Jess posted over at Not A Diet yesterday about learning to cook without a recipe.
I agree with several of the commenters there, it's about practice and trial and error- after a while, you start to develop a sense of what would go with what. It also helps to keep certain items on hand. I feel Jess's pain about going to the grocery store too often, but there are a lot of fresh ingredients that last a long time, impart a lot of flavor, and are key to having around for last-minute meals.
Here's my list of things I try to keep in the house, aside from the usual salt, pepper, olive oil, etc:
-light coconut milk
-chicken broth and veggie broth (I actually get this in those cartons and I know, making your own is better, but let's be realistic, shall we?)
-barilla plus pasta (for emergencies)
Perishables (that last a long time):
-lemons and limes (seriously, with a lemon, you can make pretty much anything better)
-ginger (I cheat and get the pre-grated stuff in a jar.)
-thai red curry paste
-block of parmesan cheese
-salsa verde from a jar
-frozen mixed veggies
-block of feta cheese
From these ingredients, all of which are pretty cheap and last a long time, you can make all kinds of stuff. Some of my go-to meals include:
*Scrambled eggs with salsa verde, black beans, and feta
*Mixed veggie red curry with roasted sweet potatoes and brown rice
*Black beans simmered with canned tomatoes and salsa verde, served with brown rice or quinoa
*Pasta with quick homemade tomato sauce
*Mujadara (lentil and onion stew- so yummy, and so so cheap)
But my favorite, and the one I want to share with you today, was a happy accident. I call it "um, we have nothing to eat" chickpea salad:
can of chick peas
optional ingredients (if you have them, toss them in)
1. Whisk together the juice of one lemon, about 1Tbsp of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and one clove minced garlic. If you're feeling really adventurous, toss some lemon zest in there, too. Taste for seasoning and tartness, and adjust with additional oil and/or salt if necessary. Toss dressing with a can of drained chickpeas.
2. Add any additional veggies, if using (spinach and red bell peppers are particularly tasty- you'll probably want to sautee the red peppers before mixing them in to soften them a little.) If you want, pop this mixture in a frying pan and heat through.
3. Prepare some quinoa according to the package instructions.
4. Scoop some quinoa into a bowl, top with some of the chickpea mixture, and sprinkle with crumbled feta and chopped kalamata olives. If you want, grate some parmesan cheese on top. Pat yourself on the back for being so thrifty and gourmet.