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How to improvise in the kitchen — With tips from Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway

Updated January 28, 2021

If you want to try freestyling in the kitchen, Samin Nosrat, author of the best-selling book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, recommends finding an "anchor" for your meal. Your anchor can be a craving, what's in your fridge, or the amount of time you have. Let this anchor guide your meal prep and lead your choices in the kitchen.

And if you want to gain some confidence, here's what Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway, co-hosts of the podcast Home Cooking, recommend.

Stock up so you can whip something up when you're hungry. "Always have a really well-stocked spice shelf," says Nosrat. She and Hirway agree —cumin is their go-to, must-have spice. "It has so much concentrated flavor and is so transformative," says Hirway. The two agree that cumin can transform plain ol' beans or lentils into culinary delights from India, Mexico and around the Middle East.

Nosrat says she likes to be able "to go to any country at the drop of the hat." So here are her recommendations for a well-stocked, ready-to-travel kitchen:

  • Vinegars, oils, and soy sauce.
  • Spicy condiments like hot sauces and pepper pastes.
  • Rice (white, brown, wild, etc.)
  • Noodles and pastas (soba noodles, rice noodles, etc.)
  • Frozen vegetables (broccoli, carrots, peas, etc.)
  • Onions, garlic
  • An array of spices (don't forget cumin!)
  • If you want to practice cooking without a recipe, start with a pot of beans. Nosrat says a pot of beans is a great blank slate — you can turn it into soup, a chili, pasta e fagioli, or serve it with rice. If you're using dried beans, soak them overnight in water with salt and baking soda, and cook them the next day.

    The podcast version of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

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    Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.
    LA Johnson is an art director and illustrator at NPR. She joined in 2014 and has a BFA from The Savannah College of Art and Design.
    Clare Marie Schneider is an associate producer for Life Kit.