Posted by Andrew
It's definitely possible, and it's actually not as difficult (or intimidating as it sounds). Although I was able to cook some basic dishes without recipes, I was greatly inspired to expand my ad lib horizons by Canadian chef Michael Smith, especially by his latest show Chef at Home. Granted, there are still some things that are better done with a recipe on hand, but I usually feel more liberated when I can cook some nice dishes without having to fumble with a cookbook in the middle of a cooking process. For one thing, sometimes I just don't have the time. Finding a recipe takes time to research and assess, and then I'd have to interrupt myself constantly to review the recipe as I make the dish in question. Also, unless it's for a special occasion I'm not going to stock up on some of the ingredients that may be called for by some recipes, be it due to lack of storage space or the freshness factor. Cooking ad lib gives me the freedom of flexibility and creativity... and I can better guarantee that the dishes I make are ones that I will enjoy eating!
Some good tricks to cooking ad lib are to trust your instincts (and experiences) and to be creative.
1. Instincts & Experiences
You can hone your cooking instincts not only through practice by cooking again and again, but also by trying different foods and dishes made by others, remembering what did or did not jive with your taste buds. Get to know your ingredients; keep in mind how their flavours would affect the dishes you create when you add them to the mix. Also, you know what combination of flavours you like, cook your dishes to reflect your personal tastes. Remember, eating is supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore.
Observing how others cook and experimenting with your cooking methods can also help. For example, until recently I've had trouble stir-frying raw broccoli pieces evenly. I remember seeing some cooking shows where vegetables were steamed to cook without losing their crunchiness or nutritional value, so I solved my own little problem by pre-steaming my broccoli pieces before mixing it up in my final stir-fry dishes. Find ways that can help you cook better, and once you find a method that's most comfortable with you, go for it. If it didn't work for you, remember why and keep looking for a better alternative.
Although repetition allows you to hone your cooking instincts, things can start to feel bland when you continue making the usual same-old, same-old. Using your accumulated experiences and your instincts, go nuts with experimenting different mixes of ingredients to create variations of tried-and-true dishes or even to create new dishes of your own. The choice is yours as to how far you wish to go down the creativity spectrum, from incremental all the way to wholesale. Even the simplest changes can be enough to fool your taste buds into a different taste experience.
Also, changes are sometimes necessary due to the ingredients that you have (or don't have); it's been defined by Iron Chef as "situation substitution". In those cases, your instincts and experiences will be very helpful to you. For example, I remembered a Chinese dish of braised nappa cabbage in a thick sauce with shredded shiitake mushrooms and Chinese ham and thought of trying to make that for the first time recently. I already had the mushrooms and cabbage, but I couldn't get the Chinese ham. However, I had some Chinese sausage, and in the end it actually was a decent substitute for the Chinese ham in this dish.
Don't be afraid to cook without a recipe. In the long run you can only become a better cook, and the possibilities are quite endless for you out there.