Unstructured cooking time

When I first heard about the trending topic of “unstructured time” for young children, I rolled my eyes. Kids these days, I thought, they are so scheduled that parents actually have to schedule unstructured time. Then I realized it’s exactly what I do most days, except I just call it “cooking,” and I do it for myself.

I’ve never been the kind of home cook who likes to follow recipes. I’m much more interested in using up on-hand ingredients and letting those items dictate what ends up on the plate or in a bowl. Even Julia Child said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.”

Plus, when I’m putting together a meal without following a recipe, time is less structured. I’ll watch the stove, of course, and if something is in the oven, I might laxly keep an eye on the clock, but I don’t feel as much pressure to have an official start and finish, a right or a wrong. Instead, the dish tells me when it’s ready (by sight, smell and taste).

One of my favorite hobbies is simply turning on music, combing the fridge, freezer and pantry and improvising for a couple of hours. I might whip up something simple, like an imprecise pesto—subbing walnuts for the pricier pine nut and a handful of spinach to round out my insufficient supply of basil.  

Making a broth-based soup is particularly relaxing for me. There’s usually a lot of chopping (fun for some, not all), tasting and adding this or adding that. I’ve made chicken soup dozens of times but no two are the same—one might be a more conventional “chicken noodle soup” variety and another might use Asian flavors like fish sauce, Thai basil, miso paste and fresh lime juice.

If I’ve failed to replenish my supply of store-bought vegetable broth, or I’ve used the last of the homemade chicken stock, I’ll combine two bouillon cubes in a quart of water, sometimes adding a tablespoon of miso. I find that these items, along with other staples, such as onion, some garlic, lemons or limes, fresh or dried herbs and salt and pepper, will allow for a better rate of successful kitchen experiments.

While weeknights tend to be just as scheduled as weekdays, I do try to reserve at least a couple of nights to stay home and cook—even if it’s nothing fancy. The best is when I have an entire Saturday or Sunday afternoon free to just hang out in the kitchen—cook for myself, cook for others or create a bunch of random dishes from ingredients that need to be used up before going bad. On the afternoons when I can completely disconnect, make a mess, experiment and discover, that’s when I feel free and downright unstructured.

Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer living in Portland. She’s worked as a cook, server, recipe tester, barista, bar reviewer, cheesemonger and personal chef. These days, she’s a home cook, but only when she can fight off the temptation to dine out.

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