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The Art of Improvising in the Kitchen

How much of each ingredient? That's up to you. "One of the things I enjoy about improvising in the kitchen is that I get to choose," Miller says. "If there's an ingredient I especially love, I'll add a little more of it."

Taste is paramount, of course. But presentation also matters. Give some thought to what the dish will look like. Scatter sweet corn on top of a homemade pizza, for instance. Add peas to pasta for color. Bell peppers, which come in an array of colors, offer another great option for brightening up a dish and adding more vegetables.

It's worth thinking about texture, too. "Part of the pleasure of a meal is its mouth feel," Miller says. Add walnuts to a leafy green salad for crunch and crumbled blue cheese for a contrasting creaminess, for example.

The Importance of a Well-Stocked Pantry

Cooking with what's on hand is easier, of course, if your pantry is stocked with a range of essentials. "Your list of basic essentials will depend on the kinds of food you like to cook," says John La Puma, MD, author of ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine: A Food Lover's Roadmap to Losing Weight, Preventing Disease and Getting Really Healthy.

"The idea is to have on hand all the nonperishable items that you typically turn to when you're cooking." If you're not sure, spend a couple of weeks keeping a list. Then make a permanent copy you can keep when you're making up your grocery list.

Here are some ideas to start with:

  • Pasta and rice. They store for months and are easy to prepare. Brown rice and whole wheat pasta are the healthiest choices.
  • Beans and lentils. Canned beans are the most convenient choice (drain off the water, which is often high in salt). Keep dried beans and lentils on hand for when you're not in a hurry.
  • Frozen poultry, meat, fish. With a microwave, you can thaw frozen meats quickly.
  • Canned tuna or salmon. A great choice for casseroles, salads, sandwiches, and pastas.
  • Canned tomatoes. One of the essentials of Italian cooking. With a can of chopped tomatoes, Italian spices, olive oil and pasta, you've got the makings of a delicious and healthy meal.
  • Frozen vegetables. Since vegetables are typically frozen within hours of being harvested, they retain vitamins and minerals. Great choices include frozen spinach, peas, corn, and mixed vegetables.
  • Root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and garlic, which store easily.
  • Pre-prepared vegetables such as salad greens and baby carrots, which store for several days or more in the refrigerator.
  • Eggs. With a little cheese, frozen spinach, and eggs, you can whip up a great omelet in no time.
  • Your favorite spices. Mixed Italian spices, herbs of Provence, Mexican spices, or other combinations of seasonings make it easy to sprinkle a lot of flavor quickly into a soup, stew, or pasta.
  • Hard cheeses such as parmesan and romano. These deliver strong flavor with relatively few calories and little fat.
  • Cooking oils, such as canola and soybean oil. These oils stand up to high heat for sautéing. Because they have little flavor of their own, they don't get in the way of the ingredients you use.
  • Flavorful oils such as olive oil or peanut oil. These oils are often best added late in the cooking process or even drizzled over a dish once it's done.
  • Nuts. Great for snacking, nuts are also a wonderful addition to salads, pastas, and stir-fries.
  • Dried fruit. Perfect for jazzing up a salad or creating your own granola mix. If you have some leftover rice in the refrigerator, you can add raisins, a splash of milk, and some cinnamon for a quick and easy rice pudding dessert.

"By keeping all the essential non-perishable items on hand," Samuel says, "you'll know that all you have to do is stop by the grocery store or farmer's market, pick up a vegetable or two, a piece of fish or chicken, and you know you can put together a terrific meal."

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