No Recipe? No Problem!

How to Pull Together Tasty Meals without a Recipe


By Phyllis Good

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Cook anything without a recipe—just let the ingredients lead the way! Author Phyllis Good of Fix-It and Forget-It fame and her circle of friends who love to cook are here to help. No Recipe? No Problem! offers tips, tricks, and inspiration for winging it in the kitchen. Each chapter offers practical kitchen and cooking advice, from an overview of essential tools and pantry items to keep on hand to how to combine flavors and find good substitute ingredients, whether it’s sheet pan chicken, vegetables, pasta, grain bowls, or pizza for tonight’s dinner. Freestyle Cooking charts provide a scaffolding for building a finished dish from what cooks have available; Kitchen Cheat Sheets lend guidance on preparing meats, vegetables, and grains with correct cooking times and temperatures; and stories from Good’s Cooking Circle offer personal experiences and techniques for successfully improvising for delicious results, such as how to combine flavors that work well together or how to use acid to draw out the sweetness in unripened fruit. Like being in the kitchen with a trusted friend or family member who delivers valuable information in a friendly, encouraging way, this book will inspire readers to pull ingredients together, dream up a dish, stir in a little imagination, and make something delicious take shape.

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For Merle,

who shares my life and (thankfully) my love of food


Introduction to Freestyle Cooking

1 / Vegetables

2 / Pastas and Grains

3 / Big Proteins

4 / Sauces

5 / Bowls

6 / Salads

7 / Soups

8 / Sheet-Pan Meals

9 / Pizzas

10 / Eggs

11 / Toast Toppers and Their Cousins


Essential Techniques Listing by Chapter

Recipes Listing by Chapter

Kitchen Cheat Sheets

More Ways to Expand Your Cooking Skills with Books from Storey

Share Your Experience!

IntroductIon to Freestyle Cooking

Welcome to Freestyle Cooking, where ingredients lead the way and you get to improvise — just like a jazz musician. Where you get to experiment with whatever technique you choose. Where you serve up dishes that come together in surprising harmony.

Great jazz musicians start with a theme. They try it out. They add a few riffs. Something new floats up, and they weave it in. Or they let it call them in another direction. And so they go on, experimenting, trying things. It's a let's-see-what-happens approach—open, full of surprise, yet drawing on what the musician already knows.

With this style of cooking, you bring the theme — the ingredients. They help suggest what happens next. You think about what each ingredient has to offer. You take your time. You find your way.

How do you decide what to do next? When I think about what to cook for dinner, three questions usually show up:

  1. 1. What am I hungry for?
  2. 2. What do I have on hand?
  3. 3. How much time do I have?

With a quick check of my fridge, pantry, countertop, and freezer, I become pretty clear about the answers to the first two questions. Then I figure out what form and cooking method will work best with what I found and the time I have. A soup, a bowl, a pizza, a sheet-pan dinner? A salad? A toast topper? Now I'm ready to start cooking — freestyle jazz cooking!

About This Book

I offer three assists throughout this book, in case questions come up or you'd like a little company while you cook:

Freestyle cooking ideas appear in many of the chapters. Think of them as kick starts, or possible ways to begin and then go on to create a dish. I imagine the Freestyle cooking ideas as scaffolding — ways to get your bearings as you get going and then ultimately set a finished dish on the table.

Essential Techniques are where you'll find helpful, hard-core information — for example, the best ways to cook an egg, the best oven temperatures for roasting vegetables and big proteins, and the ratios of liquids to dry ingredients for cooking grains.

Following the Freestyle cooking ideas and Essential Techniques, you will find specific ideas to stoke your imagination. These are combinations of ingredients you might want to experiment with using together, ways to prepare food you may not have tried before, and ideas for respecting food by the way you handle and prepare it. Think of these as suggestions, with some hints for success. They simply offer you a place to begin!

The Cooking Circle is a group of 14 experienced improvisational cooks from across the country who became a virtual cooking community when I invited them to share some of their cooking ideas and stories with me for this book.

These people are a community of riches — each one cooking in his or her own way — who will give you encouragement all along the way, plus new ideas you haven't yet thought of. Their many tips, hints, and stories come from their vast and varied cooking experiences. You'll see Tips from the Cooking Circle and their names throughout these pages. The rest of the material? It comes from me!

Beth, from Pennsylvania, is a high school teacher.

Christina, from Pennsylvania, is a democracy advocate.

Chuck, from Kansas, is an urban farmer and museum exhibit designer.

Daryl, from Pennsylvania, is a natural-disaster crisis manager.

Eugene, from Florida, is a retired fashion designer.

Evonne, from Virginia, is a retired nurse and now a gardener, cook, and baker.

Gini, from Ontario, is a culinary school instructor.

Jay, from Pennsylvania, is a geologist, retired from NASA and teaching.

Lee and Kyle, from Virginia, are father and son. Lee is a high school science teacher. Kyle is an avid reader, hiker, and gamer.

Lindsey, from Virginia, is an elementary school teacher.

Lorre, from Florida, is a real estate agent.

Margaret, from Pennsylvania, is an urban gardener and book editor.

Zahra, from Ontario, is a specialist in multicultural cuisine.

A Map for Learning How to Freestyle Cook

Gini lays out some groundwork for winging it in the kitchen:

  1. 1. Take a favorite recipe and make it faithfully one night, following each step and ingredient to the letter.
  2. 2. The next week, make that same dish using the recipe only as a reference. When you've done this, write a stripped-down version of the method you followed.
  3. 3. The following week, try to make the recipe without using your reference, and also substitute a few ingredients. (Encourage the people you may be cooking for to be open to the process of improvisation!)
  4. 4. The next time you make the dish, improvise further, adding, subtracting, or substituting ingredients in whatever way inspires you. Make notes about what you did. Keep track of the changes that you liked.

You can also ask a friend or two to tell you how they prepare a dish and write down their directions. You won't have a precise recipe, but you may get instructions like "Add flour until it feels right," and you'll have to feel your way through. That process will embed in your memory in a different — and a good — way, letting ingredients lead rather than following a prescriptive recipe.

You have to be passionate, or at the very least interested, in food to improvise. — Gini

Start with these delicious ingredients (top left) in various amounts and combinations. Turn them into loaded tacos, a pizza, or a bowl.

Cooking Circle Basics Good Things to Know

1. Don't cook to impress.

Eugene says: About 20 years ago, I began to appreciate the way my mom used to cook. Her food wasn't fancy, but she always started with very good ingredients.

As I became less of a food snob, I became more improvisational. My ideas about entertaining changed from "How can I impress everyone?" to "How can we have a good dinner with enjoyable conversation and great food?" Where I once made beef Wellington complete with foie gras, I now make homemade pasta and have a kitchen full of friends helping to roll out and stuff different kinds of ravioli.

2. Keep it simple and be flexible.

Zahra says: Recently, we were expecting my in-laws for a visit the next day. I thought they were coming late in the afternoon and that we were going to a restaurant for dinner to celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday. Somehow I was mixed up about the times, only to find out that they were arriving in one hour for a lunch at our house — that I had not planned to prepare!

It was a special occasion, so the meal couldn't seem thoughtless. I was in a panic! No time to run to the grocery store. I did a quick scan of the fridge and pantry. I had leftover chicken breast on the bone, some leftover cooked basmati rice, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, chiles, and coconut cream. I decided to make what comes easily to me and always tastes good: curry. What's my point? Keep it simple!

I had almost everything I needed for a Thai yellow curry, except one vital ingredient — lemongrass. I thought it would never be missed if I added extra ginger and turmeric. I needed to be flexible or this dish wasn't going to happen.

I shredded the chicken, popped the onions in the food processor, and started sautéing things like a madwoman. Just as my in-laws arrived, I managed to have the curry bubbling away on the stove as though that had been my plan all along. My mother-in-law loved the meal!

I learned that when I'm in a bind, I'll have a good chance of landing well if I make what I know and am flexible about the ingredients. Curry may seem fancy, but it's what I grew up eating. It's what I know. I've found that making what I know gives me room to experiment because I understand the components of the dish so well that I can be flexible with the ingredients. Beyond being flexible, I can be creative.

So being flexible opens the door to creativity. And special does not always mean fancy!

3. Be organized.

Gini says: If you have a really small kitchen, you can still cook well. Organization is the currency of good cooking, not space!

4. Hold your cooking plans lightly.

Chuck says: We wanted a salad to go with the split pea soup we were reheating on the stove. There on the counter was a bunch of avocados, a few already soft. I had them on the cutting board, a lime sliced and ready to be squeezed over the avocado to keep it from browning while I figured out the rest of the salad. But as I was about to cut open the avocado, I remembered that we had just picked several bushels of late-fall, half-wormy-but-supertasty apples off a neglected tree nearby. As we were picking, I'd mentioned Waldorf salad. In the fridge was also celery that needed to be used up, and we had plenty of walnuts in the freezer.

The avocados went into the fridge, and with a bit of quick chopping and a touch of yogurt and mayo, we had a lovely late-fall salad.

I'm trying to become more aware, too, of when to cook and when to take it easy. The dish I have my heart set on may require more time and effort than is wise to give under the circumstances. As much as I love to cook and eat good food, sometimes a relaxed evening with bread and cheese is better than a big production, lots of messy dishes, and going to bed late.

Freestyle cooking is essentially respecting good ingredients and the people who helped to grow them. It's catching the spirit of the ingredients and what they will do when combined, instead of slavishly following a recipe.

My mom respected the farmer who raised the chickens she butchered. She gently cut up the chicken and simmered it in well water. She made homemade noodles by working in just enough eggs. She made the best chicken pot pie!

Freestyle cooking allows the cook a certain integrity, which matches the way we want to live in our communities.—Eugene

5. Prep in your head.

I need some space to think when I'm cooking our evening meal, so I often create a "first course" — and I'm not talking fancy. That first course is a good-sized platter of cut-up fresh vegetables or fruit slices that I set out for the gathering crowd in the kitchen who are all moaning from hunger. I prep the celery sticks and hummus, or apple slices and yogurt, in the morning while working on breakfast or packing lunches. I offer small plates for this first course to make sure people don't get full before the main meal is ready.

Zahra says: I do an inventory of the food I have on hand on my way home from work. My goal is to make a meal plan before I get to the door.

The first question I ask myself is, What do I have that's already cooked and ready to work with? Then I think about food groups, so we have a balanced meal. What protein, vegetables, and starches do I have already prepared — or not yet prepared — that I could build on?

What's in my fridge that ought to be used up? Does it need to be cleaned, chopped, grated, steamed, blanched, or cooked, and how long will that take? What am I craving? What's my family likely to be hungry for?

If I can focus enough to do this inventory gathering as I'm on my way home, I walk in the door ready to go. With practice, the process gets quicker and quicker.

6. Make extra to use later.

Margaret says: I often do planned leftovers. I just don't call them leftovers. I refer to them as "the base for this evening's meal" or "the roasted veggies" or "the browned beef." And I use different serving bowls for this round.

7. Freeze cooked food in meal-sized portions.

I've finally caught on. I used to freeze a whole batch in a single container, which took hours to thaw and then left us with too much food left over again. Now I save sturdy take-out dishes and their lids and divide my prepped food among them. On the label I note what the dish is, the likely number of servings, and the date when I froze it.

You might say that the universe is calling out to those of us with the gift of kitchen creativity to lead the way to a cuisine that lessens the unsustainable strain on our food chain. —Eugene

8. Look for cooking inspiration everywhere.

Eugene says: My inspiration is usually seasonal and ingredient based. I'm inspired by the visual appeal of food. As a former fashion designer, I love color, texture, shape, and contrast. I often Google images for a specific ingredient and look at the pictures instead of reading the recipe. This fall, we found wonderful fresh figs at the grocery store, and I had a big bag of shelled pistachios. I Googled "figs pistachios" and found a great picture of sliced figs with mascarpone cheese sprinkled with pistachios and balsamic vinegar.

I love to improvise with new takes on old standbys, too, such as Mom's meatloaf now made with ground lamb and Indian spices and served with cardamom roasted potatoes.

I'm also inspired to try to cook with a sensibility toward sustainable living. I try to buy local produce and fair-trade products.

I struggle with what I call food elitism. I've made mac and cheese for years with béchamel, grated cheese, and breadcrumb topping. This used to be a frugal dish. Now that I make it with the requisite imported and properly aged cheeses and organic dairy, it costs about $45 for a 4-quart casserole. This bothers me, because people working at minimum wage would need to work nearly 5 hours to make this authentic, sustainable version for their family.

Chuck says: Even without immediate access to a store, a farm, or a good food truck on the corner, you can usually pull something together. A few Sundays back, we invited a nephew and his wife for lunch after church. We had no idea what we would make, and there wasn't a critical mass of anything in the fridge, only a bit of this and some of that, but we pulled together a salad.

Since I raise both rabbits and chickens and have a garden, my first solution is usually to forage in the garden for whatever greens are in season and to quickly think of what we can make with them. I might notice that we have lots of peppers on hand and the basil needs trimming. I can imagine collecting eggs, picking a few herbs, and making an omelet.

There are some things you should never be without — mayonnaise, cans of tuna, onions, and nuts, to name a few. If you have one apple languishing in the back of the fridge, a bit of celery, maybe three pickle slices left in the bottom of a jar, you have a start on an interesting salad.

9. Figure out what makes a good substitute ingredient.

Daryl says: I like experimenting with different flavors, seeing what goes with what and especially choosing a local ingredient whenever I can instead of one that's been shipped. I often use rhubarb, for example, if I need extra acidity and tartness in a dish. A lemon or lime might be the customary ingredient to reach for, but I want to stay local. We grow rhubarb; we don't grow lemons. I keep rhubarb in the freezer for that very reason. Savory meat sauces have turned out to be exceptional when I've made them with rhubarb.

So this is the way I think: Are there other foods that might be a good substitute for the usual ingredient because they add something similar to a dish? What if a dish asks for peppers and I don't have any? Can I skip the peppers? Or is there something else I can use instead?

10. Honor ancient food traditions.

Gini says: It's fun to try to replicate a great dish you ate in a Salvadoran or Korean restaurant, but understand that it may take a while to get it right.

Approach a food tradition that's different from your own with respect. If you want to prepare its dishes authentically, read about it. Take some time to understand it. Choose a recipe from a knowledgeable author. If you attempt to cook the dish with integrity, you'll likely keep going back to it so you can build on what you've learned.

For example, Western cuisine has been using spices for only 200 years. We lack the expertise compared to Asian and Indian cuisines that have been developing spice blends for thousands of years!

11. Gather a good supply of basic cooking tools.

Eugene says: In my early days of cooking, I cooked improvisationally for myself, but for guests, I followed a recipe because I was afraid of making mistakes. As I developed a certain amount of skill with cooking techniques, I began to feel more confident and willing to improvise.

Tools like an instant-read meat thermometer make it much easier to improvise, especially with meat, fish, and poultry. I certainly feel freer to improvise because I now have a way to prevent that beautiful fillet of cod from going over 130°F (54°C).

12. Try inviting your guests to cook with you!

If you wish you were relaxed about inviting people over spontaneously, or having drop-in friends stay for dinner, or urging your kids to bring friends home after the game, then you might want to invite them into your kitchen to cook with you.

Learn to feel comfortable with a simple meal. Humans love to eat together. People dropping by is a celebration. Inviting them to stay for a meal and having them accept our busy world is a pleasure —carry that air of celebration into the meal preparation space.

So, what to cook?

Gini says:

  • Aim to always have good soup ingredients in your pantry or soup in the freezer. Then invite your guests to help you make a quick biscuit or scone recipe for a delicious, enticing accompaniment.
  • If you have canned tomatoes in your pantry, and you have an onion, potatoes or pasta, and cayenne, you're on your way to a spicy tomato soup.
  • White beans, garlic, broth/stock/water, parsley, and seasonings can become a white bean soup.
  • Cornmeal and water can become polenta, topped with leftover meat and tomato sauce or black beans.
  • Make a salad of chickpeas or any canned beans, hard-cooked eggs, and tuna on lettuce, or stir that mixture into cooked pasta.
  • Top an already-cooked grain with a sauce or dressing.

13. Be creative with shortages.

Zahra says: When I was a kid,


  • "Cooking without recipes may sound intimidating, but Phyllis Good offers the confidence and techniques you need to cook great food without tablespoons and cup measurements. Learning to cook by instinct is the best lesson of all." — Kathy Gunst, coauthor of Rage Baking and resident chef for NPR’s Here and Now
    "Every cook dreams of whipping up delicious meals without a recipe. Those who love cooking chase the dream for creative freedom (and some glory, too!), while those who hate to cook seek ease in the kitchen. No matter which group you belong to, No Recipe? No Problem! is your new kitchen holy grail. With a simple learning map, essential techniques, and all the cheat sheets you need, this cookbook will have you freestyle cooking in no time." 
    — Stacie Billis, author of Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner! and cohost of Didn’t I Just Feed You?!

    "Good returns with a winning guide on how to successfully wing it in the kitchen... With its clean design and easy-to-follow instructions, this should be a hit with novice cooks looking to sharpen their kitchen chops." — Publishers Weekly

    "Gain the confidence to dream up something delicious with both a personal touch and professional tricks of the trade." — BookTrib

On Sale
May 11, 2021
Page Count
352 pages

Phyllis Good

Phyllis Good

About the Author

Phyllis Good is the New York Times best-selling author and creator of the Fix-It and Forget-It series, which has more than 14 million copies in print. Her cookbooks are beloved for their outstandingly flavorful recipes, which are easy to follow and quick to prepare. In addition to writing her own cookbooks, Good served for 35 years as a writer and an editor at Good Books. She is currently the executive editor for Walnut Street Books.

Learn more about this author