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Intuitive Cooking: How to Find Your Inner Chef

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We read a lot about intuitive eating. Just as important, and the first step in the process, is intuitive cooking. But it's hard in our world. We're pressed for time, and accustomed to looking outside ourselves to the experts -- the celebrity chefs, the cooking show stars, the charismatic cookbook authors --for the latest word on what to buy and how to cook it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for education in culinary and nutritional topics; it's how I make my living. At some point, though, it's exhilarating to rely on an internal compass rather than external directions. It's not like celebrity chefs or we simple food writers have cornered the market on cooking. Food preparation is the most natural, instinctive activity in the world, right up there with nest-building and baby-making. And I believe it's as important as intuitive eating in terms of our relationship with food.

Cooking by availability and intuition -- shopping the market, choosing produce that looks fresh and appealing, and then combining it with ingredients on hand, according to taste and personal preference -- is perhaps the oldest and most authentic way of food prep. My southern grandmothers cooked this way, without recipes or elaborate meal planning. They simply gathered vegetables from their garden, combined them with ingredients on hand, and added a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tasted good. At the end, it was invariably a feast.

Cooking without a recipe requires only a little skill, plus a lot of imagination, and a willingness to be bold and inventive. These five steps will get you started:

1. Head to local farmer's markets. That's where you'll find an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce. Don't write off local grocery stores; most larger natural markets carry an abundance of organic produce and a vast array of herbs, spices, oils, nuts, cheeses and specialty items. Shop around at smaller markets for more competitive prices, and check out mainstream grocers -- most are doing a decent good job of offering more organic and local produce.

2. Start with color. It will be one of your main guides for choosing ingredients. Begin with one main ingredient -- asparagus, for example -- then look around the market or produce section for seasonal produce that would compliment their bright-green color. Look for what appeals to you -- the pale lime hue of green onions, for example, and the soft tan-gray of wild mushrooms.

You could sauté these in olive oil, then top with a pinch of black sea salt and shaved Asiago cheese.

How would you cook them? Maybe transform them into a soup with a light broth, a little cream and nutmeg? Or sauté them in sesame oil with garlic and ginger, and top them with black sesame seeds? You get the idea; anything is possible. Don't overlook fruit; pears, berries or citrus fruits compliment many vegetable dishes with a subtle, fresh sweetness.

3. Try something new. The first time I saw a rutabaga, I was consumed with curiosity. I purchased the monstrosity, which looked something like a mutant potato. At a loss, I chopped it up, boiled it and served it with butter, salt and pepper. It was delicious -- sweet, clean, with a mildly nutty, cabbage like flavor. Try something new -- celery root, cardoons, chanterelle mushrooms, tomatillos, fiddlehead ferns, chayote squash, kumquats. Ask for cooking suggestions at the market. Start by seasoning simply with a little salt and pepper, and branch out from there. You'll know.

4. Stock up on basic cooking ingredients. An artist needs the proper paints, brushes and canvas upon which to express her creativity. You'll need an assortment of oils, vinegars, salts, spices, fresh herbs and other ingredients to make the most of your cooking artistry. Basics include:
• A good olive oil and grapeseed or other neutral cooking oil
• Balsamic, sherry and red wine vinegar
• Kosher or coarse salt, sea salt and, if you like, a finishing salt, such as fin de sel, to be added after cooking
• Seven or eight spices you love (try cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, chili powder, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and curry powder) and a wide selection of fresh herbs, garlic and onions.
• A selection of dried beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds.
• Canned tomatoes, canned beans and a good, basic broth or stock.

5. Start with a great recipe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having guidelines for a dish you love -- pasta, salad, soup -- creates a basic framework, the scaffolding upon which you can lay your own original design. A basic soup recipe, for example, might be 6 cups of broth, 2 cups of vegetables, 1 cup of beans, 2 tablespoons of oil or butter and 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Armed with a recipe you love, head to your favorite market, and be willing to be bold. At the very worst, you'll discover what doesn't work -- and that's a valuable life lesson in itself.

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