But Bittman summarizes this whole idea perfectly today. If you read his article before reading the rest of this post, my post will probably make more sense.
I basically cook that way, but with far lesser skill and experience of course, and I'm sure cheaper, less worthy ingredients. Below are a few of my recent experiences.
As noted previously, I am trying to make more of an effort in the arena of salad dressings and sauces. This weekend I went to town.
First of all, I tried Bittman's real ranch dressing recipe, from How to Cook Everything app. I made a few substitutions. For one thing, the recipe called for a cup of mayo. I can't stand low-fat mayo and I can't bring myself to use a cup of full-fat mayo in any recipe so I used half Hellman's regular and half non-fat Greek yogurt. The recipe turned out ok, but I found it far to sweet, probably from the powdered buttermilk it called for, so I squeezed in the juice of a lemon. Pretty good. Still a bit sweet. I liked the fresh herbs in there.
I used part of it as a marinade for grilled chicken thighs, which was fine, but kind of boring. Honestly, I just like salt and pepper on grilled things and that saves me a lot of time.
I used the rest as a dressing for a salad with said chicken on top. Pretty good, but better with Parmesan flakes added on top for more depth.
Also perusing the Epicure app I found a recipe for a Moroccan sauce, based on a search for the ingredient "preserved lemons" I had bought on a whim at the mammoth new Whole Foods in Friendship Heights. This was interesting sounding to me, and turned out great, I thought, even though I totally played around with it based on my lack of anchovies and parsley.
The basic idea was this....
I started this - very excited as I had a tub of harissa paste from the farmer's market (which is an oily paste of hot peppers) as well as the preserved lemons, and some peeled garlic in desperate use of being used up. I had no parsley, nor did I have anchovies or cornichons. For a minute I forgot what cornichons were but rememberd they were pickled something so threw in some pickled peppers. I also added half a jar of artichoke hearts in water for some heft, and some pistachios, to make it more like a pesto. I did not add nearly that much oil. I used maybe 1/4 cup. I was looking for a dip, not a flavored oil, which is what the recipe called for - you can eve see that in the picture - that pic is from the web site. Mine looked like red pepper hummus, but a bit more greasy/watery and less-fiber dense, since it had no beans. I also did not bother to peel the preserved lemon but instead chopped it in half, pulled out a few seeds and threw the whole thing in. Thank goodness for my nanny's 60 year old blender.
Anyway, I think it's delicious. The parsley would have made it more green, the anchovies add a depth at best and a fishiness at worst, so I was fine without them. I wish I'd had more pistachios to make it more pesto-like but I only had a 1/4 cup or so. It's spicy. It would be a great marinade, salad dressing, or dip. I highly recommend the preserved lemons (supposedly they're easy to make) as they add that lemon flavor and brightness without ever tasting not so fresh.
A success, despite really messing with the ingredients list a fair bit. It is kind of reddish.
Finally, the tahini bean dip. I bought the tahini (sesame paste) and was craving that watery, white richness of a tahini sauce. I looked around at a bunch of recipes and found they mainly call for tahini, lemon juice, hot water and garlic. And of course tahini is usually drizzled on falafel, which is obviously made from beans. Well I had no falafel, but I did have a bowl of pinto beans I had pureed with some garlic and water that I wanted to use up so I decided to make more of a tahini-flavored bean dip instead of a sauce. So I used the basic tahini recipe, but added more of the preserved lemons instead of lemon juice, the parsley I bought intending to integrate into the above Moroccan dip after the fact, but didn't, the beans I wanted to use up, and some cilantro I put in by mistake thinking it was the parsley. It's delicious! I don't have a photo but it looks like herbed hummus. I took the bean dip and doused some plain (embarrassingly store bought, already cooked) chicken chunks into it as my little dinner. I was going to eat it with some flatbread I made out of pizza dough but I couldn't even wait for that to cook and the protein-rich and sesame oil-filled dip was so filling I didn't need it. Then when the flatbread finished but Dave's pizza was still cooking, and he was complaining of hunger pains, I gave him the flatbread with a bowl of the dip and proclaimed it his appetizer. Some sliced veggies, such as baby carrots, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Next time I'll make a proper meal out of it but the neighborhood picnic depleted my veggie drawer. I also thought about crumbling some feta on top, as I actually had that on hand, but it really didn't need it. An addendum...as a leftover, this doesn't taste good. I'm not sure why. I think it's just meant to be served immediately.
My point to all this is as follows. This is the only way I can really cook. I'm not organized enough to really plan and follow recipes, and additionally, I find messing around to be a relaxing creative outlet. I also love to indulge my cravings and if I waited to have every ingredient in a recipe before doing so, whatever I was craving would probably go bad in my refrigerator. Cooking this way I rarely throw food away. If you know a little bit about flavors and techniques, and if you keep your pantry and fridge well stocked, it's not so hard to improvise. Mark Bittman says so!
In this instance, I had a goal of making some dips and dressings. I had a secondary goal of trying out a new ingredient (preserved lemons) and a tertiary goal, which I always have, which is to use up what is in my fridge. Things turned out fine, through a combination of a little research and some ingredient-substituting intuition.
The worst that can happen is you throw a few dollars worth of ingredients away and buy a rotisserie chicken for dinner.