If you’re like us, you often find yourself in a recipe rut. Cooking grows to be more of a chore when you fall into robot mode, blindly following recipe instructions. It’s times like these when you need to take a renewed look at your kitchen, viewing it more as an art studio than a food-prep workspace. When you do, your daily meals become palettes on which to create and express yourself. Your ingredients turn into trusty implements, helping you to explore new textures, colors, scents and flavors. Cooking can be as creative as your imagination allows.
For inspiration and practical tips on blending the artful and practical sides of food preparation, we turn to our friend, Brett Olson, creative director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit that champions positive stories of rural revitalization and local food.
Olson is adept at merging the worlds of art and edibles, and he practices it in his home kitchen everyday. He treated Lisa to some of his chili when she stopped by for a visit recently, and she asked him his top tips for channeling culinary inspiration.
1. Study the Masters
“When I was in art school, a common practice was to study paintings by master artists and model their technique,” Olson says. “This isn’t copying, but rather experiencing different perspectives to better understand and identify your own voice.”
The same principle holds true in cooking: Take any opportunity to observe and learn from others. This could be watching a chef on a cooking TV show or hanging out in the kitchens of well-seasoned home cooks, like Olson. Take the insights you gather during those experiences, and try them out in your own home.
2. Substitute Ingredients
“Trading in a few ingredients on a recipe for some of your own can be an easy way to warm up to cooking out of the box and off the recipe card,” Olson says. Try substituting a different herb in the same general family, like trading basil for tarragon. Or add in more of one of your favorite ingredients, such as a full teaspoon paprika instead of a half teaspoon.
And if your attempt fails, don’t loose heart. “Plenty of paintings end up being scraped off the canvas and into the trash,” Olson says. “If your culinary chili experiment goes ‘bad,’ scrape it off and chalk it up to experience!”
3. Taste and Tweak
As you cook, sample and adapt along the way.
“Unless you’re into paint-by-numbers, any artist will always be playing around with adding and subtracting color until it’s just right from his or her eyes,” Olson says. “Sometimes you might add too much of something, but you can balance that with throwing in something else. Same concept with cooking. The end result is you’ll identify your secret ingredient that makes your culinary creation uniquely your own, memorable and tasty.”
Play with Chili
While, of course, Olson’s chili doesn’t have an exact recipe, Lisa did cajole him to break down the preparation into five steps. If you need a general guide to follow as you wean yourself off of recipes, his instructions are good to follow.
- In a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat, brown your meat in a few tablespoons oil. Your meat of choice can be ground beef, bison, venison or turkey—there’s no wrong answer.
- Sprinkle in your seasonings. Add a couple tablespoons of chili seasoning, or fake it with your own mixture of cumin seeds, dried chili, garlic powder, salt and oregano. Stir until fragrant. Add a large diced onion with a few cloves minced garlic. If the meat is dry, add in a bit more olive oil, rendered bacon fat, canola oil or butter.
- Add in a couple handfuls of cooked beans, such as black, kidney, garbanzo or great northern, along with a few cans of stewed tomatoes. Play around, adding anything else you desire that would add flavor and texture: celery, carrots, bell peppers, butternut squash or frozen corn.
- Cook until ingredients are tender and the chili thickens. If it gets too thick, add some stock, beer or water, and cook some more. Continually taste as the chili stews and experiment with different seasonings until it tastes just how you want it.
- When serving, garnish the chili with chopped green onions, shredded cheese and a dollop of Greek yogurt for added tang and protein. Try eating the chili by scooping it with hearty chips instead of a spoon, and serve it with a beer on the side.