My Cooking “Philosophy”

Ok, if you’ve read my about page already, then you know I’ve really only been cooking in earnest for a couple of years now. It is really possible for me to have a cooking philosophy at this point?

Well, in a word, yes. At least in the classical Greek sense.

As some of my readers will already know, the word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos and sophia, meaning “love of wisdom.” In my mind, a true love of wisdom is best exhibited by a ceaseless quest for a greater understanding of and connection to some subject matter. With that meaning in mind, I think I most certainly do have a cooking “philosophy,” though it is perhaps too personal and individualized to truly share with anyone outside of myself.

What I can do, however, is share my approach to cooking, which is closely related to my philosophy, and may indeed be largely responsible for my love of (cooking) wisdom. My manner of approaching most things in cooking tends to keep the whole experience fresh and exciting (at least for me), and allows me to explore all sorts of happy accidents in my kitchen.

I should reiterate though, this is a rather personal thing for me, and my way of looking at these things may not work for or appeal to you or indeed anyone else. It’s not that I think anything I’ve written here is that strange or unique. I think the core idea that cooking should stay fresh and interesting is a simple and basically universal one. All I’m saying here is that these methods keep cooking fun for me, but you may need a different approach. Use what works for you.

But for what it’s worth, this is the core of my cooking philosophy, or at least my approach thereto.

Executive Summary

  1. the principle of “3 of 4″
  2. you have five senses, use them
  3. recipes are just guidelines (usually)
  4. the whole vs the sum of its parts

Ok, so what’s this all about? Let’s take it step by step.

1) The Principle of “3 of 4″

The first, and probably most important, element of my cooking philosophy is this whole “3 of 4” idea. The way I see it, there are basically four ideal characteristics of any food (whether we are talking ingredients, dishes, or full-blown meals) and anything worth working into your daily cooking routine should have at least 3 of these 4 characteristics (and anything that embodies all four is a member of that elite group, the Magic Foods. more on that later).  And these characteristics are:


which, as you can see, spells out the helpful mnemonic device: QTCH. Mmmmm, it even sounds tasty.

anyway. let’s take an example, hmm?

i’ve got this classic sandwich I occasionally make for lunch, and is one of my alltime favorite “don’t wanna go to the store” meals. (Which really only applies if you, like me, generally have bread and turkey lying around the house somewhere.)

The Turk N’ Jerk
2 slices sandwich bread (preferably a good whole wheat, or Evangeline Maid white)
Buncha Sliced Turkey Breast
Slice of some kinda white cheese (optional)
Brown Sugar
Fresh-Ground Jamaican allspice

Toss that bread into the oven (preheated to 300ish) for a few minutes while you find the rest of the ingredients. Once you’ve got all the stuff assembled, turn the oven off and open the door to let some of the heat escape. (optionally, just toast the bread on a light cycle in the toaster).

Take your mortar and pestle and grind two or three medium-sized allspice berries until semi-fine-ish.

Place the two bread slices side by side on a cooking sheet of some sort.

Lay out half of the turkey onto one of the slices, and put the cheese on the other slice.

Sprinkle some brown sugar and cinnamon onto the turkey, and about half of the fresh allspice onto the cheese.

Lay the rest of the turkey on top of previous batch, and sprinkle with a bit more brown sugar, as well as the rest of the allspice.

Turn on your broiler and toss the cookie sheet into the oven. Keep the door cracked, and watch the cheese. Once it has browned a bit (don’t burn anything) take it all out, assemble, and enjoy.

Now, as I’ve written it here, this sandwich is Quick, Tasty, and Healthy, giving us at least a passing grade on the “3 of 4” scale. However, the flavor that I seek from this sandwich, and what makes it so perfect, is the fresh-ground Jamaican allspice. For this, you need whole allspice, and either a spice-grinder or a mortar and pestle (or a plastic bag and a hammer, if you are desperate). None of this stuff tends to come cheaply. If you’ve already got all of this lying around, the actual cost of the allspice used is almost nil, but you can’t buy this stuff one berry at a time.

So, we are lacking the Cheapness quality in this scenario. We’ve got 3 of 4, and as long as your priorities are in line with mine, this recipe is fully qualified to add to your daily arsenal.

Naturally, this isn’t the whole story. In nearly all cases, some sort of jimmying around can be done to alter the balance of the characteristics, and depending on your priorities, make the recipe better.

Let’s say Cheap is your primary priority, and you haven’t already got Jamaican allspice. You’ve got a couple of options here. You can run to the store and substitute with the usually-much-cheaper previously-ground allspice, thus sacrificing a good chunk of the Quickness, as well as some of the Tastiness (fresh ground is noticeably better. Try it, you’ll see).

Or, you can even replace the allspice with additional cinnamon, plus some nutmeg or ground cloves if you have them, thus sacrificing the flavor profile that really makes this sandwich and killing much of the Tastiness, but eliminating the need to worry about any allspice at all.

Finally, you could forgo the spices altogether, and just slather on some mayo and a few more slices of cheese, sacrificing your poor Health, but gaining Cheapness and switching to the flavor profile known as “fat tastes good,” thus saving the Tastiness.

See how this works? We’re not going to jump from “3 of 4” to a full-fledged Perfect Four Magic Food, but we can switch between sets of characteristics to find something that is more suited to your current needs.

I know, this is a simple concept, and it might seem odd for me to write all of this just to convey it, but

  1. I really want to make sure I’m clear when I refer to this principle in later posts
  2. This seems to be a not-entirely-common way to look at food. Or at least, people i’ve talked to about cooking always get funny looks on their faces when i try to explain this stuff (though i generally suspect it’s because i have something my beard. like lots of beard hair).
  3. I’m a pretty long-winded guy. Duh.

This whole thing is getting way too long, so I’ll save the discussion of Magic Foods for some future date. Maybe.

2) You Have Five Senses, Use Them

This one is as self-explanatory as it is “sensist” (biased towards people with five senses). So now I’ll just go ahead and explain it anyway.

I cook by instinct, generally. For instance, I don’t brown my steel-cut oats for 5 minutes, I brown them until I can smell the nutty aroma from at least a few feet away, I can hear the occasional *snap* of a hull cracking, and the rich tan color reminds me of the shells of my dad’s freshly roasted peanuts. I only figured out what these sensory signposts meant by trial and error, but they are now far more valuable to me than any numerical guidelines.

In fact, you could say my method is holistic, in the classic Douglas Adams’  Dirk Gently  meaning of the word.

I’ve never had a good memory, which can be a bit of a problem when you never write down your recipes and ideas. However, I can generally remember the basic sensory profile of my cooking experiences, which is how I came to rely so heavily on this method.

And hey, I’m not here to claim that this method is superior to actually measuring, timing, and stressing. I’m just saying that this is how I do things (and really, it is far more relaxing, you should at least try it), and any cooking posts I might write in the future are likely to include a lot of nonspecific directions, so be warned.

And this kinda brings me naturally to Point Three:

3) Recipes Are Just Guidelines (usually)

Again, pretty self-explanatory, and again I will provide a superfluous explanation anyway. what can I say, I’m a giving guy.

I think my general inclination not to cook from recipes is enhanced by two things I mentioned previously, my terrible memory and my chronic failure to write things down (oh hey blog, way to prove me wrong, eh?). However, I think the inclination was born elsewhere. As evidence, I turn to my musical “career” for a simple and catchy parallel:

Simply put, I don’t play cover songs, and I don’t cook from recipes.

I don’t know why, and it’s not terribly important, really, but there it is. If I were as cheesy as my “daddy” posts make me sound, I would say that I prefer to play from the heart, whether the instrument is my guitar or my skillet.

As it is, I’ll just say that I’m generally an extremely analytical guy (economist, hello) so whenever I get a chance to do something with my creative side (and make no mistake, cooking is a creative endeavor) I try to use as much of my right brain as possible; to feel rather than to think.

But hey, that’s me. So yea, I have a tendency to never cook something the same way twice, which I think keeps things exciting and fresh. But if you want the consistency and reliability that comes from cooking directly from recipes, that can be nice too. If I had pickier friends, I’d probably end up doing the same thing a large part of the time, simply so I wouldn’t have to hear the complaints. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a host of daring and hungry guinea pigs :)

4) The Whole vs the Sum of its Parts

here’s the thing. mathematically, the “whole” can either be greater than, less than, or equal to the sum of its parts. while the first alternative is clearly superior, only the second is actually unacceptable.

For instance, if you like tomato sauce and spaghetti, then there are lots of ways you can make something satisfying. you can take some cans of stewed tomatoes, cook them down into a chunky sauce, add some oregano, pour it on spaghetti, and hey, you have dinner. perfectly acceptable, even pretty darn tasty, if a bit uninspired. it’s tomato sauce on noodles, and it tastes like tomato sauce on noodles. hey, you wouldn’t have made it if you didn’t like tomato sauce on noodles, so what are you complaining about?

well ok, let’s see if we can make this “greater than” the sum of its parts, shall we? let’s say you had started with two cans of stewed tomatoes and basically simmered them down with some oregano, and maybe a bit of salt and pepper. well, let’s leave one of those cans to do exactly the same thing, and take the other to see if we can do something more interesting. for instance, you could gently simmer them in a bit of wine (a cheap and sweet red, preferably) and sweet basil, and then recombine with the rest of the sauce. the wine will unlock the alcohol-soluble flavors in the tomatoes, and the basil and red wine will work together to complement the sweetness of the tomatoes, bringing a nice fruity overtone to the whole thing. tossed back in with the blander oregano-based half of the sauce, we get something that is clearly more interesting than before, and tastes much more like a real sauce than just the sum of its parts. so we’re improving.

if you wanted to take it another step further (and why not? you’ve come this far already…) you could replace the other can of stewed tomatoes with 5 or 6 fresh roma tomatoes. steep some rosemary, thyme, and oregano in some good extra virgin olive oil, slice up the tomatoes, and baste the tomato slices with the flavored oil. then oven roast them for a while and either toss them in with your red wine/basil tomato sauce, or serve them on top of your spaghetti and sauce.

now you’ve really got something that is miles beyond “tomatoes and noodles” and you really haven’t done much more work or used many more ingredients. this is stuff you oughta have around your kitchen anyway, and if you don’t, you can always substitute whatever you DO have lying around. (more on subbing in future posts).

anyway, the take-home message here is that you CAN settle for a whole that is equal to the sum of its parts. there’s nothing wrong with that, and on many tired nights, that’s precisely what i do. but you should always be aware of simple and cheap ways to get to that “greater than” paradise, because it’s always worth the effort, if only for the experience and joy of getting there.


So hey, if there’s only one thing you take from this two thousand word missive, it should be this: cooking should be fun and rewarding, and anything you can do to help make it so will be worth it in the end.

Man, I’m getting cheesy in my old age.  Ah well, i guess it’s just part of becoming a Cooking Daddy.

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