Kitchen Intuition: Going rogue

Authored By aliceodea

A lot of us have resolved to cook more often for a number of good reasons-to save money, to take control of our health, to spend more time with family and so on. But the hardest part of fulfilling that intent is to settle down to the actual cooking. It’s easy to fill a Pinterest board with recipes and pretty images of food, but actually pulling out pots and getting busy in the kitchen is another matter.

Don’t wait anymore. Just dive in and start cooking, even if you don’t have the kind of equipment you see on the cooking shows or the special ingredients that are called for in a particular recipe. Work with what you have; the results might not always be Instagram-worthy, but it’ll be better than anything handed to you from a drive-thru window.

This week, I got a hankering for some sort of tuna salad, but I wanted it to be out of the ordinary (not just a mixture of tuna, relish and mayo). I poked around on the Internet a little and found this recipe for a white bean salad with tuna and red onion. Yum. It looked good. Except I didn’t have any white beans or red onion or cherry tomatoes. (Well, technically, I did have some white beans, but they were dried beans, and it was late in the afternoon and I wanted tuna for dinner. Much as I love them, there was no time for soaking and cooking dried beans.)

Life is too short to spend time browsing the Internet when you could just go ahead and cook. Instead of finding the perfect recipe, I took one that was close enough and worked from there. I had the tuna and came up with reasonable substitutions for the rest of the ingredients; the recipe gave me a general idea of the proportions. If you’re not sure about what foods will properly fill in for others, there are references available, either for your bookshelf (“The Flavor Bible” is a good one) or online (check out Cook’s Thesaurus).

For this particular recipe, it occurred to me that there are some smaller beans, such as lentils and split peas, that don’t require soaking or a lot of cooking time. I’ve had some delicious tuna salads in the past that included a smattering of peas, so I thought split peas, which are one of the quickest-cooking beans, might work well in place of the white beans. I didn’t have a red onion, but I had a gorgeous spring onion that I’d picked up at the Lookout Farmers Market in Highland Park. And I figured I could manage with a backyard tomato instead of the cherry tomatoes called for in the recipe.

I put on a pot to cook a cup of the split green peas, which promised to be done in about a half an hour. While that was cooking, I sliced the onion and chopped some parsley that I had growing in the backyard. Once the beans were done, I drained and rinsed them in cold water and let them cool for a bit, then mixed in the onion, parsley, a can of tuna, some oil and a little lemon juice. Instead of stirring in the tomatoes, I laid slices over the top of the salad, since they’re more fragile than the smaller cherry tomatoes would have been. And with a sprinkling of salt and pepper and a simple salad on the side, it was a perfect supper for a hot summer day.

From start to finish, this meal was done in less than 40 minutes, and a lot of that time was unattended. My active involvement consisted of measuring and rinsing the beans, slicing an onion and tomato, chopping parsley, opening and draining the tuna, and mixing it all together. I think the split peas gave the dish a bit more flavor than it would have gotten from the white beans, so my substitutions might have even given the dish a bit of an upgrade from the original recipe. This is definitely worth making again, and also a good example of how sometimes we should just jump in and cook, even when we might not feel fully prepared.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.