7 Right-Brain Tips: How to come up with creative food ideas

It can be hard to consistently come up with interesting and tasty meals, especially if you have to do it almost every day. This blog post is choc-a-block with ideas on how to do just that!

Brainstorm Creative Cooking Ideas

Of course, you could always consult a cookbook or look up a recipe on the internet, BUT, wouldn’t it be great if you could just have fun and come up with your OWN ideas every so often? Without a recipe? Besides, if you’re anything like me, you have a bookcase or two – or three – full of cookbooks but never manage to stick to the recipe. It could simply be that you don’t have the right ingredients. You just want to do your own thing for a change, or manage to produce a good meal with what you have in the house.

Just to clarify – these are RIGHT BRAIN tips. We are here to play, and learn something through the process. With that in mind, I’ll happily share with you some of the things I do to cook up fresh ideas in the kitchen.


Tip 1. Get inspiration from fancy dish descriptions and menus

One of my favourite pastimes is to pour over the menus of some famous chefs and their restaurants.

I love to look through cookbooks, or to go to a site such as The Art of Plating and look at the descriptions of the dishes – for inspiration. I found some intriguing examples on the menu of Paradiso X Gortnanain, run by Chef Denis Cotter in Cork City, Ireland: ‘burnt aubergine’, ‘hedgehog mushrooms’ and ‘coriander yogurt’.

Ping!

I looked up hedgehog mushrooms and it turned out to be just a mushroom after all, a wild one. Interesting and probably delicious, I have to admit, but… well, I don’t know what I was expecting! How about a hog lying in a hedge of flowers and leaves, as in a pork joint stuffed with mushrooms, baked in hay? ‘Hog in the Hedge stuffed with Wild Mushrooms’ would look good on a menu, I think. As for coriander yogurt, it just sounds so fresh and herb-y, it could almost be green. Now THERE’s an idea!

On The Art of Plating site I saw an ‘aubergine glazed with black tea’ by chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, a neat little rectangular slab of aubergine smothered in what looks like a thick syrupy glaze. What caught my attention was the idea of glazing aubergine, and with black tea! I looked for glaze recipes that I could adjust to include the tea. In the end I made a glaze with jaggery and black tea, seasoned with a sprinkling of salt. I used it on courgettes, and it worked a charm. I still have half a bottle of the dark syrup and have been chucking it at everything.

(I also googled ‘burnt aubergine’ and was pleasantly surprised. It seems burning things is quite trendy. Here’s a link to a really yummy looking burnt eggplant.)


Tip 2. Play Ready, Steady, Cook!

Hunger is the mother of invention!

This is so true for me that I even look forward to the end of the month when the cupboard and fridge is bare. It forces me to look fresh-eyed at what I have to work with. Parsnips and olives? Eggs and peas? Rice and oranges? No go-to recipe is going to help me out here, I have to make a plan.

My first step would be to think of ways to cut and cook just one element – parsnip, for example. Boil, grill, mash, deep fry or bake? Grate or slice? I would then think of how to season, such as marinate, glaze, crumb, or sprinkle with spices. I could cut the parsnip thin into chips, deep fry and season with spices. I could make a tapenade dip for the crisps with the olives. Once you’ve a few ideas it becomes much easier to see how you could combine more than one ingredient in a delicious way.

Having only a few lone ingredients forces simplicity, and attention to the possibilities of what you have in front of you. It reminds me of that television program ‘Ready, Steady, Cook.’ The cooks had no control over what they were given, and had to come up with something tasty within a certain time-frame. They relied heavily on their knowledge and experience. So, I pretend that’s what I’m doing. The results aren’t always good, but I learn from every disaster. Every now and then an accident turns into a really useful discovery, like a lot of discoveries in this world are made – and I’m having fun.

There is one aspect you can have control over as much as your budget allows. My tip would be to always have a supply of stock, herbs and spices, for emergencies or lean days. Add a can or two of chopped tomatoes and purée. Coconut milk, olive oil and some beans go a long way. Another tip is to invest in some chia seeds. I’ve discovered that these little beauties serve as a binder when soaked (a substitute for egg), and it’s very good for you!


Tip 3. Recreate your childhood

We all have a wealth of memories from our childhood that can inspire us.

Many modernist chefs have had some real fun with things like popcorn, candied apples, candyfloss and lollipops. My South African childhood shines bright with ice-cream vans, lunchbox sandwiches, nursery rhymes, picking fruit… licking out the mixing bowl, drinking water straight from the garden tap… baking ‘stokbrood’ (bread-on-a-stick) over a fire, roasting marshmallows, chewing tree gum… We used to make our own fizzy sherbet with ENO’s and icing sugar! My sister and I would go foraging for anything edible; we loved those tiny sour clover-like leaves.

Have you ever just laid on your back with a helm of grass between your teeth, watching the clouds, smelling the bruised grass? Whenever I smell freshly cut grass, it instantly transports me back to sunshine pool days eating watermelon. How many afternoons haven’t we lazed about in mulberry trees, going home for bath time with purple mouths, hands and feet? Who hasn’t made mud pies adorned with grass as a kid?

I’ll never forget the MasterChef from year 2008. There was this one contestant – Emily Ludolf – who kept coming up with the most surprising and delightful food. One of her dishes was a creation inspired by her childhood: Mud pie. Hers was a pretty mud pie made from chocolate mousse with raspberries and sugared tarragon leaves.

Food is so much more than just… food. It’s an experience, a meal to nourish your body as well as your soul, to spend time together. Recapture your childhood! It could be that you decide to have a movie night on a blanket on the lounge floor with chicken popcorn and rainbow spaghetti. If you’re a member of the Right Brain Cook Tribe, then you’ll be eager to dig into your time capsule and come up with some nostalgia to turn into a dish, I know.


Tip 4. Explore other cultures and their cuisines

Broccoli with wasabi and sesame sauce… who would have thought to combine wasabi with broccoli? The Japanese, is the short answer – this dish was served at the food demonstrations at the Japan Cultural Expo 2018 in Cape Town. I found a similar recipe for you here. Going to other cultures for inspiration is such a good idea! Just have a look at what blogger Janet Mendel is doing with broccoli in Spain. She explains that when she first planted broccoli there nobody knew what it was or what to do with it. She managed to reinvent the very English vegetable with some lovely Mediterranean touches.

Each cuisine has a unique way of combining flavours and ingredients.

You don’t have to be pedantic about it, but once you understand what gives a dish a Mexican or Italian twist, you can have a lot of fun. A simple everyday meal that has featured on your menu for years can suddenly get a new lease on life.

Opening yourself up to the cuisines of other cultures is an enriching, rewarding experience. It broadens your cooking repertoire significantly. Even if you can’t get hold of foreign ingredients, it still presents a new perspective on food and eating. What I love to do is to extend my cultural exploration to not just the cooking but also the music and traditions. I’ve had lots of fun entertaining friends with themed evenings involving chopsticks or reclining on the floor. If you have a very traditional, picky eating partner you can always prepare a simpler version as alternative – it’s more work, but worth it in my opinion.

A good example of how enlightening this adventure has been for me, is the discovery that the cooking of the Southern Indian states are almost entirely vegetarian but diverse (meaning not just curries). That comes in very helpful when planning a vegetarian meal! Similarly, the Arab and North African cultures are great at feeding a whole group in a cheap and sociable manner. Often a large staple (all sorts of flat breads or grains) serves as a vehicle for any number of smaller dishes and sauces.


Tip 5. Develop an ingredient obsession

So here’s my point: get obsessed. Choose an ingredient and live it for a while.

If you only had potatoes to live on, you’d eventually come up with a myriad ways to cook and eat it. Take the Irish, for example. Show me a nation that has a bigger love affair with their spuds!

You have a choice of colcannon, champ, potato bread, mash, curry fries, spice bag, ‘boxty’ (traditional Irish potato pancakes), roasties (roasted potatoes Irish style), coddle, Irish stew, ‘Belfast pastie’ (a patty of sausage meat and potato dipped in batter, deep fried till golden), or cottage pie.

In all of these dishes the potato is an essential or the main ingredient. Not bad for the humble potato – and that’s just the Irish. The French have an impressive list of potato dishes as well, and then there are the Germans; they really know how to make potato salad.

Lately I’ve been in love with lime. I’ve discovered some wonderful things about that little fruit that has opened up new culinary worlds to me. Did you know that a lime is not a green lemon? That it features very prominently in Asian and Mexican cuisine? That you could use the peel, the juice, the pith as well as the leaves in your cooking? It’s been months now and I’m still playing around with lime, trying it in and on everything…

Taste it raw, cooked, cold and hot. Combine it with all sorts of flavours and seasonings. Get to know every seemingly useless or otherwise bit of information on the subject; what types there are and how they’re used; how to peel, cut, prepare and cook it. Play with your ingredient until you can fill a month’s menu. I feel sorry for whoever has to eat aubergine non-stop for days on end, but it’s for a noble cause.

Your obsession will pay off in the end; trust me.


Tip 6. Play Fusion – substitutes and exchanges

If you are desperate to give your old dishes a quick slight new twist, substitute an ingredient with something new.

Instead of cream, you could try coconut milk, yogurt or sour cream. Instead of mayonnaise on your potato salad, try lemon juice and cream. Instead of potato, choose sweet potato – this is very useful if you cook for a diabetic. For just about every ingredient there’s one possible substitute, or more.

When my kids were still small I had a hard time getting them to eat less starch and more nuts and seeds. Then I came up with the idea to coat my portions of fish or chicken in ground almonds and a mix of seeds, instead of breadcrumbs. It was a lot of fun trying out different combinations of seeds and nuts, creating different flavours, and my girls loved it! I also managed to get carrots into them by cooking and mashing it up with potatoes, and they were none the wiser. When making pasta with a tomato based sauce, you could use ground almonds and pine nuts as a topping instead of parmesan. Of course, these days many people go gluten free and make spaghetti out of vegetables like courgettes. I’ve seen recipes for making pizzas out of all sorts of things from cauliflower to big chunks of watermelon. Choosing your toppings becomes a creative game.

Another way to make something new is to fuse two dishes together. Maybe we could take an old favourite, bangers and mash, and stuff it into a pasty? A Bangers and Mash Pasty! Or a much loved British meal, Chicken Korma, could be married with Cottage Pie and become Korma Pie… don’t throw out an idea because it seems a bit mad. Try it, tweak it and refine it until it works. Granted, sometimes things simply don’t gel, but that’s okay.

The possibilities are endless.


Tip 7. Allow the natural beauty of the food to inspire you.

When you choose what to cook, be more aware of shapes, colours and aroma. Allow the natural beauty of the food to inspire you.

Think like Picasso… or Jackson Pollock. Besides messing about in the kitchen, I draw, paint and design. I love things to look pretty and colourful. I care about texture, rhythm, contrast, focus and space. Why shouldn’t our food be beautiful and enticing to look at? We eat with our eyes as well as our taste buds. We taste with our noses as well as our memories and associations. When you choose what to cook, be more aware of shapes, colours and aroma. Allow the natural beauty of the food to inspire you.

My mom used to say to me that every plate of food should have an array of colours on it, at least green and red. That’s one way to make sure you eat from all the important food groups. We’re not talking garnishes here, but the way the whole meal comes together. In fact, I would suggest staying away from garnishes completely. One golden rule in design is, if it doesn’t add an essential element to the whole, it shouldn’t be there. Just adding things for the sake of decoration takes away from the essence and focus of what you’re creating. Every good artist knows when to stop!

Simplicity is good, but it doesn’t mean simple, necessarily. It means clarity and focus. While you compose your meal, think of layering your flavours and building depth. Consider texture – a bit of crunch with smooth and creamy; chewy versus soft; hot tempered by cool notes. Where, how and what goes on the plate matters. As soon as you become more aware of finding the right balance and building a ‘symphony of flavours’ in your dish, your food will start singing and dancing. But each performance needs a star. Choose what ingredient you want to focus on, and let everything else compliment it.

One more thing. You might laugh, but falling under this tip would be inspiration by a pretty plate or dish! Oh, yes. It’s true! I was inspired to learn how to cook tagines because I was fascinated by the shape of the dish. If you’re a Right Brain Cook, you believe that everything tastes better on a pretty plate, or tea from a beautiful cup, or salad from a handcrafted bowl.


Summary

In conclusion, here are the seven Right Brain Tips in bullet points for you:

  1. Get inspiration from fancy dish description and menus
  2. Play ‘Ready, Steady, Cook!’
  3. Recreate your childhood
  4. Explore other cultures and their cuisines
  5. Develop an ingredient obsession
  6. Play Fusion – substitutes and exchanges
  7. Allow the natural beauty of the food to inspire you

Now go and have some fun!

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