A nice mama took me up on my offer from the post about Jamie Oliver, and came over Thursday for a cooking lesson. While I'd quizzed her on likes and dislikes before she came (no mushrooms, she said, and her husband wasn't an onion fan), we hadn't really talked about what she wanted to learn. "I feel overwhelmed," she said, with a 14-month-old in the kitchen and a tight budget. "How do people just always have what they need on hand?"
We quickly realized that she didn't need help figuring out how to dice and peel and saute: she needed to be released from the stress of a recipe. She's one of those people (on the other end of the spectrum of home cooks than I) who must absolutely put two teaspoons of thyme into a recipe if it calls for two teaspoons of thyme, and if she can't find thyme or if it's very expensive or if she gets home and realizes she has, after all, no balsamic vinegar (just cider), or whatever: she panics.
What she needed, I said, was to cook without a recipe at all. Just a process. That would save her from the planning, list-making, recipe-checking, budget-busting stress. She could just buy whatever she saw that was in season and inexpensive (or whatever was growing in her garden, arrived in her CSA box, or her mom had given her), and use the process to make it fit.
We made one thing: a cabbage black bean chili, in which I used the beans from the recipe I included in the first post, and I stressed throughout our time that weren't going to talk about quantities or requirements, just procedures, categories and maximums, and ways she could fit this process into her own family's life. One piece of advice I gave her was, I thought, universally useful, and that is to figure out what are your favorite and most versatile spices, and become comfortable enough with them so you'll always know how much to use. Mine are cumin, smoked paprika, dried chiles, cloves, nutmeg and allspice; other good standbys could include ginger, dry mustard, star anise, thyme, dill, cinnamon and cayenne or chipotle pepper. You could only have two or three (cumin and thyme and some sort of pepper, for instance) and still manage to make good food no matter what, I think. Buy the spices in bulk (Limbo has a fantastic fresh spice and herb aisle; many other neighborhoods sport their own super spice sources) and you'll save money and ensure freshness.
Below is the process for bean soup I used. This is an endlessly great way to make soups, and could be vegetarian, vegan, or thoroughly meaty-creamy, depending on which options you picked. The one we made was delicious! And though I'll probably never make it exactly like that again, I'm sure we'll make many more great soups in our day that will best even that.