Why I call myself a creative cook and how you can become one too

Summary: Feeling bored by simply following recipes? Read this post, and challenge yourself to change up those dishes that you always make the same way. Like how we learned to master Pasta Popeye, aka pasta with a creamy spinach sauce. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see an example how I make Pasta Popeye different every time I cook it. You can do that too!

Become a more creative cook with me

Long before I started teaching cooking classes, I was a struggling home cook trying to understand this thing called cooking. I didn’t want to become a cooking teacher. I wanted to become a creative cook before I knew that was the word for it.

I wanted to become

  • someone who can peek into an empty fridge and create a meal.
  • Someone  who knows what all these weird looking vegetables at the market are. (I’m looking at you kohlrabi!)
  • And who knows how to eat them at their best.
  • Someone who resolves possible failures in the pan before they turn real.
  • Someone who goes into the kitchen with a plan but changes it up when her appetite or ingredients tell her to go a different route.
  • Someone who enjoys playing in the kitchen.

Now I know how to call that person. How to call myself.

Hi, I am Edie, a creative cook. Nice to meet you!

I never learned to cook from my mother, grandmother or other family members. Of course, I did pick up a few things when my mom cooked our daily dinners. But besides a mean grilled cheese and a good fried egg, I never cooked a meal before I left home for college.

After strictly following recipes for a long time, I wanted to become more free and creative in the kitchen. A first step was to slowly change up things in other people’s recipes. If I didn’t like a certain ingredient too much, I used less of it, or left it out completely. If I loved an ingredient, I simply added more of it. After a while I started to change the ratio of starchy components, protein, vegetables and sauce to the way I liked them best.

Only to realize much, much, much later, that this is an important aspect of learning how to cook: realizing how you like your food best, and then make it that way.

Cooking is the journey to discover how you like your food best.

A creative cook is someone who knows that, but is still learning and exploring, traveling in her kitchen, exploring new ingredients, trying out cooking techniques on other ingredients, and feeling free to play with her food. It’s an ongoing journey and I invite everyone to tag along. 

So I got a challenge for you!

Why you want to do this challenge

Learning what you like to eat is a personal journey. Yes, you can follow other people’s recipes, but I want to encourage you to go beyond that.
Think of it like this: every cook makes a dish differently. Even classics that a country is famous for, are made differently by each cook or chef. They all make it the way that works best for them. Leaving out or adding ingredients, using a bit more or less of that one important ingredient. And still, they all name the dish the same. By learning about the differences that work out for each of these cooks, you can learn to figure out what would work best for you. Try it with that other ingredient. A bit less of that one. Or a bit more.

You are the one that’s gonna eat it, so it better be something that you’d like.

Creative Cook Challenge

If you always make a dish in a certain way, following the same recipe all the time: now look up a few other recipes for this dish and compare them to the one you are always making.

  • Do the head notes provide information about this dish that you didn’t know?
  • Are there other ingredients in their versions?
  • Are those ingredients used in the same quantities?
  • Do they cook it in the same order as you always do?
  • Do they use the same cooking techniques?
  • Do they provide extra information about how to make the dish, specifying how things are supposed to look or smell like?

Pick out those elements of each recipe that speak most to you. Whether it’s the use of other ingredients that you like, ingredients that make you curious, maybe a different cooking technique, it’s up to you. Cook the dish and enjoys!
Post the result on Instagram, tagging me @creativecookco and adding #creativecookchallenge. Or leave a comment below.

How it worked for me

One of the dishes I learned to master this way is an old favorite: Pasta Popeye, aka pasta with a creamy spinach sauce.

It started out with a block of frozen spinach and a garlic herb cream cheese (think Boursin), all warmed up, mixed and served over pasta. All students in the Netherlands make it.

I ate Pasta Popeye cooked by friends and room mates, and found similar but slightly different recipes in our free supermarket magazines. By reading, trying, cooking, comparing and tasting I eventually learned to play with this dish.

Now it depends on my mood how I make it. Sometimes vegetarian with nuts sprinkled on top, other times with some meat, bacon usually. And I use real cheese, instead of the herbal cream cheese, so I can play with the taste of that too.

From a student favorite, Pasta Popeye, eventually evolved in a dish I still make regularly, now using fresh spinach and blue cheese. And yes, I sometimes sprinkle cashews on a pasta dish. Italians might not approve, but it works great in this dish.

Pasta Popeye

Pasta Popeye, aka pasta with a creamy spinach sauce, is an old favorite. There are many options to play with the recipe and make it the way you like it best!
If you don’t feel like blue cheese, some slices of Brie, shaved Parmesan or a grated Gouda cheese is great on it too. For a vegetarian version, I toast some cashews in a dry skillet, warming the pan up for the onions, or I slowly cook bacon. Sometimes I prepare both, and put them with 2 different cheeses on the dinner table, and let everyone choose what they like.

~ 1/3 cup cashews
~ 3 slices of bacon  – or more if you like!
1 small onion 
2 + 2 tablespoons olive oil 
4-5 oz | 120 gr penne – or more if you like!
15-16 oz | 450 gr fresh spinach 
10 branches of fresh thyme – or 1/2 t dried thyme
3,5 oz | 100 ml heavy cream 
3,5 oz | 100 gr mild blue cheese 

Tip: You can choose for small bites of ham instead of bacon. Or toast other nuts like pistachios (see picture) or pine nuts. Other cheeses you can use are brie, Camembert, grated Parmesan and it’s great with Gouda cheese too.

Toast the cashews. In a dry skillet (so no oil needed), toast the cashews over medium heat until fragrant and golden. Remove from the pan.

Sauté the bacon. Cut the strips in thin (1/2 in | 1 cm) pieces and cook in a dry skillet over medium heat so it renders it’s fat and the meat parts cook in the fat. I generally cook them only halfway through, so they have some chewy and some crunchy bits. Remove the bacon pieces from the pan, but leave the fat in for the onions if you like.

Cook the onions. Slowly. Peel and finely dice the onion. Heat half of the olive oil in a large skillet and let the onion cook at a low temperature until soft and sweet. It may take ten minutes. Or more.
> In the meantime, bring the pasta water to a boil, pour yourself a nice glass of wine, peel the thyme leaves off their branches (set aside) and enjoy an occasional stir in the pan. 

Tip: If you’re not using fresh thyme, add 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme and cook along with the onions.

Cook the pasta. Check package for cooking time. Bring a pot with water to a boil, salt the pasta water and add the pasta. Stir to prevent sticking and let cook until done.
Before draining, scoop out a cup of the pasta water (see below).

Note: If you’re using fresh pasta, start to boil them just when most spinach has shrank, to prevent overcooking it before the sauce is ready. 

Cook the spinach. Wash it if needed. Remove onions from the skillet. Add the remaining olive oil and cook the spinach while stirring regularly for all leaves to shrink evenly. Depending on the size of the pan, you might need to add the spinach in batches, adding a new one when the previous is shrinking.

Make the sauce. Add cooked unions, fresh thyme leaves and cream to the spinach and let cook for about 1 minute over high heat, or until the cream has thickened a bit. Season with salt and pepper. 

Mix pasta and spinach-cream-sauce. Slowly add as much of the reserved pasta water as the pasta asks for.

Serve with the cheese crumbled on top. 
Enjoy!

Why saving pasta water? 
After cooking and draining, the pasta still wants to absorb water and will take up the liquids in your sauce. The pasta water contains a lot of starch that the pasta let go while cooking, and therefor is perfect to booze up your sauce and not to dilute it too much (that plain water will). Start with adding about 1/4 of a cup and stir in more pasta water if needed. Your pasta and sauce will tell. You just need to listen to it.

Thanks for reading this far! This is the first blog post in a series Become a more creative cook, in which I describe my cooking journey, give you tips and fun recipes. Sign up for the mailing list to receive all posts in your mailbox.

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