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September 7, 2014

Creative Cooking. ~ Eliza Groff

Bill & Vicki T/Flickr

I have a dream.

I have a dream that one day I will only have to grocery shop twice a week and still be able to make delicious healthy meals for myself and my family!

Does this dream sound as lofty and impossible as world peace? It doesn’t have to.

I suggest adopting a new strategy of cooking, without eating the same old thing day in and day out. But to start, you have to be willing to throw out the limiting parameters of conventional cooking and embrace your own creativity.

How do you get started cooking creatively?

First of all, when you go to the market, buy small amount of a wide variety of fresh ingredients, drawing mostly from the fruit and vegetable section of the grocery store.

Stock your pantry with whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, raw honey, as well as a few canned items like various types of beans, vegetable broth, coconut milk, healthy oils and spices. That way, you have a colorful palette from which to draw when creating the masterpiece that will be your dinner.

I have a rule that I only grocery shop twice a week. When I go to the grocery store, I buy whatever is in season (cheapest and freshest looking), and then I buy anything that really looks good to me. Sometimes I make a list of ingredients, but I do not go out of my way to get specific items if the grocery store or farmers’ market is out of what I want.

This is actually a nice way to practice the yoga philosophy of vairagya, or non-attachment. If the store does not have what I had intended to buy, I simply find a suitable substitute (see the list below for some suggestions).

If I need some inspiration, I pick a recipe that I’m interested in making based off of one thing that is in my refrigerator. I tend to rely heavily on Pinterest for ideas. For example, a friend of mine brought over a box full of ten goya (Okinawan bitter gourd). I needed to use them up before they went bad, so I looked up recipes on Pinterest for bitter gourd. Cha-ching!

I found a stuffed bitter gourd recipe that looked pretty. Seriously, that was my rationale. It had been four days since I had gone to the grocery store, but I try to use everything in my refrigerator before going shopping again. So, I knew I wanted to use up what is left in my fridge, and I knew that I wanted to make stuffed bitter gourd.

The bitter gourd recipe that I found online used meat and fresh spices that I did not have. So, I pulled out everything in my refrigerator and used my knowledge about food to put the filling together. This may sound intimidating, but there is no way to learn to cook like this unless you simply start to experiment on your own, making foods that are sympathetic with your pallet.

Instead of using rainbow chard, I used cilantro. Instead of using meat as a base, I used one egg white, one whole egg and one ounce of feta cheese. Instead of using green onions, I used red onion, which offers a similar flavor and gorgeous color. I also added fresh garlic, okra, corn, red pepper, walnuts and lime juice.

Really, the only thing that was the same about the recipe was the baking instructions. The entire filling was my own creation, and it turned out delicious. I even added truffle salt, fresh-cracked pepper, and made a chipotle aioli dipping sauce. In order to make the sauce, I pulled dried chipotle peppers from the pantry and blended them with mayo (substitute veganaise or plain yogurt).

If you just want to get your toes wet with creative cooking, try starting with one or more of the following substitutions:

• *Homemade almond milk or coconut milk instead of dairy milk
• Organic Greek or plain yogurt instead of sour cream, mayo, or cream cheese in baking recipes, omelets, crepe recipes, etc.
• Coconut oil instead of shortening or butter to sauté food or when baking
• Fresh Guacamole, or simply mashed avocado instead of mayo
• Add lemon or lime juice and reduce salt
• Chia seeds or ground flax seeds soaked in water instead of eggs in baking
• Raw honey (which has natural enzymes) instead of granulated sugar, agave (more highly processed than high-fructose corn syrup), powered sugar and other processed sweeteners
• Fresh tofu instead of eggs, or meat

Note: Many vegetables are interchangeable, like yellow squash for zucchini or eggplant instead of potato, or carrots instead of sweet potato, etc.

When taste testing your meal prior to serving, try to notice if the dish needs a little more sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami (meaty) flavor.

Add fresh ingredients as much as possible instead of canned ingredients.

Get comfortable with your spice cabinet and fresh herb garden. Just remember when using spice blends, check the ingredient label. A good rule is if you cannot pronounce the ingredient on the label, it is probably not something you want to eat.

Try using your favorite marinades for meat on sliced eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower, tofu and other vegetables.

As with yoga, try to practice ahimsa (patience) when you are changing your cooking style and understand that your abilities will grow as you practice. Start slow. Acknowledge your successes. Do not be intimidated by failures. Try again.

One day, you will become proficient in making healthy substitutions for almost all of the processed and unhealthy ingredients your favorite recipes, without sacrificing taste. You may even discover that you find your healthy recipe more nutritious, flavorful and satisfying while grocery shopping far less often!

If you have any questions regarding food substitutions, please feel free to contact me here.

*Almond milk (makes 5 ½ cups):
2 handfuls raw almonds (roughly ½ cup)
5 cups water
splash of vanilla or maple extract (roughly 1 tsp)
1 handful pitted dates (5 or 6 dates) or 2 tbsp raw honey
pinch of salt
*Blend in high powered blender such as Vitamix until smooth. Keeps for 3 days.

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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Bill & Vicki T/Flickr

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