Cooking without a net Or, a funny thing happened on the way to quinoa

friday food risotto


I’ve decided that cooking from a recipe is like writing a 5-paragraph essay.

hamberger 5 paragraph essay

You all remember that one from English class, right? It goes kinda like this:

  • Paragraph one: Tell ’em what your gonna tell ’em, with your 3 (not 2 or 4 or certainly 5) main points.
  • Paragraph two: Tell ’em your first point.
  • Paragraph three: Tell ’em your second point.
  • Paragraph four: Tell’em your third point.
  • Paragraph five: Tell ’em what you just told ’em.

 I hate the 5-paragraph essay. (Can you tell?)

More precisely, I hated teaching kids how to write the 5-paragraph essay. Not just because the essays they wrote were so god-awful boring and artificial that the experience made all of us miserable (though that right there is reason enough), but because teaching kids how to write a 5-paragraph essay didn’t teach them how to write.

english teacher grading papers

This was my main gig for nearly 20 years. I've read a lot of student papers in my time.

It taught them how to follow a formula that would get them through my assignments, but it didn’t teach them fundamental principles of good writing that they could apply to any writing task (much as I tried to use it for that).

Most didn’t care about the principles. They cared about getting the assignment done.

Getting it done was relatively easy, just like following a recipe is easy. Almost anyone can do that, as long as it isn’t too complicated.

I’ve been realizing that when it comes to cooking, I’ve been like so many of my students:  I’ve never cared about underlying principles. I didn’t want to learn how to cook. I just wanted to get dinner done.

Now that I’m having to cook gluten-free, all of that is changing. I can’t just cook convenience foods, so I need to know how to make real food. I need to know how to improvise, so I can substitute healthy ingredients for the ones that make me sick.


Even gluten-free recipes aren't a sure thing. I couldn't find the sweet rice flour this one calls for, and I tried to substitute a different kind. Didn't work.

All of which is why I’m so excited to write today’s Friday Food post.

We cooked something without a recipe!

And it was good!

sorta risotto


Advance disclosure:  This story starts out kinda stupid. But it ends so smart, we’re OK with showing you our stupid.

Two weeks ago reader Stephenie left a comment suggesting a way to cook quinoa with garlic and red onion. Last Saturday night we decided to get adventurous and try it, even though there was no recipe for us to follow.

It seemed simple enough–just saute a little garlic and red onion and add the quinoa and…eat something great.

Adaptation #1: Carmelized onions

We didn’t have any red onion, but I love Cane’s carmelized yellow onions, so I suggested that we swap out red onions for yellow. Cane sliced up three onions (into rings) and began cooking them in olive oil. When I asked him how one carmelizes onions, he said just cook them in oil until they’re soft.

I’m guessing it’s not quite that simple, but I can’t really tell you how he did it because because I was messing with the grill and snapping the ends of green beans and not anticipating that this dish would be the centerpiece of a post.

I did find this guide to carmelizing onions, however, and the next time I want some and Cane’s not around, I’m going to do what the Reluctant Gourmet recommends.

carmelized onions

I'm not really sure how he made them, but they looked like this when he was done. Very yummy.

Adaptation #2: Where the stupid comes in

In between running to the grill and snapping green beans, I sauteed a couple tablespoons of minced garlic. Then, it was time to put the quinoa in.

I’m not sure of exactly how this went down, but in my memory Cane handed me a bag that looks like this when I asked him to get the quinoa out of the cupboard:


“Is that quinoa?” I asked.


“Are you sure?”


“Ummm, OK. But it doesn’t look like the quinoa I made a while ago.”

“It’s quinoa.”

You might remember what that quinoa looked like because I put a picture of it in a post:

cup of uncooked quinoa

I know this was quinoa, because it came in a box with "quinoa" on the front of it, unlike the stuff in the Winco bulk foods bag.

Cane’s “quinoa” didn’t look like the quinoa in my memory, but I shrugged and put two cups in with the minced garlic I’d sauteed. (We buy minced garlic in a jar, and I’m never exact with the measurements. Just use a couple tablespoons of it.)

Stephenie said to toast the quinoa, stirring constantly, so that’s what I did (on medium heat).

The next step is to add chicken stock, and cook until the quinoa is fluffy (still according to Stephenie). We poured in enough chicken stock to cover the grain, and kept the heat on medium.

And that’s when our “quinoa” puffed up and was obviously not quinoa at all.

rice cooking

“Oh, I think this is actually Arborio rice,” said Cane.


“You know, the kind of rice you use with risotto. I guess we’re making risotto!”

(If you followed our bathroom renovation project at all, this really isn’t surprising, I’m sure.)

Here’s where the stupid transforms into smart

(And when I started taking pictures.)

I’ve never eaten risotto.

(I know. We can get into my dysfunctional food history some other time.)

At this point, I pretty much turned this dish all over to Cane and focused on the steaks and beans.

Whenever the liquid started to boil out, Cane added more so that the rice would stay covered. He did this until the rice was soft, which took about 20 minutes.

At some point in the 20 minutes, I realized we had some left-over cooked bacon in the fridge.


Hey, what do you think about putting bacon in it?” I asked. (I like to get stuff out of the fridge.)

This was sort of like asking Cane,

“Hey, what do you think about breathing?” Because the man has never met a dish he doesn’t think would be improved with the addition of bacon.

So, I cut the bacon into little strips, and we added it to the rice when we thought it was done.

At this point, we also added the carmelized onions. Stirred everything up and transferred it to a bowl.

Finishing touches

“It needs some green,” Cane said.

“We’ve got some cilantro,” I said.

“Hmmm…OK, I guess.”

I chopped up some cilantro–I have no idea how much, but the cutting board looked like this:


Cane now says this would be better with Italian parsley, but it was really good the way it was, so I say, use cilantro. (I tend to feel about cilantro the way Cane feels about bacon.)

The last step? Grate some parmesan over the whole thing, so that it looks like this:

risotto top view

Eat…and enjoy

As mentioned above, we served this with steaks (grilled medium) and beans (steamed). A simple meal, the highlight of which was the risotto.

steak risotto beans dinner plate

Yes, we are carnivores.

What made this meal possible

Even though Cane got a little goofed up on the whole quinoa/rice thing, it worked out (wonderfully, I might add–this was really good stuff) because he knows some things about how to cook:

  • He knows how to cook rice.
  • He knows how to carmelize onions (and what to do with them).
  • He knows when a dish is better with “something green” in it.

I want to know those kinds of things, too.

As it stands right now, I’m really in the 5-paragraph essay stage of cooking. I’m dependent upon the recipe.

If I’ve got all the ingredients and the recipe’s fairly simple, I’m good. I have even fooled some people into thinking I’m a good cook, by showing up with a tasty dish. But, if I’m missing some ingredients or the directions aren’t super-clear, I’m usually out to lunch. (Or wanting to go out to lunch.)

I want to get to a place where I can stand in front of my pantry or fridge, and pull out some food and make it into something that I want to eat–without a recipe.

I asked Cane if he thinks that recipes can teach me what I need to know about how to cook.

His response? “Maybe. But I think it takes longer that way and you might not learn as well.

Kinda like the 5-paragraph essay as a pathway to good writing.

So, I’m hoping to learn some fundamentals in the coming months. I’m starting with rice because it’s become a staple for me, replacing the bread and pastas I used to eat. I’m still using recipes–don’t want to starve in the meantime–but I’m expanding my reading beyond cookbooks so that I can learn about the fundamentals of cooking.

And you?

How did  you learn to cook? How do  you grow as a cook? And, if you’ve got any great tips on risotto or rice, please share!

dinner table

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