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Freestyling it in the kitchen

For this salad, start with fresh greens that have been rinsed and dried in a salad spinner. Then, just gather some fruits, vegetables and nuts you have on hand and toss up a salad. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Gather some of your favorite fruits, vegetables and nuts to add to greens for a colorful salad. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

If you come home after a long day of work, toss a frozen Lean Cuisine dinner into the oven and hit the television remote control to tune into the food channel, you're not alone.

Just when I was feeling confident that people were getting back into the kitchen to cook, often using recipes and tips from their favorite television chef, I attended a session at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference called "The Death of Recipes?" and learned otherwise.

Recipes are everywhere, yet many people still don't know how to cook, or just aren't bothering to do it. Research shows Americans eat less than 50 percent of their meals at home. Of those who are eating at home, few prepare dinner from a recipe. Time constraints make many people think they need to prepare a meal in minutes, using frozen pre-made or packaged processed foods. Some people who do cook at home are a bit like technicians, tied to recipes and uncomfortable with improvising or creating something original. But a number of recent books are advocating a freer style of cooking - essentially without recipes.

Without recipes? When I think of my metamorphosis as a cook, I would never be where I am today if I hadn't practiced basic kitchen skills, learned about how ingredients work together, become familiar with flavors that complement one another and just gain confidence as I pored over recipe cards and cookbooks. I learned the basics, practiced the essentials, and gradually each success in the kitchen was a building block that prompted me to take the next step. I cooked with my mom, my grandma and my 4-H leader. Later, I took cooking classes and cooked with friends. All the while, using recipes.

I was on a call the other day with Anne Willan, cookbook author and founder of the LaVarenne Cooking School in France. Anne says, "Until you know the scales, you can't perform the music. Cooking is about creativity, but it's important to acquire discipline first." The formulas of cooking are just as important as the scales of music.

The alternative to cooking without a recipe? A free style of cooking with inspiration from ingredients you have on hand. Open the pantry and refrigerator, see what you have, and decide what to create. Hmmm, not that easy to do if you're not an experienced cook.

I opened my refrigerator and got inspired to make a salad with some mango dressing. That's an easy way to start down the path of "inspired cooking."

First, the dressing. I pulled out the olive oil and white wine vinegar. For years, food experts recommended using 1 part acid (vinegar) to 3 to 4 parts of oil. I don't use that formula. The dressing seems way too oily for me, and with a robust olive oil, it can be a bit overpowering. I start with 2 parts oil to 1 part acid. Then, I add something salty, something sweet, something savory and sometimes, a bit of spicy. You can make it exactly to your liking and when you know the formula, you won't need a recipe.

For the salad, start with fresh greens that have been rinsed and dried in a salad spinner. Then, just gather fruits, vegetables and nuts you have on hand and toss up a salad.

In less than 5 minutes, you can create a delicious dressing when you know the basic formula. I always make enough so that I can have some in the refrigerator to use on future salads or as a marinade for meat before grilling. My "inspired" mango salad dressing is a wonderful marinade for chicken and pork.

Get the whole family into the kitchen to cook. Use a recipe or get inspired by ingredients you have in your kitchen and develop your own favorite concoction. Take notes to refer back to when you want to recreate something similar.

The death of recipes? Oh, my. We might all be eating frozen dinners. But with essential knowledge and fundamental skills of cooking in our back pocket, we can become creative, experimental and flexible cooks.

Sue's Freestyle Fresh Salad with Mango Dressing

White wine vinegar (sour)

Roasted garlic (savory)

Dijon mustard (spicy)

Honey (sweet)

Extra virgin olive oil


Black pepper

Fresh thyme (savory)

Mango (a little sweet, a little sour)

Baby spinach leaves

Sweet red bell pepper

Red onion


Green onion


Roasted and salted cashews

Prepare salad dressing by beginning with the basic ratio of 2:1, 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. In this recipe for instance, I started with 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar. (OK, I'm cheating. No more measurements.) Pour vinegar into a blender. Add garlic, mustard, and peeled and chopped mango. Puree the mixture until smooth. Add honey and fresh thyme and blend. Remove small insert from top of blender and with blender running, pour olive oil in a steady stream through the opening. The mixture will become thick and creamy. Use a spoon to taste the dressing. Add some salt and pepper. Taste again. Make up your mind that the salad dressing is perfect before you pour it into a jar and refrigerate.

In a large salad bowl, toss together rinsed and spun-dried spinach, bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno, green onion. Salad can be plated at this time. Arrange avocado over the salad. Sprinkle with cashews. Have dressing in a pitcher on the table for diners to help themselves. Alternatively, drizzle the ingredients in the salad bowl with dressing and toss to coat. Arrange avocado and cashews over the top of the salad. Diners can help themselves. Offer extra dressing at the table.

Tips from the cook

--Salt: Salt is salt, but there are other salty ingredients that can be used, such as soy sauce and fish sauce.

--Sour (acid): You can use any vinegar, from tangy cider and wine vinegars to mellow balsamic. Use any citrus juice: orange, lemon, lime. Sweet and tart mangoes would fall into this category.

--Sweet: sugar, brown sugar, pomegranate molasses, maple syrup, coconut milk, hoisin sauce, or what I like best, local honey.

--Savory: garlic in any form (crushed, roasted, even powdered), tomato paste or ketchup; Worcestershire sauce, or fresh herbs.

--Spicy: mustard, chile paste, generous dose of black pepper, jalapeno or Serrano peppers, in just the right amount to make your taste buds take notice.

--Oil: extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil - one that is healthful.