Finding inspiration to cook something new at home is not always easy, but with a little practice you can learn to pick up recipe ideas from common things in your everyday life.
Daniel Patterson, chef/owner of San Francisco's acclaimed Coi restaurant, elevates this concept of finding inspiration from daily life to an art form. I asked Patterson about the thought process that goes into creating dishes for the menu at Coi, and how a regular home cook may try to use these principles to inspire his or her own cooking.
At Coi, every dish has an organizing idea. Patterson strives to connect the eater to a particular concept, which may integrate culture and nature, or people and place.
"The idea is so important to me. Cooking is a form of communication."
A recent addition to the menu at Coi is a dish that Patterson explained as a "foodscape," evocative of a certain place at a certain time, with a particular feeling. He wanted to capture the essence of late fall into winter in a rural place, when the rains have come and the fields are green. It was intended to evoke the feeling of an older world, where there may be the smell of things like hay, barn and pasture.
To convey this feeling Patterson used hay to flavor the dish, which he recently described in detail in San Francisco Magazine.
Cooking things in hay is a traditional practice. Typically in Europe, big cuts of meat will be roasted in hay, which accomplishes two things: it insulates to preserve heat, and it imparts flavor.
Lamb is something that was traditionally cooked in hay. Patterson wanted to work within this tradition, but reinvent the idea for modern Bay Area diners. Instead of lamb or other meat, Patterson used the hay to flavor carrots, which are extraordinary here locally.
"We look at how things are done traditionally, but bring them into our reality and make them vivid for contemporary palettes."
Integrating old-world cooking techniques and re-imagining them as contemporary dishes imparts both emotional depth and energy to foods.
But such innovation need not be limited to 4-star kitchens. A home cook can also borrow from cultural traditions and reinvent recipes to reflect ingredient availability and personal preferences.
According to Patterson, you can find inspiration by reading cookbooks and going to markets. "Have curiosity, that is the most important thing."
Local ingredients are the easiest way to begin. "Cook greens simply with a little rice wine vinegar then think, 'What would go with that?' Maybe chicken. Then continue on from there."
In this way, Patterson says cooking should be intuitive. Yet he acknowledges that we are not starting with the same level of knowledge about food as our ancestors did.
"We need to rebuild our connection to cooking. No one knows what things should taste like anymore. We're starting disadvantaged compared to our ancestors in the tradition of cooking."
But as long as we start with simple, fresh ingredients it is possible to learn a few techniques or preparations that can be the foundation for several dishes. Once we have these down we can add complexity and build upon the things we've learned.
"Go get any kind of greens. Cook until tender, chop them up, throw them on pasta with some lemon zest and chili flakes, then you've created a template that you can use any time you see greens."
Patterson thinks it is possible for us to reestablish our connection to food culture and give the next generation the advantage most of us never had.
"People cooking with their kids is the best thing they can do. This will be our salvation. My kid will have no taste memory of an industrial food product. Then when he's older those foods won't resonate, won't taste like food."
The possibility that a new generation of children could grow up without dependence on industrial foods is, of course, Jamie Oliver's now famous TED Prize wish. That we are now able to even have this discussion, which was probably not possible even 15 years ago, is an inspiration in itself.
What inspires you to cook?