Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cooking Lesson: Anatomy of a Recipe

I blogged recently about the importance of seasonings and a few of the more common flavor combinations.  Mastering seasoning will get any would-be cook well on the way to making tasty meals, but it can only do so much.  So, today will offer a "meatier" (pun intended) lesson on cooking: The Anatomy of a Recipe.

Now, none of these rules are set in stone, and you can play around with them once you get comfortable.  But when you're looking through your cabinets, trying to think of things to eat, it can be extremely helpful to know, "What can I combine in order to make food happen?"  It's what makes the difference between "food" and "a meal."

Components of a Meal

Each meal should consist of:
  • A protein source 
  • A starch 
  • One or two vegetables
  • Some seasonings 
  • Maybe a little bit of fat to tie it all together
That's not too hard, right? 

The ratios aren't set in stone, but I find them to be helpful.  They help you, for example, avoid eating "starch with a side of starch" (a pitfall I am particularly prone to) and make the whole "balanced meal" thing pretty easy.

So, when you're looking at your cabinets, how do you decide what elements are what?  Here's a handy guide!

Categories of Food in Your Kitchen 


  • Meat, including red meat, fish and poultry
  • Legumes like beans and lentils
  • Soy products like edamame and tofu
  • Nuts and nut butters 
  • Eggs 
You can sometimes combine two protein sources.  This is often a good idea if you have one strongly-flavored protein (bacon, ham, sausage) and one lightly-flavored protein (tofu, lentils).  If you couple a flavorful-but-pricy protein with a cheap-but-filling protein, you can make a huge meal with very little cost. 


  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread, including tortillas
  • Potatoes in all of their myriad forms
  • Polenta
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Quinoa and any other exotic whole grains you want to experiment with
Starches often provide the bulk of a meal.  They exist to serve as vehicles for sauces and seasonings, and they play well with  proteins.  If you're eating legumes, you'll need a starch in order to provide necessary amino acids to create a complete protein.  Also, they're delicious. 


  • Greens like spinach, collards, turnips etc. 
  • Summer and winter squashes
  • Brassicas like cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts 
  • Root vegetables like carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes
  • Basically anything else you find in the produce section
If you need help eating more vegetables in your diet, try substituting your starches with veggies.  For example, serve sauces over a heaping plate of vegetables rather than pasta or rice.  You can also substitute the primary protein in a meal for a vegetable.  For example, making a spaghetti sauce with mushrooms or squash instead of meat.  Bear in mind, though, that vegetables tend to have few calories, so you might not feel full or satisfied if you load up on veggies alone. 


  • Oil, especially olive oil
  • Butter 
  • Lard and other animal fats
  • Cooking sprays
  • Mayonnaise and other spreads
You need fats for certain kitchen applications.  They prevent foods from sticking when you cook them by providing lubrication between the food and the pan.  They encourage browning and carmelization.  They add some extra flavor to your food.   They make a water-resistant barrier to protect starches from breaking down and getting soggy.  They conduct heat for frying and hold foods together for baking.  If you want to stay on the healthy side, I recommend butter (in moderation) and decent olive oil. 

Putting it All Together

So, let's take what we've learned and apply it to the simplest food item imaginable:  A sandwich! 

Sandwiches are great.  They're easy to make, easy to eat, and you can feed yourself with them even if you're not so great at cooking. 

The necessary components of a sandwich: 
  • Some kind of bread to hold it together: A pita pocket, a tortilla, slices of any kind of bread imaginable
  • Some kind of protein to put inside the bread: Lunch meat, hummus, slabs of roast animal, grilled tofu
  • Some vegetables:  Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, mushrooms, whatever
  • A fat to spread on the bread and keep it from getting soggy: Butter, mayonnaise, cream cheese, yogurt
So here's your homework for today.  Go through your fridge and cabinets and pull out some likely ingredients.  Classify each one as a protein, starch, vegetable or fat.  Put them in discrete piles.  Then assemble a sandwich (or multiple sandwiches!) from what you find.  Note the results. 

Not every sandwich combination will taste good, since some flavors don't play well with each other (a topic we'll discuss in the next lesson!) but this will generally help you experiment and keep from starving.