayings is ‘what if?’” she said. “It is integral to the conversation on improvising.”

Sharpen techniques

Huber’s Home (Cooking) School can help you sharpen your technique skills, although there is a waiting list.

The four-week course includes three live cooking classes per week via Zoom.

“It’s really about helping people develop the core techniques that it takes to be confidant and competent in the kitchen,” she said.

“There’s a gap in knowledge and comfort level out there.”

You also could seek out one of the many virtual cooking classes live streaming now in Wine Country. They often bring together chefs and vintners.

Once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted, sign up for a cooking class at a local cooking school (Sur la Table in Santa Rosa or Relish in Healdsburg) or ask a friend who is an accomplished cook if she might share her expertise on blanching, searing and braising.

Once you move outside the box and cook without a recipe, you’ll never look back.

“Give yourself permission to experiment and really go into the improvisation without a sense of failure,” Huber said.

“Rather than looking at making meals as a scary thing, go into it with a sense of curiosity and find the joy in that.”

To learn more about Huber’s Home (Cooking) School classes and Easy Weeknight Meals webinars, go to nourishevolution.com/hcs and nourishevolution.com/ewm

This gorgeous spring-inspired toast makes a great breakfast, lunch or light supper.

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Spring Pea Toast with Radishes

Makes 4 servings

2 pounds fresh English peas (in the pod)

4 ounces spring onions (about 2 onions)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

— Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

3 tablespoon fresh mint, hopped (divided)

4 slices rustic, whole grain bread

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 lemon, juiced

½ cup thinly-sliced radishes

1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled

— Flake sea salt (such as Maldon)

Shell the peas. Thinly slice the white and tender green part of the onions.

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium­-high heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt and sauté 1 minute or until softened. Add peas and sauté 5 to ­ 7 minutes or until tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons mint.

While peas are cooking, toast the bread. Cut 1 garlic clove in half and rub over 1 side of each toasted bread slice.

Combine the peas, olive oil, 1 grated garlic clove and juice of 1 lemon in a food processor or blender. Pulse until roughly puréed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spread bread evenly with pea mixture and top with radishes and feta. Sprinkle with remaining mint and flake sea salt.

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Shallow poaching is an awesome way to cook salmon, keeping it nice and moist and infusing it with flavor from the bed of veggies and lemons below. If you’re wary about cooking fish in the house, this is your dish — no fishy smell at all.

Poached Lemon-Fennel Salmon

Makes 4 servings

1 fennel bulb (with stalks and fronds)

3 lemons, sliced

½ onion, sliced

¼ cup dry white wine

¼ cup water

1½ pounds wild-caught salmon

1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

— Sea salt, to taste

Cut the fennel stalks from the bulb and chop the stalks into 2-inch pieces.

Reserve the bulb for another use. (For an easy healthy snack, slice it thinly and keep it in the fridge in lemon water.)

Arrange the fennel stalks, onion and half the lemon slices in a medium sauté pan. Pour in the wine and water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

Season the salmon with sea salt and ground fennel seed and place on top of the vegetables.

Arrange the remaining lemon slices over the top of the salmon. Cover the pan, reduce heat and simmer 5-8 minutes, until just cooked through. (Don’t overcook — there should still be a touch of deep translucent pink just at the very core.) Remove from pan to a serving plate.

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Huber said during a recent trip to Southeast Asia, she fell even deeper in love with the spicy, salty, sweet flavor palate so prominent in the region’s foods.

This recipe is inspired by one of her favorite dishes from Northern Thailand, with a touch of spring.

Thai Ground Pork with Snap Peas

Makes 4 servings

¼ cup fish sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon chile paste (like Sriracha)

2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

½ onion, diced (about ½ cup)

5 cloves garlic, divided

1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed

1/3 cup chicken broth

½ cup shallot, minced

1 pound ground pork

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ cup Thai basil, roughly torn (or regular basil)

Combine fish sauce, honey and chile paste in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat a large skillet over high heat and swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Add onion and 3 cloves sliced garlic and stir ­fry 1 minute. Add sugar snap peas, tossing well. Stir ­fry 2 to 3 minutes, until the peas are seared in places but not yet tender.

Pour in broth and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook a minute or so, until liquid has almost completely evaporated. Transfer the peas to a bowl and wipe out the pan.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add shallot, 2 cloves of minced garlic, pork and red pepper flakes. Sauté for 5 minutes, breaking up the meat, until pork and shallots are browned.

Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the fish sauce mixture to the pan, scraping up anything stuck to the bottom. Add the snap peas (and any sauce left in their bowl) back to the pan and toss to mix with the pork. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes, tossing frequently. Remove from heat and mix in basil leaves.

Transfer to a serving bowl and serve over brown rice or cauliflower “rice.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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