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Could YOU create a meal without using a recipe?

A little while back I got a question from an anonymous Stonesoup reader…

“How can I attain the ultimate goal…creating a meal without a recipe, anywhere anytime.”

These days I hardly ever use recipes. I have too many ideas of my own that I’m keen to try out each time I step into the kitchen. But it may surprise you to hear that I haven’t always been this confident and creative in the kitchen.

For pretty much all of my 20s I was a recipe follower. Not to the letter, mind you, I’d always make a few little ‘tweaks’. But unless I was making a sandwich, I pretty much consulted a recipe before I cooked anything.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with following recipes. I firmly believe that it was following recipes (mostly from my still favourite food mag Australian Gourmet Traveller) that taught me to cook way more than anything I learned while studying for my food science degree.

I even remember creating my own website in late 1999 so I could access my favourite recipes while I was working in a winery in California without having to cart around my hefty folder of favourite recipes.

But over time it was a combination of things that led me to start cooking on my own. Cooking from the heart.

Why cook without recipes?

The biggest driver for me was time. Working as a young winemaker I didn’t have the luxury of an hour to spend each week picking out recipes, writing my shopping list.

There were lifestyle influences as well. When I was living in the Barossa Valley my Saturday morning ritual was to head to the farmers markets. I’d grab a coffee and sometimes a bacon and egg roll and stroll around the markets picking up whatever looked good.

This market-led type of food shopping was heaps of fun. But it didn’t lend itself to list making and recipe cooking.

So I found myself starting to create ‘template recipes’ based on successes I’d had in the past. I then used these to branch out and cook on my own.

Cooking without recipes was much more fun and (mostly) just as delicious, if not more so. It also meant I had far less waste because I used what I had.

3 Steps to learning to cook without recipes.

I firmly believe YOU CAN learn to cook without recipes. You just need to take it slowly and follow these simple steps.

STEP 1. Start ‘tweaking’.
The recipes here on Stonesoup are a perfect starting place for that. I challenge you to step up and start trying some of the ‘variations’ I list at the bottom of each recipe. I especially want you to try the more ‘out there’ variations. The ones that make you feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Then when you’ve pushed yourself on the tweaking, it’s time for Step 2…

STEP 2. Branch out to ‘template recipes’.
I did this unconsciously myself, but I wish I’d had someone to show me the way. I would have saved myself loads of time and mistakes.

It’s all about thinking about your recipes in more general terms rather than specific ingredients. So instead of lemon juice you’d be thinking in terms of ‘acid’ which could be any type of citrus juice or vinegar or even tomatoes. Or from the recipe examples below, instead of chicken thigh fillets you’d be thinking about ‘tender cuts of protein’.

Armed with a good collection of ‘templates’ you’ll find that you are able to open the fridge and see delicious possibilities.

If this sounds a bit too much, the good news is you don’t have to figure it out all on your own. If you join me for ‘Master Your Meal Plan’ I’ll be sharing 60 of my best template recipes and showing you exactly how to put them to use. Before you know it you’ll be one of those people who can just effortlessly ‘whip something up’

Sound good?

2MMP 3D Cover

I’m super excited to announce that the 2-Minute Meal Plan System is now ready.

To pick up a copy today, go to:

pesto chicken with zucchini_-2

Pan Fried Protein with Instant Sauce and Raw Veg Salad Template Recipe

Please don’t let the name of this template recipe put you off. I know it doesn’t sound the most appealing. As soon as you narrow it down, like in the ‘pesto chicken with zucchini’ variation below it will start sounding like something you’ll actually want to eat. Trust me.

Enough for 1:
approx 150-250g (5-9oz) protein
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 handfuls finely sliced raw veg
3-4 tablespoons sauce, to serve

1. Heat a frying pan on medium high heat. Add a little oil to the pan or rub the protein with oil. Pan fry the protein until browned on both sides and cooked to your liking. Anywhere from 2-5 minutes each side.

2. Combine lemon juice with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil. Season. Toss in finely sliced veg.

3. Serve protein on a bed of the salad with sauce drizzled over.


veggie ‘protein’ – Halloumi, tofu or seitan would also work well here. Or think about pan frying some precooked / canned beans or lentils until they are just cooked and serve with the raw veg salad. Field or portabello mushrooms are great here too. Or think about slicing an eggplant into thick ‘steaks’.

carnivore protein – for pan frying, tender cuts are best. And preferably not too thick as it can be difficult to get the middle cooked without completely burning the outsides. Steak, lamb cutlets or lamb chops, pork cutlets or pork chops, chicken breasts, chicken thigh fillets. Also consider forming minced (ground) meat into burger patties.

pescetarian protein – any fish fillets will be great.

raw veg – Broccolini, broccoli, asparagus, cabbage, fennel, snow peas, carrots, capsicum (bell peppers) or zucchini are all great. Pretty much any veg that will work in a shaved salad is good here. You could use salad leaves as well. Think baby spinach, rocket (arugula), flat leaf parsley, mint leaves, basil leaves, finely sliced kale or any salad leaves.

veg combo – feel free to use a combination of veg. I toyed with the idea of tossing in a few handfuls of baby spinach leaves but decided against it today. On another day the salad may go in.

sauce – Don’t be afraid to call on convenient ready-made options if you don’t have time to make your own. Things like pesto, hummus, babaganoush, chilli oil, basil oil, lemon oil, tabasco, chilli sauce, lemon wedges, lime wedges, oyster sauce or soy sauce (for an Asian vibe), even good old ketchup can all work.

warm veg – if you’d prefer a warmer meal. Steam or pan fry the veg before dressing in the lemon juice mixture.


pesto chicken with zucchini_

Pesto Chicken with Zucchini

Here’s an example of how you could turn the ‘template’ recipe above into a meal.

Bashing the chicken like this sounds a bit harsh but it makes a big difference. First, it makes the thigh fillets roughly even in thickness so they cook evenly AND more quickly. Plus it tenderises the chicken. Win. Win.

Enough for 2
450g (llb) chicken thigh fillets
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 medium zucchini
6-8 tablespoons pesto, to serve

1. Heat a pan on a medium high heat. Remove excess fat from the chicken. Using the palm of your hand or a meat cleaver, bash the chicken so you have an even thickness all the way though.

2. Rub chicken with a little oil and season. Sear in the pan for 3-4 minutes on each side or until chicken is well browned and cooked through.

3. While the chicken is cooking, mix lemon with 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a bowl. Season.

4. Finely slice the zucchini crosswise into ‘coins’ and toss in the dressing.

5. When the chicken is cooked, serve with zucchini salad on the side and pesto on top.

paleo / dairy-free – use a dairy-free pesto like this sicilian nut pesto.

vegetarian – replace chicken with sliced halloumi (no need to bash the halloumi!).

vegan – replace chicken with sliced firm tofu or seitan. Or try field mushrooms instead. OR Replace chicken with drained canned butter beans – just pan fry in a little oil until golden. And use a dairy-free pesto like this sicilian nut pesto.

nut-free – make your own nut-free pesto replacing the pine nuts with extra parmesan.

different veg
– see the template recipe above for ideas.

different sauce – see the template recipe above for ideas.

Video version of the recipe.

With love,
Jules x

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Diandra 23 April, 2013, 6:18 pm

    One thing I love recipes for is that they show me new combinations of food I might not have tried on my own. I love cooking and tweaking, but left to my own food ideas many things end up tasting similar. Which is not bad, since they also taste equally good, but also a tad boring. ^^

  • anna j 23 April, 2013, 6:29 pm

    I agree that recipes are a necessary starting point for learning to cook. I still use a lot of recipes but rather than slavishly following ingredients, quantities and methods, I often use them to get ideas and then use what I have on hand.
    Most recipes have a similar basis, like your templates. If you know how to make a simple tomato sauce, you can make a million different sauces by varying what you put into it.
    Thanks for your great blog. I love your ideas and the way you put them together. Your photos make me drool!

  • Belinda @themoonblushbaker 29 April, 2013, 2:10 am

    I find that if i learnt the basics of different food cultures eg. chinese , thai, greek; I can mix up any meal. Every country has quick recipes, it is just a matter of learning how the flavours work.
    You run such a savvy blog, I love to use your recipes when it is me and dad for dinner, because they are always an instant hit.

  • sandra 1 May, 2013, 3:27 am

    I definitely can cook without a recipe. In fact, all of our daily dinners are like that. Usually, I cook a meal with what I have available in the fridge/pantry at that moment – I’m trying to get the habit of planning meals but not quite there yet :-( – and even if chicken and noodles are a staple, the taste is different each time!
    Baking cakes or pastry is an exception, though! I cannot bake a cake without following a recipe. (But often I readjust the ingredients)
    Best Regards

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