Confessions of a Subversive Cook

subversive cooking, sustainable household, inventive cooking, creative ingredient substitution,

It’s a family joke that I am unable to follow a recipe. Not a funny joke but completely true.

I can’t help myself. I tweak the kind of flours and fats, ramp up the spices, toss in a few extra ingredients, adjust the methods used. Yes this approach alters a recipe beyond recognition. But my family will admit the end result usually tastes good even if they like to ask, “Okay, now tell us what’s really in here.” That’s because I’ve been known to put chard in popsicles, beets in dip, and beans in brownies.

Sometimes I try, really try, to follow a recipe to the letter. There’s the real joke. Because when I do the results are awful. The casserole is tasteless, the biscuits are scratchy, and the cookies slump into pools of goo. Clearly improvising is the best route for me.

What I really like about improvisation is facing the challenge our great grandparents faced as they ran frugal households. The same challenge accepted by cooks every day all over the world. Very simply, to use everything well while wasting nothing. This is more about necessity than anything else. It means the cook knows what is in the garden, pantry, and refrigerator at all times. She knows a hard frost is coming, so the rutabagas can stay in the ground but the green tomatoes must be picked. She remembers that the potatoes in the pantry are starting to soften and must be used right away. She knows the lentils made two days ago have to be served or frozen.  She finds ways to use carrots going limp and cheese getting dry. She purees leftover soup to make sauce for an entrée and turns yesterday’s roast chicken into today’s enchiladas. In our current economy it’s not a game for many of us. This real life pursuit is more interesting and more rewarding than any competition faced on Top Chef.

I find the creative aspect downright addictive. So tonight, when our dinner guests called to say they were running late I realized I had time to make another dip to serve alongside our homemade salsa. I turned up the music and started pulling out potential leftovers. A few ounces of cream cheese abandoned when the asymmetrical but tasty homemade bagels ran out, a few spoonfuls of leftover canned chile in adobo sauce, a large cooked sweet potato. Probably doesn’t sound like a dip. Except to this recipe heretic.

I warm the cream cheese a little, then mash half the sweet potato with a fork and mix in a bit of the chile in adobo sauce. The texture is awful and the taste is nothing like dip. So I toss it in the blender. Nope, it’s too thick to blend. I add a dollop of sour cream. Blend. Oh, nice orange-y color. Taste? Needs something. I toss in a pinch of dry chipotle powder and a dash of salt. Blend. Taste. Needs more heat so I add a bit more chile in adobo sauce. Blend. Taste. It needs some freshness. I have green tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers but I don’t think I’m aiming for a raw element. Instead I pour off a tiny bit of the liquid from the salsa we canned. Blend. Oooh, it’s good. Still needs something to round off the strong edge. Hmmm. Maybe this sort of spicy will benefit from a little sweetness. I think about putting in applesauce but first try drop of our honey. I give the blender another whirl. Perfect!

The doorbell rings, the dogs bark, and our friends come in bringing lively conversation. My improvised dip is there on the table next to the salsa, waiting to be scooped up with blue chips. The colors are an aesthetic delight and the use of leftover ingredients satisfies my frugal heart. But what’s really a pleasure is watching the whole bowl emptied by friends who rave over the taste even after I confess that it’s made out of sweet potato. In a heavenly kitchen somewhere I hope those great grandmothers nod their approval.


Subversive Cook is now the title of my next book. I’m slow at work on it. See how you can contribute at or get in touch with me using this site’s contact form. 

27 thoughts on “Confessions of a Subversive Cook

  1. I’ve pretty much given up on mere recipes for my Indian cooking. Aloogobi is a spicy, oily tomato sauce that you throw potatoes and cauliflower into with some garam masala and ginger at the end, but the rest is up for grabs. Baingan bartha is roasted eggplant stewed up with some soy milk, plus whatever else I think of.

    It’s fun and efficient.

    But the easiest all-purpose-use-stuff-up recipe is this: start with the soup recipe on the bag of that Goya sixteen-bean mix, and throw in all the crap from your fridge that you’ve been wanting to use up. It’s crazy cheap, insanely healthy, and different every time.


    • Mark, you and I are on the same wavelength. Except I often make Indian food for my breakfast. I get some onions roasting, toss in cumin seeds, maybe some homemade paneer, then add a slew of leftover veggies followed by tumeric, coriander and a bunch of other spices. Before dumping it in the bowl to eat I mix in coconut milk or freshly made yogurt, or leftover stewed tomatoes. Not only does it make the start of the day nice and spicy, it has a much bigger benefit. It drives everyone else out of the room. I can read the newspaper in peace!


  2. I love your frugality and creativity in the kitchen! I think the same way. Yesterday made a banana muffin recipe with overripe bananas, replacing white flour with whole wheat, eliminating the sugar, adding toasted walnuts and nutmeg…yumm-i-licious! Made my day to learn that I have a kindred spirit who’s not afraid to ‘go crazy in the kitchen’. Today I have leftover refried beans and Spanish rice…thinking of creating a soup and making some cornbread.


    • I think you’re right about the mystery and all.
      Also, I do wonder if there is some sort of collective consciousness within gene pools that is passed down through generations, too. Our boys have a natural affinity with machinery etc: common in my husbands family and seemingly deeper than a talent or interest.


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  4. I love this! And I so wish I had this knack for real cooking. I am a recipe follower all the way. My hubby is a cook like you, though. He can take anything and make it tasty. Sigh. You are inspiring.


  5. Hit me with a green bean brownie?

    I’d strike back the next time you were at my place.

    It’s easy to sneak pork/bacon into black beans or soup.

    And it’s easy to sneak pancetta into pasta dishes.

    I’ve taken this tack with vegetarians before!


    • Hephzibah, I do think improvisation is innate but preparing food isn’t second nature to most people these days. Our culture tells us food is “best” when bought at an expensive restaurant or rhapsodized about on a cooking show or arduously made from lengthy instructions. The eons of women who nourished our ancestors using what they had, combined with the alchemy of imagination, tell us cooking should always be about improvisation.


  6. My wife Donna cooks the same way. It is impossible for her to follow a recipe. She views a recipe as a starting point that kick starts her imagination. Then the truly magnificent creativity manifests itself in her concoctions. She grew up as the oldest of 10 siblings and had to learn to help her mother with all things domestic. Those circumstances created an expert homemaker. She always cooks in large quantities and I have plenty to take to work for my lunches. My coworkers enjoy seeing and smelling what I bring. They always ask me what it is. I have difficulty answering them because I don’t always know what it is. I just know I enjoy eating it. 😉


  7. great post! This is exactly how I cook! I read a recipe and transpose what is actually in my garden/pantry/fridge so that I don’t have to buy anything extra. And it all tastes nice, if not exactly how its supposed to taste!


  8. I love to cook and the thrill of figuring out how to make what I have on hand into a tasty meal is what keeps me coming back to the kitchen time and again. I get such a rush of satisfaction when I use an odd handful of this with a dash of that and 3/4 of a cup of something else and then have my kids and husband gobble it up and ask for more.


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