Chaos cooking is actually a good thing, these cooks say


Depending on her mood, Ethaney Lee is a chaotic cook.

A digital creator and home cook who posts about food on her Instagram @tenderherbs, Lee will often channel her emotions into dishes such as the pavlova she wrote about recently for the site Cup of Jo. To Lee, a simple pavlova’s snowy peaks of whipped sugar and egg white offer a blank canvas for dramatic splashes of red and blue, the latter of which Lee achieves with butterfly pea extract.

Lee’s pavlova reflects a subtle but noticeable shift in the food world toward excess, strangeness and borderline recklessness. Bakers such as Julie Saha and Aimee France eschewed acetate collars and neatly piped rosettes for teetering, overdecorated cakes in a tangle of clashing colors at the recent Brooklyn event “Chaotic Cakes, a Pop Up.” Deb Perelman of the popular recipe blog Smitten Kitchen talks about making a Strawberry Brita Cake because she “wanted berry cake chaos,” while plant-based chef Kate Ray described her cooking style as “Punchy chaotic many-textured many-choices vegetable-remix food” in her newsletter, Soft Leaves, in July.

Framed in this way, chaotic cooking openly subverts mainstream rules for how to cook and what tastes or looks good, in a way that’s both playful and intelligent. To cook chaotically means to channel the challenges and the possibilities of daily life into your meals, with the same goal of any passionate cook: making delicious food.

While I now readily embrace the idea of chaos in cooking, as someone living with chronic anxiety, I used to be so fearful of creating something inedible — and then having to literally eat my failure — that the thought of so much as swapping in light brown sugar for dark would push me to nearly break down before I’d even begun making my cookie dough.

With time, practice and plenty of therapy, I eventually started to ease up on myself. Life, I’ve learned, is chaotic: Occasional failure is inevitable. Why stress yourself out by fighting it?

I’ve spoken with three cooks and writers — Allison Robicelli, Kate Ray and Ethaney Lee — each of whom regularly incorporate chaos into their cooking. Here, they’ve provided us with a few pieces of wisdom that can help the timid or overly regimented home cook take those first baby steps into the unknown — or at least into the shadowy depths of their own pantries.

To Ray, chaos is “something beyond boundaries.” She points to Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a restaurant in Hudson, N.Y., that serves what the owners describe as “tropical comfort food,” as a prime example of chaotic cooking. The owners, who come from Ecuadoran and American Southern backgrounds, “talked about putting together their menu with a lot of lime and butter,” Ray said. “These are things that don’t [traditionally] go together, but [the owners] would find their taste together by stepping across these culinary boundaries.”

You don’t have to open a restaurant to start cooking chaotically, however. To the chaos-shy home cook, Ray suggests starting with a dish you know intimately. That way, the stakes for experimenting are lower. Oatmeal or congee are two great options, as both have “a limitless number of combinations and directions.” Ray herself recently combined black sesame, ground ginger and dried cherries for a particularly warming bowl of oatmeal, she said.

Ray also offers an online workshop called “No Recipe,” which she described over email as “structured less like a traditional class and more like an improv workshop.” In it, cooks start with a template — such as vegetable fritters — and learn to gradually adjust for their own tastes, experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. The workshop was a reaction to traditional culinary classes, which Ray describes as more about “memorizing steps” than developing your own tastes.

Save experiments for downtime

Chaotic cooking is something that takes a bit of practice to get comfortable with, but there’s certainly a time and a place for trying it out.

“I’m not doing any[thing] fun during the week,” said Robicelli, a food writer and Washington Post contributor. “That’s weekend stuff!”

Forcing yourself to experiment when you’re just not in the mood is a surefire way to suck the joy out of cooking — which, Robicelli emphasized, is not what cooking should be about. “We eat a lot of eggs,” she said of her family’s weekday suppers.

The same goes for being freewheeling when entertaining. “I would say, don’t attempt your experiments when you’re hosting a dinner party,” Ray said. “If you’re trying to impress other people, then you’ll be too worried about getting it right.”

Pay attention to your emotions: If you’re feeling weird, off-balance or irritable, it’s okay — maybe even therapeutic — to let that come through in your food, something Lee often finds herself doing. Lee struggles with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which is often accompanied by moodiness and irritability.

“Often, during certain times of the month, I feel very off-kilter,” she said. “I find that that’s when I gravitate toward food that maybe is not the most natural-looking in terms of color,” hence the use of blue dye in the aforementioned pavlova.

Giving in to that urge feels cathartic, she said.

Aside from making strange or unnatural-looking food, another way to cook chaotically is by allowing yourself to be selfish once in a while. Lee, who also has a history of disordered eating, often finds it difficult to give in to her cravings without feeling some kind of guilt. One way she’s able to push past those feelings, she said, is by occasionally eating a meal that feels almost excessively indulgent — like a half-pound of pasta in a “luxurious” sauce, or thick-cut toast “slathered” with chocolate almond butter and peanut butter with flaky salt.

“For me, that is chaotic,” she said. “Because I’m rebelling against what my own brain is telling me that I should be doing or what I should be eating.”

Accept chaos as a natural part of cooking — and life

Chaos is part and parcel of Robicelli’s approach to food writing, which often includes mess-forward, deeply creative recipes like Nutellasagna and Cherry-Bourbon Glazed Ribs.

“The word chaotic is painfully overused but I have no other adjective for @robicellis’s approach to recipe development and I want to eat everything she writes about,” tweeted food writer Max Falkowitz in 2021.

Robicelli agreed with Falkowitz’s description. “I am the physical manifestation of chaos, so I don’t really get an option,” she said.

An important element of staying calm in the kitchen, she said, is accepting the chaos that already exists in cooking — and in our lives. Robicelli has two teenage sons and, on top of that, is responsible for feeding a household of seven. “There’s not one pan that’s enough for that. So you end up cooking a lot of foods simultaneously,” she said. “And just by nature, that’s so frickin’ chaotic.”

Acknowledging that inherent chaos will help you get used to it. “If you just expect it, it doesn’t feel like chaos anymore. It feels very normal.”

Want to dip your toe into a little chaos? Try Ray’s recipe template for vegetable fritters. It’s one she uses in her “No Recipe” workshops.

Chaotic cooking is about concentrating on what is happening to your food as it cooks and observing what it’s telling you, and fritters are one of the best ways to practice that.

This intuitive recipe template can be used for a variety of fritters, such as latkes and okonomiyaki. Start with chopped or sliced vegetables, add a starch for binding, an optional egg (which also helps with binding) and a little baking powder, which provides lightness and helps with browning.

Fritters are versatile and forgiving. And there’s a lot of room for correction along the way — if your first fritter falls apart, add more flour or egg to the batter and get it right on the second or third try.

The hardest part is flipping them at just the right time. This is where it’ll help to use your nose, to smell if anything is burning, and your eyes, to see steam or observe whether the center looks cooked, and perhaps a little dexterity, if you want to pull up an edge and peek. You’ll have the best results if you follow these two rules:

1. Keep an eye on the heat, adjusting as you go.

2. Wait patiently until the first side is cooked before flipping them over.

To make your fritters, you can use some combination of the ingredients below.

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You’ll need about 1 pound of vegetables to get 8 to 12 fritters, which should serve 3 to 4 people.

Shredded wet vegetables such as zucchini or potato, tossed with salt and then squeezed dry ● Shredded carrots, sweet potato or parsnips ● Chopped Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower or green beans ● Blanched sturdy greens such as spinach or kale, squeezed dry and chopped

You’ll want the mixture to be thicker than cake batter but less clumpy than cookie dough. You should be able to drop it from your spoon onto the pan and have it spread a little on its own (though you can help flatten it out with a spatula)

Baking powder (start with 1/2 teaspoon) ● Eggs (start with 1) ● Flaxseed (grind some flaxseed and let it sit with a little water) ● Flour (all-purpose, whole-wheat or some other) ● Starch (potato, tapioca or corn) ● Grated Japanese sweet potato, such as nagaimo or yamaimo ● Grated taro ● Cooked rice or another grain ● Crumbled or grated cheese ● Cooked beans, smashed up a little

Water ● Stock ● Dashi ● Dried mushroom soaking water

Minced aromatics, such as garlic, ginger, onions, shallots, scallions ● Spices such as black pepper, coriander, cumin, cayenne ● Minced fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, chives, rosemary ● A teaspoon or more of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce ● Salt (if you salted your vegetables to drain them of water, be careful not to add too much)

  • Yogurt or tahini mixed with salt, garlic, a little lemon, olive oil, and chopped fresh herbs, maybe water to loosen it
  • Japanese mayo and okonomiyaki sauce/hoisin/plum sauce
  • Sour cream with fresh dill and a lot of minced garlic
  • Bean spread or hummus
  • Soy sauce with black vinegar, ginger, garlic and toasted sesame seeds
  • Basic marinara, made from blending canned tomatoes, garlic, salt and olive oil

Start by preparing the vegetables. Chop them small or shred them with a box grater or food processor. If they’re wet, you’ll want to toss them with salt, let them sit for 10 minutes, and then either wring them out in a clean dish towel or press them in a colander. If you’re using greens, such as spinach or kale, cook them for about 30 seconds in boiling salted water, then squeeze them dry in a towel and chop them up.

Add flavorings and binders

Mix the vegetables with your chosen flavorings and a binder — an egg, a couple of tablespoons of flour and a little baking powder is a reliable combination. If you omit eggs, definitely use some baking powder.

Add your chosen liquid a spoonful at a time until you are able to drop the fritter batter from your spoon onto the pan. It should be less sticky than cookie dough but thicker than cake batter. If you’re using flour, you may want to let the batter rest for 10 minutes after adding the liquid to let it hydrate.

Make your dipping sauce before you cook the fritters, if you want to eat them hot.

Heat a cast-iron or nonstick skillet with oil (olive, coconut or neutral). Drop spoonfuls of the batter onto the pan, and use the back of a spoon to spread them to pancake shape. Watch them carefully and adjust the heat as needed. When they start to crisp on one side, flip them over to cook the other side.

Troubleshooting: If your fritters aren’t spreading, add more water to the batter, 1 tablespoon at a time. If they’re falling apart when you try to flip them, add more flour and/or an egg to the batter.

Transfer the fritters to a paper-towel-lined plate. Eat hot or at room temperature, or cold from the fridge the next day. Serve with a fried egg, if you want.

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