The creative process… for me

Cooking is an interesting activity to me.  It sits at an interesting crossroads, it is neither science nor art, but in many ways is both.  This is a dynamic I find very interesting.  At it’s core, cooking is the manipulation of material using various methods to prepare it for consumption.  Of course that is a bit simplistic.  On the other hand, you have people like Ferran Adria at El Bulli who creates dishes that are so imaginative it takes half a year being of being closed to develop a menu for the next years season.  The truth is that most of us are closer to the manipulation of materials than Ferran Adria.  His dishes are also more scientific, and more creative at the same time.  Unfortunately for us, the techniques used at El Bulli are so far outside of the normal realm of cooking that they are almost irrelevant on a day to day basis.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t also be creative in the kitchen.  We just have to set our sites a little lower!

So, how would I approach this?  There are a couple of ways.  First, if you are one of the people who says they need a recipe in order to cook something.  Use a recipe.  The first time you make it, follow it, exactly, 100%, to the letter.  I don’t care what it is.  Hopefully, it is a dish that you are at least somewhat familiar with.  If you’re reading this, and you cook there is a pretty good chance you have been eating food for at least almost your entire life.  That means that even if you have never made that particular recipe before you have at least eaten something with some of the same ingredients.  What does that mean for you?  It means that even though you think you NEED a recipe to cook, you have the tools you need to start to stray from the printed recipe, and make something that is unique to you.  Each person has their own tastes, and preferences.  So, start with something simple.  Maybe you’re making a cream of spinach soup.  Try a small amount of nutmeg.  You will be surprised what it will do.  It’s probably not in your recipe, but you have nutmeg. Add a little.  Next time you make it, what about a little bit of dill?  Or perhaps a splash of Pernod?  There are a huge variety of things that can go into a dish.  You don’t have to stick strictly to a recipe.  They can be a handy guide, but think of making your soup like a road trip.  You have the recipe like a map, but you can adjust things as you come across something interesting.  Do you really want to miss the 27 foot tall garden gnome, just because you are trying to get to the Grand Canyon?  This is one way I approach creativity in cooking.

The other way I deal with creativity is a bit more daring.  Sometimes, I simply allow my mind to wander.  I could be inspired by a trip to the grocery store, the walk-in at work, a menu at a sandwich shop, whatever.  I simply allow myself to explore the taste of an ingredient, in my mind.  The process is simple, but you have to trust yourself, and be willing to taste things, and make a mistake from time to time.  You might use massaman curry paste in a pumpkin soup, because the cardamom, galangal, cinnamon, and mace would work well with the pumpkin, and the spicy elements of the curry paste would counterbalance the sweetness of the pumpkin.

When you can trust your palate to guide you there are a lot of options open to you.  Sometimes I will buy something interesting at the store when it seems like something I could do something with, even though I don’t have a real idea what it is for.  Other times, I have an idea, but am not sure how it will play out.  I made a chevre spread with dates and cardamom.  I opened the bag of dates, and the cardamom next to each other, it smelled good so I put them together.  It was a hit!  The key is just to try things, because you just never know what will work together, and make your next signature dish!

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