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Cooking Without Recipes Using Flavor Profiles

What is “cooking with flavor profiles?” Do you ever do a quick inventory of refrigerator/freezer and pantry, only to feel uninspired and order takeout? Or worse yet, you jump in the car and make an ill-prepared trip to the nearest market?

For decades, I have studied the flavors, pantry and fresh ingredients that define cuisines, and I’ve used that knowledge to break free of cookbooks and recipes. In fact, flavor profiles provide the foundation for everything I do here on Beyond Mere Sustenance… I love the creativity, but more importantly, I waste less food, and spend less time running to the grocery store.

A list of 6 basic flavor profiles I use often - Mexican, Peruvian, Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, Indian - with descriptions.

A picture can tell a thousand words,

but a few words can change its story.

~~ Sebastyne Young, author.

👩🏻‍🍳 Tamara Talks – About Using Flavor Profiles

So much of the “success” of a food blog lies in its photos and the photography skills of the blogger. Instagram and Pinterest are replete with drool-worthy images of food that captivate viewers. While that photo draws you in, it may or may not provide much information on the content or flavors of the food.

I’m going to take a risk here and bringing mostly words (rather than the usual number of photos). My plan is to bring you a series of posts that cover 6 or 8 of my most often used flavor profiles. To reinforce the concept, I plan to use a consistent feature ingredient or two (ie. fish and rice) that vary from post to post in their flavor profiles. Does that make sense?

A miso and orange glazed chicken created with the Japanese flavor profile.

For example, if I’m making my Miso and Orange Glazed Roasted Chicken, I could just do a tossed salad or some steamed green beans to go with it. That would certainly be a healthy and nutritious meal. But in understanding flavor profiles, I know that I can kick this “up a notch” by making a side dish that complements the flavors of my roasted chicken.

The chicken is glazed with a mixture of miso, orange juice and zest, tamari, rice wine, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and sriracha. Instead of a standard green salad, I might do a shredded napa cabbage slaw with a sesame ginger vinaigrette, sugar snap peas, and red pepper strips. Conversely, I frequently have haricots verts (young, thin green beans) on hand. Rather than run to the market for the napa cabbage, I might steam those green beans, and toss them with a sriracha, sesame, and ginger dressing, like I did for my Spicy Sesame Green Beans

Stir-fried green beans and shiitake created with the Japanese flavor profile.

🍅 6 Basic International Flavor Profiles I use Regularly!

As shown in the above graphic, there are about 6 flavor profiles that I use regularly: Mexican, Peruvian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian, and Indian. I name these loosely as there are entire cuisines under some of them (ie. Thai, Japanese, and Chinese). I find the Asian cuisines share many common ingredients like soy sauce, sriracha sauce, and rice wine. Mediterranean food includes such diverse cuisines as Greek, Italian, and Turkish. What do they have in common? Olive oil among other popular ingredients!

What I hope to communicate in the post is the way in which I plan a cohesive menu based on flavor profiles and what I have in my well-stocked pantry. It’s liberating, and I don’t have to go shopping! I chose some of my “off the beaten path” recipes that I came up with in this manner. They all work… I hope you’ll take a look, and by all means, contact me with questions!

A graphic collage that includes dishes that use International flavor profiles to create.

Mexican Grilled Shrimp with Achiote Marinade – This simple marinade requires just 4 simple ingredients – citrus juice, achiote/annatto paste, cumin, and onion. I’ve never seen a similar marinade in a Mexican cookbook, but it definitely tastes Mexican!

Mexican Cilantro Rice – A simple, flavorful Mexican cilantro rice to pair with your favorite Mexican mains, it’s the ground cumin and a bunch of puréed cilantro that provide the flavor. Paired with the grilled shrimp skewers, it’s a super-flavorful and easy Mexican-inspired meal. Just add a simple tossed salad with cilantro-ranch dressing.

Grilled Mexican Panzanella Salad with Chayote – This was one of my most creative recipes, and abuelita may be rolling over in her grave! It really works, though. It’s a Latin-inspired spin on the classic Tuscan bread salad. Grilled bread, corn, and chayote are combined with fresh tomatoes and queso fresco, and it all gets tossed with a yummy Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette!

Latin Mango Chicken – This easy, healthy chicken recipe is probably Mexican-Peruvian fusion. The yummy sauce gets its Latin vibe from ají amarillo paste (Peruvian), mango, and ground cumin. It makes a spectacular meal with the cilantro rice.

Savory Peruvian Quinoa Breakfast Bowls – A Peruvian-inspired savory quinoa breakfast bowl similar to shakshuka… bold flavors, healthy, quick, and easy! Two Peruvian chile pastes – ají amarillo and ají panca – along with ground cumin bring the Peruvian flavor!

Healthy Peruvian Sarsa Salad – This sarsa salad is actually a thing in Peru. We had it at a fine dining restaurant. A sarsa salad always includes radishes, red onions, and cheese. Of course, I had to make it my own. Once again, I relied on my knowledge of Peruvian flavors to come up with the recipe. I had to add a little red chile, lime juice, cotija cheese (similar to queso Andina), and both cilantro and mint. Muy delicioso!

Easy One Pot Ground Lamb and Couscous – This Middle Eastern-inspired one dish meal features warm spices like cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cayenne, and the couscous, dried fruit, chick peas, and nuts so often found in Middle Eastern cuisines. I keep everything but the fresh spinach and ground lamb in my well-stocked pantry!

Moroccan Carrot Salad – A fresh and crunchy salad of matchstick carrots, toasted almonds, and sweet currants get tossed with a sweet/tart lemon and olive oil dressing. The Moroccan flavors come from the ras el hanout spice blend and the pomegranate molasses. The almonds and currants are Moroccan staples.

Grilled Cabbage Wedges – An addictive spicy sauce that gets its “kick” from gochujang dresses up Grilled Cabbage Wedges with Gochujang Glaze… This grilled cabbage is anything but bland, and super easy to make! I keep all of the flavor intense ingredients in my pantry – gochujang, miso, tamari, ginger, etc.

Asian Mashed Potatoes – Asian Mashed Potatoes with roasted garlic get their delicious flavor from roasted garlic, wasabi, and sesame oil. You will always find these in my pantry!

Butterflied and Grilled Za’atar Chicken – Butterflied and Grilled Za’atar Chicken with a citrus-pomegranate glaze combines olive oil with garlic, sumac, za’atar, and citrus zest in an exotically spiced rub. My pantry has the za’atar, sumac, and the pomegranate molasses. Why settle for a plain grilled chicken when you can do a za’atar chicken?

Healthy Mexican Stuffed Mushrooms – Healthy Mexican Stuffed Mushrooms with Cilantro Ranch are my take on a classic stuffed mushroom with Mexican flavors. You won’t find this on the menu at a Mexican restaurant, but the flavors are definitely Mexican!

📚 Toss the Cookbooks?

So, how does a home cook rely less on recipes and learn to cook by “flavor profile?” I always suggest picking a couple of your favorite regional cuisines first, be it Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican… Learn the basic flavors that define that cuisine, and begin to incorporate those flavors into your cooking.

An easy way to start is with your salads. Salad dressings and ingredients are so easy to customize to complement a main dish, or even stand alone as your main dish by incorporating a protein source.

For example, we live in southern New Mexico, USA. Southwest flavors and ingredients abound. I love Mexican food, but rarely indulge in a plate of Hatch green chile and cheese enchiladas. However, I know and love the flavor profile, and incorporate the southwestern flavors into healthy dishes regularly in dishes like this pork and Hatch green chile stew. This flavor profile includes, but is not limited to, garlic, cumin, chiles (fresh, frozen, dried, red, green), Mexican oregano, corn, beans, squash, avocado, cornmeal (used in polenta and tamales), limes, cilantro, and so on…

🍛 Putting Together a Meal

How would I put together a meal using my knowledge of the Mexican flavor profile? Given that I probably have boneless, skinless chicken breast in my freezer, all of the spices and staples in my well-stocked pantry, and several of the fresh items in my refrigerator, I come up with a lovely, Mexican-inspired meal.

The menu looks something like this: Chicken Breast marinated in lime juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, and ground chipotle chile powder, cilantro rice, and my cilantro-jalapeño ranch on a tossed salad with grilled corn, black beans, avocado, tomatoes, and pepitas. I didn’t pull out a cookbook, or search for something on the internet. The salad dressing would be the biggest challenge without a recipe, but once you’ve learned the basic proportions of salad dressing ingredients, you don’t really need a recipe to create them. If you start thinking about cooking with flavor profiles, it won’t be long before you’re making this Mexican fish without using a recipe!

😋 What Does Abuelita Think?

Keep in mind that learning to use flavor profiles to create a meal probably won’t recreate abuela’s chile colorado, but it will free you from recipe books, and allow you to cook interesting and varied menus. If learning to cook without recipes is appealing to you, I highly recommend learning more about flavor profiles.

I recently compiled a summary of those I use the most often. See Flavor Profiles. If you haven’t downloaded my customizable Pantry Checklist, you can find it under Cooking Helps as well. As always, I am more than happy to provide feedback, advice, and help as you continue your cooking journeys. Does this idea seem intriguing, helpful, or overwhelming? I would love to know your thoughts!

Signature in red and green with chiles and limes. Healthyish Latin cuisine.

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8 Comments

  1. I agree completely! It’s always good to have an arsenal of ingredients you know work with a particular cuisine, or style of dish. As a baker, I love cooking because you don’t need to have exact measurements with absolutely everything! It’s nice to be able to have that flexibility and experiment!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ariel! I know my pantry regularly saves me a trip to the market, and I come up with some pretty interesting dishes ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. This is an awesome article!! ๐Ÿ˜€ With cooking I LOVE cooking from the heart (less do-able with baking) but evaluating flavour profiles applies to both! I used to make fun of my mother for thinking through flavours, textures and colours of a meal, and now I find myself doing the same thing! ๐Ÿ˜€
    There’s so many flavours and spices out there and it’s exciting to learn about them and how different cuisines work! Definitely sharing this article! Beautiful! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thank you so much Dini! Your blog is one of my favorites, so this is a real compliment! I learned years ago that one of the healthiest ways to eat is by including lots of color on the plate, and that always stuck with me.

      I have a Peruvian sister-in-law, and my next challenge to myself is to learn more about the Peruvian flavor profile so I can feel more comfortable with creating my own recipes like the cilantro chicken soup I did awhile back. It really is fun! Thanks for stopping by ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I really like the flavor profile approach, as much of my cooking is done that way–although I never gave it a name. In reading through the Chinese flavor profile, I was surprised by the absence of Chinese Five Spice, which I think is foundational to stir-fry dishes. I think it would be a worthwhile addition to the profile.

    1. Hi Dad! Now you have a name for what you do ๐Ÿ™‚ I will add 5 spice to my summary page… I do keep it in my well-stocked pantry, but don’t use it as frequently as some of the more basic flavors. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Oh Tamara, I love, love this post! In the end, this is the ultimate cooking skill….to be able to come up with a dish without a recipe and nail the flavors in the same time. What is a polish photo when the flavors are not working… I cannot wait to read your summary. I am trying to learn Mexican flavors this summer. Pretty sure I will find a lot of useful info. Thanks for sharing it!

    1. Yay! I have wanted to write this post for awhile, but it seems the only way to grow a blog is to post pretty pictures. I have heard so many stories of people that made the recipe attached to that beautiful photo, only to be horribly disappointed in the results.

      It is interesting to me that so few people know much of Mexican cuisine past tacos, enchiladas, and tamales. Those are yummy, but there is so much more to this wonderful cuisine. I will look forward to seeing a post featuring Mexican flavors from you this summer Oana!

      I got to make your Irish Scallop Bisque for my adult “kids” a couple of Sundays ago… They’d been asking for it ever since I posted your recipe on my blog! Of course it was a hit! ๐Ÿ™‚