How to Cook More Creatively

Most of us think of creativity as being expansive, hard to grasp and somewhere just outside our everyday world. Our efforts to produce it--to define it and replicate those conditions--would thwart its very nature, causing original ideas to escape us. Perhaps this is partially true: most good things cannot be forced, but they can be encouraged and more likely brought to fruition by dismantling misconceptions.  It also hard to tame, and definitely not something that happens in a box. New research is suggesting that our notions are not only outdated, but wildly wrong. Studies suggest that people need to limit their creativity , people are always saying that you need to limit your options in order to be more creative (Geography of Genius, study). In a study by........ It can be ecouraged.  We like creativity (adn things taht we revere) to remain obscure, fearful that our own acknowledgement of their approachability will cause the pedistle in which we have built for them to crumble. So let's do ourselves a service, see things as they are and still respect genius. 

Does this mean that creativity is mellow, straight forward, and easy to achieve? Not really, there are many unknowns and there is an aspect that still adheres to todays conception of it: many people thrive in chaotic environments (Geography of Genius), allowing random and unusual stimuli to collide in our brains and trigger new ideas.

How do these facts relate to cooking? 

Recently, I experienced limitations firsthand. My husband and I just relocated back to Boston and while we were waiting for our apartment we were living in temporary housing. Long story short, since it did not make sense to stock up on food I bought only a few items: coconut cream, eggs, bread, kale, canned chickpeas, kidney beans, carrots, tomatoes, parsley, lemon, pickles, onions, and salt. I also had some left over items that I had brought with me: pepperoni, peanuts, sun dried tomatoes, rice, marinated artichokes, herb infused olive oil.  Of course to some people this amount of food would sound enormous, while to others (myself included) would have a lot more in their fridge and panty at any given time. 

Below are few recipes that I "winged". There are links to the ones that are foolproof and absolutely delicious. 
- Pepperoni Strata with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Artichokes
- Chickpea Salad with Lemon Parsley Sauce
- Kidney Bean and Kale Salad
- Kale with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Roasted Peanuts
- Creamy Lemon Coconut Beverage

My experience showed a few things. First it showed the obvious: that you can make a lot of variety from very "little". It also, by chance, happened to demonstrated the basics to ethnic cooking. The first four dishes all contain lemon, parsley and olive oil -- commonly used flavor enhancers for Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines. So, you can legitimately use the same flavors with different main ingredients and it tastes like an entirely different dish because, well, it is! In fact, you can add lemon, parsley and olive oil to plainly cooked fish, chicken, eggs, vegetable and even fruit dishes and they will taste unique and delicious.  If you are an advanced cooker this will not come as a surprise.

Every cuisine has its commonly used flavors that help make the food unique and, yes, more well-defined. Sound familiar? These flavors narrow the creative space, which of course at some point in history was restricted by forces outside of most people's control: geography, trade, technology, etc. Let's look at just a couple more examples. In Chinese cooking, some of the flavors that you see again and again are: garlic, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, scallions, five spice, and star anise. In Thailand you see coconut milk, fish sauce, chilis, kefir lime leaves, lemon grass, galangal. These common flavors will show up in combinations again and again with differing main ingredients. Now, it is worth noting a couple of things here. Different cuisines share similarities even between China, Thai and American food. All use lemon and chilis (in certain regions). They also all use acids (vinegars) and oils, although American food traditionally used butter primarily instead of plant-based fats. So, ingredients define a cuisine by how they are used together and by narrowing the creative space in which they operate. Of course these creative spaces are much broader than what your fridge can hold, which is why it is useful to use just a few flavors. 

My cooking adventure also demonstrated that food can be simple and does not require many ingredients in order to be satisfying. I often add several herbs and spices to one dish, because it is fun and also very good, but it is never a necessity for good cooking. In addition, those of us who tend to use dairy and meat or boulloin as major flavoring agents, need not do so! Stepping outside of this comfort zone, or crutch, will make you a better and more versatile cook. Who knew that Strata could be reminiscent of pizza?

When Chef Alex Raij was interviewed on Splendid Table to discuss the traditional and very structured Basque cuisine of France, Lynne Rossetto Kasper asked her, "It’s so different from American food, where the sky is the limit. Basque food seems very codified to me. It’s loyal to the season, but also to all these traditions. How does your creativity operate in that structure? Do you find that you like to work inside those limits or do you just not follow them at all?" Raij replied with this: "Even though it’s narrow, I don’t find it limiting at all. In fact, I find it more freeing."

I know that I barely scratched the surface in regard to the number of dishes that could be made from the ingredients listed above, so to stretch our imaginations, let's do another test. Next time your fridge is looking sparse, do not go to the store. Try the Splendid Table method and make things that are simple, unusual, or even sound gross. Kick it up a notch and make as much as you can from a list of 15 ingredients.  Yes, I will do it too and post the results. 


In the very least, I think trying this approach can change your approach to cooking. 

Science says you should limit your options (pic)