Creative cooking with what we have by
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Prompted By Recipes

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I have a lot of cookbooks and recipes for not being much of a cook. Perhaps that’s because I love to read cookbooks and recipes. The only talent I seemed to have was baking. Pound cake was my favorite, and during Passover, I made my mother’s recipe, the only one that she ever wrote down, an orange-lemon flavored angel food cake with matzo meal. One time I whipped all those egg whites and put the cake in the oven, forgetting to add the matzo meal. A few minutes later I realized my mistake, took the pan out of the oven, and stirred in the matzo meal. The cake came out fine.

It didn't help that mom and grandma didn't write anything down. "You'll know when it's done ... just add a shake of that ..." was their response to my questions.

My grandmother and mother were terrific cooks, and with all the other busy aspects of my life, I never devoted the time to exploring any cooking talent I might have, although I can follow recipes reasonably. It didn’t help that mom and grandma didn’t write anything down. “You’ll know when it’s done … just add a shake of that …” was their response to my questions. My grandmother made wonderful coleslaw that no one could duplicate, and halushkas, cabbage rolls stuffed with beef and covered in tomato sauce. My mom was the casserole expert. They always turned out great. No recipes. Over the years, I did collect some recipes that I’d make now and then, along with some general cookbooks that I could refer to in a pinch.

About 10 years ago, when I was tested for food sensitivities, a lot changed. Suddenly I was on a restricted regimen with no wheat, corn, soy, or cow dairy products, and recipes didn’t work. At that time there were fewer prepared foods available, and what wheat-free bread there was tasted like a dish sponge. With the help of cookbooks and trial and error, I learned the art of substitution. I made a pumpkin pie using coconut milk and a gluten-free crust, and no one knew the difference from the real thing. There were plenty of failures as well. Rice powder simply won’t thicken a sauce in the same way as cornstarch. As for approximating pizza, don’t even try.

Now that we are cooking at home exclusively during the lockdown, I’ve been forced to be more creative out of sheer boredom. That umami-bomb mushroom salad dressing I bought, too salty for a salad, makes a great marinade for steamed fish. I’ve starting watching more cooking shows and picked up a lot of tips. You can grate broccoli or cauliflower into sauces for thickening, flavor, and texture. I’ve learned how to soak brown rice for an hour, combine it with white rice in the rice cooker, and make a “house rice” that Dick will eat, even though he insists he hates brown rice. New combinations of seasonings make entrees more interesting.

I think that the creativity will continue even after the lockdown. And, guess what, I haven’t written down any of the recipes I’ve come up with. Maybe I’ll know “just to add a shake of that.”

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Great tips Marian!
    I’m not much of a cook either, in fact in these last 2 lock-down months I’ve cooked (and cleaned) more than I have in my 50 year marriage!

    As for your allergies, it’s good that now there are aisles of gluten-free and other options on the market. And in an attempt to eat less red meat, we’ve tried Beyond Beef meatless burgers and we love them!

    Meanwhile stay safe and keep the home fires burning’!

  2. Love your story and especially your inspired approaches. And yes, boredom is a huge factor. Most know that boredom tends to make some people eat more but I agree with you that boredom really is just a gateway to cooking inspiration. So long as one is willing to eat one’s mistakes. Never a problem for me.

    • Marian says:

      Eating one’s mistakes is often easier than eating one’s words, Tom. I’m one of the fortunate ones in this pandemic in that I’ve lost weight–less “bad” food eating out, and more physical activity. I didn’t realize housework could burn that many calories!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    It always amazes me that people can be such wonderful cooks as you describe your mother and grandmother, just knowing how to add a pinch of this or that. My mother didn’t have that talent and neither do I.

    I remember you’ve written about all your allergies before, which certainly complicates your cooking and what you can eat, but you seem to have learned to adapt quite well. I am very impressed with your ability to substitute all sorts of things and still come up with tasty-sounding recipes.

  4. Mare, I admire your growing ability to cook by instinct. As much as I cook (and I cook a lot), I still follow recipes, mostly because I worry that I’ll forget some key ingredient. Like I once forgot to put the sugar in one layer of my cheesecake. After only having made a few hundred of them.

    Only in the last year or so, and especially lately, have I begun to feel confident making substitutions, and that’s become something of a challenge/game. Like when I was making a lime dressing the other night and all I had was lemon so it became a lemon dressing and a good one at that.

    I love your idea for “house rice”…think I’ll try it!

    Not sure if you like or can tolerate spicy, but I’ve been adding red pepper flakes (a little or a lot) to just about everything from egg dishes to tuna salad to pasta. Not yet on cheesecake. Hmmm.

    • Marian says:

      I’m learning, Barb, and my instincts are getting better. Red pepper flakes sound delicious. Your cheesecake seems so yummy that I almost miss cow dairy. I think I’ve seen a recipe for one with goat cheese, but that just doesn’t seem right. I’ll pass on that one!

  5. Suzy says:

    That angel food cake with matzo meal sounds delicious. Maybe you can give me the recipe next Passover, if it’s not too complicated. I especially like that when you forgot the matzo meal and added it after the pan had been in the oven a few minutes, it still turned out fine.

    I have a lot of cookbooks that are similar to your Food Allergy Cookbook, because for many years we thought Molly had Crohn’s Disease, and we were cooking special dishes that would not irritate her GI tract. It turned out to be a lactose intolerance, and now she is fine if she avoids dairy, so the books are sitting on the shelf gathering dust. As you may have discovered, there are a lot of great frozen desserts made with coconut milk that are just as delicious as the best ice creams!

    • Marian says:

      Suzy, I think my mother still has the cake recipe, which also might be on a box of potato starch. Interesting about Molly’s symptoms, and I’m glad she found the cause. In my freezer is a pint of Luna and Larry’s “Coconut Bliss” coconut milk ice cream, IMHO the best. I have a small amount for special occasions, so it lasts a while. Molly may want to try it.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I love the notion of passed down recipes with no real directions. My grandmother also made those cabbage rolls, which I loved, but alas that recipe is gone. It’s a challenge to adapt recipes to accommodate food allergies. Bravo to you for your creativity, and write the good ones down!

  7. Risa Nye says:

    My mother wrote her recipes on index cards. One of the directions was “use half a glass of oil.” When I asked her about it, she said, “You know, that glass I use!” Sigh. I enjoyed reading this and can well appreciate how hard it can be to find things to eat when you have some kind of issue. Three years after my jaw surgery, I still prefer to eat like a toddler!

    • Marian says:

      Thank you Risa, that must be a challenge with jaw surgery. Love your mom’s glass, perfect for this topic. My grandmother used to say, if I asked how many teaspoons or tablespoons of something, “Just a shake!”

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