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I had someone say recently how much they envied me being able to make up recipes. It's funny because I don't see creating a new dish as being all that hard, and thinking about it I realized that it isn't difficult. The key is to think of it like learning a new language. I've used the same analogy when telling prospective medical students that organic chemistry isn't all that hard when you realize that it's simply learning the words (atoms) and the syntax (chemical reactions) of how those words combine. Not much different than learning how to do crossword puzzles or gardening. Learn the "language," learn the skill.
Recipes are in many ways just the same.
Take a summer salad. Like stews, these make fantastic complete meals and are a great example of how you can create your own recipes by thinking about the building blocks and how to combine them.
This can be chicken, fish, beef, pork or shellfish. Generally speaking I begin with 4 ounces per serving. Think about the flavor that you would like to have when considering how to cook the meat. If you want a milder flavor, poach the meat. You can roast it for a more robust flavor and for even more intensity, pan sear or grill.
If I am using cheese for the main protein source, I will use 2 ounces per person and cut into small dice for firmer cheeses of crumble for soft cheeses like feta.
There's a wide selection here. For example, beans, corn, rice (brown or wild rice are better choices for salads), whole wheat pasta, lentils, or quinoa. Prepare these as you would for any side dish.
Here's the amount per serving:
2 ounces pasta (before cooking)
1/4 cup rice (before cooking)
1 ear corn (or about 1 cup)
1/4 cup quinoa (before cooking)
3/4 cup cooked beans or 1/4 cup before cooking
1/4 cup lentils (before cooking)
You can, of course, combine any of these – beans and rice, corn and beans, rice and corn, etc..
The best part about veggies is that they will help your recipes taste better by bringing a variety of flavors and textures but also helping reduce the caloric density of the dish. In essence, all those diced vegetables add a lot of volume to your recipe without adding as many calories.
My rule of thumb is that the amount of veggies should be at least the volume of other ingredients and maybe a little more. If there's a cup of chicken and a cup of beans, use 2 cups of veggies.
Keep in mind that veggies can mean anything from carrots to spinach. Don't restrict yourself.
This is easier than you think and just choosing flavors you know and love works best. If there is a favorite salad dressing, that's a good place to start. That could be a vinaigrette, green goddess or parmesan peppercorn.
There are other great ways to add flavor along with the dressing, however. Herbs like basil, oregano, parsley or thyme work well. I love a touch of fruit like fresh blueberries or dried cranberries. Nuts and seeds add flavor and crunch. If you toast them before hand, they'll be a lot more flavorful. (Take care, they do add a lot of calories.)
I watch the sodium pretty carefully when I am creating recipes. If you use any prepared ingredients like dressings or cheeses, check the sodium amount on the package and add be cautious about adding salt.
Nuts can help but if you are having softer meats or fish, make sure you pair that choice with a crunchy vegetable. If you make a salmon salad with spinach and mushrooms and quinoa it'll all come together like mush.
For today's recipe, Cajun Chicken and Rice Salad, I selected all of the ingredients at my local farmer's market (it's locavore week here in New Orleans). The chicken came from a Coq Au Coin in St. Francisville, where the poultry is pasture raised. The brown jasmine rice seemed the perfect combination (I love chicken and rice salads). I bought that from Cajun Grain and man is it good! Local Louisiana brown jasmine rice. What more could you ask for?
Almost all salads need onions, whether that's a small amount of minced shallot or a large amount of cooked onions, leeks or scallions. Cooked onions are a great way to add volume without many calories, so I chose some small red onions and oven roasted them to bring out the sweetness but also add that roasted flavor. Some fantastic yellow cherry tomatoes and a green bell pepper round out the salad. Because I was eating locally I thought that the salad might be best with a Cajun or Creole flavors so I used some local goat feta and milk with Creole seasoning to make the dressing.
It's really pretty easy. You might have a couple of meals that aren't perfect but it won't take long before you'll be taking your salad to a picnic and when people say "Can I have your recipe?", you can say "Sure, I made it up myself."