Ingredient-driven cooking is a new term to me, but something I’ve practiced for quite some time – I just didn’t know it had a name. It means starting with what you have (apples, chicken, eggs, beans...whatever) and building a smart meal around it.

Your star ingredient may be a fresh produce item, a pantry staple, or a piece of meat. The nature of the ingredient will drive the preparation, technique, and accompaniments. That inner voice telling you to make a pie after noticing the bowl of apples on the counter? That’s your ingredient-driven-cooking voice talking.

These late summer, early fall months are the perfect time to cook this way as so many fruits and vegetables are in season. Everything from parsnips to tomatoes are growing, and if that’s not cause for a cooking and eating celebration, I don’t know what is. The farm stands and home gardens are overflowing, and everyone with a tomato plant is gifting fat rubies to friends. When you find yourself with a large amount of fresh produce, try to look at it from an ingredient-driven point of view.

There are a number of cookbooks out there organized by ingredient, so if you’d like to try cooking this way, you can simply open to the appropriate chapter and find a recipe. Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi (Chronicle) by Yotam Ottolenghi and The Love and Lemons Cookbook: An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking (Avery) by Jeanine Donofrio are two great examples. Our Island libraries have both.

But what if you want to make an original dish without a recipe? What if you want to “build a smart meal” by making flavor and technique choices as you go? In that case, begin by selecting a point of view. For example, do you want to make a soup, tacos, salad, pizza, or casserole? Let the qualities of the ingredient guide you. Root vegetables and dark leafy greens mean soup for me, while veggies that can be shaved thin or chopped and eaten raw are reserved for salads. I prefer pizza toppings like mushrooms and summer squash that don’t have to be precooked, while eggplant benefits from low and slow cooking and tastes great layered into casseroles and savory tarts with nutty cheese and fresh herbs. A ratatouille of mixed vegetables is delicious a million ways – with orzo and feta, baked into a meat pie, or spooned over grilled chicken. Tacos are my answer to anything in abundance: layer it on a corn tortilla with onion, cilantro, and fresh lime.  

Once I have chosen the star ingredient and identified my point of view, I pick a pot: a Dutch oven for stews or soup, skillets for sautéing and searing, a slow cooker for large cuts of meat, a sheet pan for a roasted supper. A minimal collection of smart
pots and bowls can answer any ingredient-driven cooking request.

Get in the kitchen this fall and experiment. We’re only a couple months away from frozen ground and dark afternoons, so any chance to eat colorfully or preserve produce for those cold days ahead is a win in my book.

The following recipe was originally published along with this article:

Tomato Pie