Smart Guides to Winging It In the Kitchen

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We’re big fans of recipes at Nourish Network, and we invest a lot into developing recipes to inspire your time in the kitchen. Over the years, recipes have helped me master skills, get acquainted with new ingredients and discover innovative flavor combos.

Sometimes, though, you want to wing it. Most often, I’m moved to improvise when I need to use up leftover ingredients, and often, that’s motivation enough to just get on with it. But occasionally I need a little inspiration, and we’ve found a quartet of great resources to help.

My favorite these days is The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook by Niki Segnit. Segnit is a passionate home cook who set out to boost her own understanding of flavors–why one ingredient works with another, the different qualities that make up taste and so forth. The result is 99 ingredients gathered around a flavor wheel with items grouped by qualities, such as “roasted,” “meaty,” “green & grassy,” “fresh fruity” and “woodland.” Segnit doesn’t claim her list is the last word (how could it be?), but the way she writes about flavors and ingredients is engaging and inspiring. She covers plenty of classic combos (chocolate and chile: “one of the original ‘wow’ flavor pairings”) as well as some surprises like pineapple and sage.

Lia’s a huge fan of Sally Scheider’s The Improvisational Cook, which inspires readers with seemingly endless suggestions to embellish, alter and modify recipes. Caramelized onions easily morph into onion jam, onion soup, bruschetta topping or onion dip–and that’s just to start. I love this approach because it really encourages you to take a recipe and run with it.

Another favorite of mine is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, which is a very straightforward listing of ingredients, their qualities and what goes with them. It’s a great quick reference to have on hand.

If you want to delve more deeply into how ingredients work together–turn to Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. “A culinary ratio is a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients relative to another,” he explains. “These proportions form the backbone of the craft of cooking.” If you already know how to improvise a vinaigrette with 3 parts oil and 1 part vinegar, you already know a basic ratio. Ruhlman’s book explains the details behind the ratios for everything from bread dough to sponge cake to sauces, sausage and custard. His companion smartphone and iPad app puts the basics at your fingertips.

You intuition is a good guide, too. If it tastes good in your mind’s palate, it’s definitely worth a try. Chances are, it’ll be delicious. And if not, so what? In cooking, even failures can lead to future successes since, at the very least, you’ll know what doesn’t work. Here are 3 simple strategies to keep in mind:

  • Pair foods harvested in the same season. The old adage–”if they grow together, they go together”–really works. Lia’s recipe for Roasted Winter Veggies is all about using whatever seasonal root vegetables you find. It doesn’t matter which ones–they all play well together.
  • Foods that hail from the same region are harmonious. Consider wine pairing as an example. As New World cooks, we call on an enormous range of flavors, cuisines and ingredients, which can make pairing wine and food challenging (what should I open with that Indian dish? what works with that Vietnamese recipe?). Old World cooks had it much easier–they simply opened a bottle of local wine to serve with traditional dishes made with local ingredients and it worked because everything had the same terroir.
  • Experiment with fusions based on similar ingredients. Fusing cuisines can be tricky and has been known to inspire some kooky combinations. It can also be inspired, especially if you look for similar ingredients to create a happy marriage on the plate.

Here’s an example: The other week, I had some leftover Carnitas de Lia, which I’ve wanted to use in a riff on a banh mi, the popular pork-filled Vietnamese sandwich. Other fillings that typically go into a banh mi also figure in Mexican fare: cilantro, carrots, cucumbers, hot peppers. So I made a simple guacamole of avocado, salt and lime juice, which I spread on a fresh baguette as a substitute for the more traditional mayonnaise or pate. Then I layered on the carnitas, grated carrots, thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers, some leftover Quick-Pickled Red Onions and cilantro, and topped it with a generous dollop of Sriracha hot sauce.

The result: a thoroughly satisfying improvisation that made our leftovers taste entirely new.

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Improvised Lentil Soup with Bacon & Juniper Berries

Several things conspired to make this lentil soup–an overabundance of bacon in the fridge, some leftover juniper berries and a yen for soup on the chilly evening. Lentils and pork are a classic combination, and after consulting Niki Segnit’s The Flavor Thesaurus, I found that juniper berries (which I don’t use often) also have an affinity with pork. Deglazing the pan with a splash of sherry deepens the flavor while the juniper berries lend a bright counterpoint.

Improvised Lentil Soup with Bacon & Juniper Berries

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: Serves 6

Improvised Lentil Soup with Bacon & Juniper Berries


  1. 4 ounces thick-cut bacon, chopped
  2. 1 small onion, finely chopped
  3. 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
  4. 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
  5. 1/4 cup sherry
  6. 2 cups lentils (brown or green)
  7. 4 cups chicken stock
  8. 1-1/2 cups water
  9. 1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
  10. 20 juniper berries, crushed
  11. Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
  12. Finely chopped parsley, for garnish


Cook bacon in a large saucepan over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes or until the bacon is crisp and has rendered its fat. Remove bacon from pot with a slotted spoon, leaving the drippings behind. Drain bacon on a paper towel.

Increase heat to medium-high. Add onion, celery and carrot to pot; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Add sherry, scrapping bottom to loosen any browned bits. Cook 2 minutes or until sherry is nearly evaporated. Stir in lentils. Add stock, water, thyme and juniper berries; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 1 hour or until lentils are tender, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer 2 cups soup to a blender or food processor; puree until smooth (or use an immersion blender to puree part of the soup in the pan). Return to pot. Serve garnished with bacon and parsley.