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Cooking 101: Avoid the Cooking Rut

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If the last gasp of February finds your taste buds in a rut, there may be a good reason. The realisation that the hustle of the festive season with its anything-in-a-pinch attitude is really over and the mellow, hand-to-mouth style of fresh, simple fixes characteristic of the summer months following that hectic social whirl, are giving way to thoughts of autumn. Late summer is the time when patterns change again. The kids are going back to school, there’s nothing pressing on the social calendar for a month or so, yet, and the convenience of pattern cooking is starting to seem less appealing than it did during the first week of January. But how to do you lever yourself free of that cooking rut? Where do you begin? We love the ideas of Matt Preston — MasterChef personality and general-all-around-awesome-kitchen-guru—so here are some fresh ideas inspired by him to help you get started.

Take Stock

Make a list of all the dishes that currently make a regular appearance in your menus. Are you returning again and again to the same flavours or ingredients? Look for the patterns you fall into and what styles of dishes you tend to favour. Then, ask yourself what you avoid—consciously or otherwise. Do you tend to cook only casserole-style dishes, stews, salads? Are you leaning a little too heavily on a single combination of ingredients? Do you have a habit-vegetable? You know what we mean—when you can’t think of what else to make, you go for the broccoli or the cooked carrots. Making a list will help you see the patterns you’ve fallen into over the summer months.

Take a New Angle

If you notice that you consistently prepare a central element of your menu in the same way—such as that baked chicken breast with lemon and pepper—shake it up a little by making chicken in a different way. Try oven-fried chicken or throw everyone for a loop and prepare it cacciatore style.

Shift the Emphasis

In line with preparing main courses in a different way, you could also play with your supporting cast—the side dishes. Give them a chance in a starring role. Perhaps, rather than just regular pasta salad, you could add a few new veggies and use a different dressing. Then, cut up your lemon chicken and add it to the party.

All in the Details

Garnishes are often overlooked in our daily cooking, but they can add entirely new dimensions to what we serve on a regular basis. Pairing contrasting flavours and textures—such as a tart dollop of crème fraîche and the bright clean flavour of citrus zest with heavier autumn soups can deepen and intensify complexity we might otherwise miss. Edible garnishes offer a flavour counterpoint, much like a bright accessory in an otherwise monochrome outfit—bacon, fresh herbs, crushed nuts, or sour cream can draw your palate out of the culinary doldrums.

Globetrotting Through Food

Liven up your favourite dishes by adding seasonings characteristic of other cultural traditions. Many stews, soups and basic foods are held in common cross-culturally, but they each have spice profiles and supporting ingredients that set them in the context of their relative homeland. A good example of this would be a traditional lamb stew, with potatoes and carrots. You can actually transform it easily into Lamb Tagine served over couscous by replacing the usual spices and vegetables with items like orange zest, ground cumin, chickpeas, peppers and sweet potato.

Don’t Be Shy About Your Starch

We tend to fall into the habit of serving the same starchy dishes or carbohydrate bases—potatoes, prepared in the same three ways over the course of a season can become very bland, no matter what delights your main course may offer. It doesn’t have to be an exotic shift. You can trade out the mashed potatoes you traditionally serve with your stew for rice or pasta, pearled barley or couscous. Just play with textures and you’re likely to discover new favourite pairings.

Trade It Out

One great way to shake things up in your kitchen is to trade recipes and techniques with friends. Sure, you have a lot in common, but kitchen habits are almost always a highly tailored area of human behaviour. They can vary dramatically from person to person, even in a close-knit social group. So, get together with some like-minded friends once a month or so, and swap recipes, flavour favourites, and techniques.

The key to reinvigorating the palates of your household rests on making small changes. You don’t have to completely toss out everything you know how to do well in favour of exotic flavours or methods. The basis of what you do is likely the way it is because you and your family enjoy it. But humans are wired to notice changes, and small shifts in emphasis can reinvigorate the tastebuds in the same way subtle changes in our daily environment can pull us out of automatic pilot mode.


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