Kathleen Purvis

What’s the trick to cooking without recipes?

Maybe we should call it “cooking without a net.”

That’s when you hit home at the end of a day with no meal plan, no recipe, and only a vague idea of what you’re going to do.

Of all the cooking instructions I give, the ability to cook without a plan or a recipe seems to be the one that stumps people the most. At a book signing, a woman came up to me and asked about it again:

“How do you do that? How do you just walk into a kitchen and make something up?”

As it turned out, I had created a meal just like that the night before. I had been out of town for a few days and got back at the same time my now-adult son came home from college. It was the cook’s nightmare: A hungry mouth that opens just when you have the least amount of time to plan, shop or prepare anything to put in it.

First step: Open the cabinet doors and take a good look. Like a twist on the old joke about computer programming, kitchens really are “good stuff in, good stuff out.” If you keep a stock of things you like that don’t take much prep time, all you have to do is fit the puzzle pieces together.

A quick survey turned up turkey sausage in the freezer, some broccoli that was getting aged but still had a little life left in it, an onion and some garlic. There was a tub of Boursin cheese left from a party. The pasta supply was depleted – no penne or fettuccine. But there were small bits of spaghetti and capellini. Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of “The Splendid Table,” once told me that if you couldn’t mix pastas, half the children of Italy would have gone hungry at the end of the week.

While the turkey sausage thawed in cold water, I cut up the broccoli and onions and peeled the garlic, tossed them with a little olive oil and spread them on a pan in the oven to roast. Brought salted water to boil for pasta. Cut the mostly thawed sausage into chunks and tossed it into a skillet with a shake of red pepper flakes and some oregano.

When the broccoli had cooked just enough to be flecked with brown, it went into the skillet with the garlic and onion. I poured a little white wine into the hot roasting pan to deglaze it and added that to the skillet, too.

The spaghetti went into the water and cooked 6 minutes, then the capellini went in for the last 3. Saving some of the cooking water, I drained it and added the pasta to the skillet, too.

Then I added a couple of big tablespoons of the soft cheese and a healthy splash of the pasta-cooking water and stirred it into a sauce.

Served in big bowls with a couple of warmed-up rolls from the freezer, it was plenty of dinner for two.

We’d love to hear how you do that. Email your net-less meals to me at kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com and maybe I can share them.