Inspiration in the Kitchen

One of the questions that I’m almost always asked, since starting culinary school, is what types of meals I make at home.  Am I suddenly busting out three-course meals for dinner?

In fact, Connor is asked by his med school friends, on an almost daily basis, whether I make him gourmet lunchbox meals every night (HA!).  Or they just casually remark on the fact that we must eat “so well” due to my new education.  While I do think we eat well—I still find all these comments highly amusing.  Mostly, because they are incredibly far from the truth.

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I still struggle to come up with new (realistic) ideas for weeknight dinners, enjoy eating a Trader Joe’s Tikka Masala frozen meal every now and then, and crave Chipotle burrito bowls far more than I would like to admit.  I believe most of us all have a built-up mental rolodex of ideas, whether inspired by blogs, restaurants, food magazines, or cookbooks,  but real life tends to get in the way.  We look in the fridge to realize we have nothing to work with, don’t feel like going grocery shopping for the 5th time in a week, or just don’t have the energy or time.

During these instances, I almost always turn to flavor profiles for inspiration.  As a result of cooking very classic French, European dishes every day, I tend to crave the exact opposite every night:  Mexican, Italian, Asian, or Indian.  Helpful, no?

However, despite how remarkably different these types of cuisines are to what I’m making on a daily basis, you would be surprised that despite their massive differences, every successful dish or pairing boils down to the the same, basic principle: Balance.

Salt. Bitter. Sour/Acid. Sweet 

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If anyone asked me what was the biggest lesson I have learned since starting culinary school, it would be this.  Balancing flavors and seasoning food properly. 

This can literally mean the difference between a dish that is just “ok” and one that is great.  Such a simple concept in theory, but probably one the most difficult to execute. 

Obviously, this is something I’m still learning how to do properly (and most likely will be, for the rest of my life!), but something that has also been a source of inspiration on those nights when I struggle to figure out what what the heck to make for dinner.

For example, this random Asian-rice bowl dinner idea I came up with the other day…

Grilled Tofu (simply marinated with some soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, spring onions) on top of sushi rice with stir-fried carrots, red peppers, red cabbage, & red onion, topped with sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, lots of fresh cilantro, raw spring onions, and toasted, crushed peanuts.

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Last, but not least, a squeeze of lime juice—which really took it from being “good” to “really good”.

I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious this meal ended up being (especially given how randomly I threw it all together), but in the end, it really came down to the balance of flavors.

Salt = soy sauce

Sweetness = Sauteed red onions, bell peppers, carrots, & peanuts

Bitter = the caramelized onions, grilled tofu

Sour/Acid = lime juice

Spicy/Heat:  Red Pepper Flakes, cilantro, fresh ginger

Texture: Crunchy Peanuts

If I had left any of the above out of the final dish, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying.

Therefore, my biggest advice is, the next time you find yourself in the kitchen struggling to figure out your next meal (or even just thinking about how to improve any dish you’ve made in the past), start with these basics.  It is still something I have to remind myself to do on a regular basis!

I can’t tell you how much it can help simplify the cooking process!  It also has the added bonus of making you that much more creative in the kitchen.  If you’re looking for even more inspiration, I highly recommend checking out the book, The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg.  It is one of my favorite, go-to books!

Happy Cooking!