Dinner in Real Life

One of the subjects I really wanted to delve with this blog, and one of the books I fantasize about writing, is How to Be a Home Cook. I don’t mean how to make a bechamel sauce or caramelize blood oranges. I mean how to put healthy food on the table and into your family’s belly, day after day after day.

macaroni and cheese'n'fish'n'peas, a toddler fave. With whole wheat noodles, mama's happy too.

There’s a million cookbooks out there, and I’ve yet to find one that really covers the subject. Maybe they used to write them, back before housewifery got put in the doghouse. Now the only kind of cooking that’s cool to do is weekend-brag-cooking. Loads of books can walk you through taking all of Saturday to create an impressive 5 course dinner for eight (adults only), they’ll tell you just what to drink with it too. And I don’t mean whether to get your water out of the tap or the Britta.

But what about the cooking we do every day? Every. Single. Day. Breakfast, quick before it’s time to go. Lunch of foraged leftovers. Dinner– shit is it already 5:00?!

The shopping lists, the balancing thrifty with responsible, the kitchen layout and pantry storage, the bare minimum tools, thawing in the morning to cook in the evening, taking everyone’s appetite into account, starting meals with what you’ve got instead of the other way round, trying to make the same old ingredients taste new all over again, using up everything before it goes bad, and importantly, how to keep your spark alive under the day-to-day weight of it.

In any revolution, the mundane, basic changes often get lost under the big, fun, showy changes. You know I’m all for gardening, preserving the harvest, crafting punk goodies of any type. But at the base of it all should be the simple, understated and vastly underestimated task of cooking wholesome food for your family every day.

I wrote about my own style of cooking some time back in the post Not Menu Planners. Basically, open the fridge and see what needs using. The only problem with so rarely following recipes is that I easily get stuck in cooking ruts. My spark sputters. A fridge full of gorgeous garden produce and wholesome groceries, and all I want to do is order pizza.

When I asked for survival tips the other day, y’all offered up the jacket potatoes and fried rice suggestions, both of which are beautifully simple yet for some reason, I hardly ever make. I realized I need to break out some. I started a new discussion over at Homegrown about good, easy, healthy meals, but I know you’re not all signed up over there, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to lure you into more computer staring. Nevertheless I don’t want anyone (and their kitchenbrain full of good ideas) to get left out. So leave all your family’s secret non-recipes for good home cookin’ right here in the comments.

For some of my faves, check out this old post It’s What’s Fer Dinner. And, even though it’s considered winter fare, I just have to mention pot roast, which is the ultimate in easy, delicious food.

Calamity in the Kitchen, Day 2: Stretching Your Bird

As you noticed on Day 1, my cooking tends to happen when the Babe is napping. I’ve been really trying to get in the habit of starting dinner during his AM nap, to avoid the heat of the kitchen in the PM. But I can’t seem to get it together. I usually end up: A. blogging if I can ignore the disasterous house, or B. cleaning if I can’t.

Day 2 I didn’t make dinner in the morning. Nope. I blogged, remember? I didn’t even get lunch made while he was napping, bad mama. Instead, in a rush after the Babe woke up and before his Fussy started, I threw together a picnic lunch for us to take to the zoo (we live just 6 blocks from the zoo, have a membership and often use it like a cool park with exotic animals).

Our picnic included many of the things grilled on Day 1:

  • flatbreads
  • eggplant and walnut dip
  • grated carrot salad
  • leftover grilled sliced eggplant + peppers, mixed with feta cheese and a lemon garlic dressing

I know that all sounds so incredibly healthy, so don’t think we didn’t follow it with ice cream cones from the Hagen Daaz stand.

I would love to regale you with a story about that dip, and how much and which things the 3YO ate, etc, etc. But, I’m keeping this spare, remember? You can see how I used up leftovers, which is much of the point here.

Dinner needed to be two things, quick and stretching of meat. Because I told you how tiny that chicken was. Really it was just one meal for two people, but I stretched it, somewhat wantingly, into two. Starting here with chicken fajitas.

carmelizing the onions and peppers makes the flavors richer, darker and more satisfying
I brushed these with oil first, then grilled them for just a minute on each side. I usually do it in my skillet, one at a time, but this worked fab! Please don't ever eat corn tortillas without a little fat and some heat.

Several of you mentioned stretching meat in your comments, so I’ll focus on that a bit.

The typical meal of meat, starch and vegetable keeps all the meat flavor concentrated in one package. Which is great, super satisfying if you have plenty of meat. But, if you don’t, here’s some tricks.

Stock. The biggest and baddest trick of all. I hate to harp on it, but really, throwing bones away is a huge waste. If you get a whole chicken, think of the bones as at least 1/4 of the value. You might think store bought stock is really cheap, so why bother. But homemade stock blows that boxed stuff right out of the water. When I made the fajitas, I added just 1/2 cup of stock to the pan of fried peppers, corn, onions and token pieces of chicken, and it infused the whole dish with the most intense and delicious chicken flavor that you didn’t notice most of what you were eating was not chicken. In case you missed the link from the Whole Chicken post, here’s a lot more about stock, from my old blog. Just a note though, a lot of stock recipes call for onions, carrots and celery. You surely can use them, and it makes a dynamite stock, but just plain bones and salt makes a damn fine stock too. The critical factor is time. If you do it stove-top, allow at least two hours of simmering. If you have a crockpot, just let it cook overnight on low. If you make fish stock (which I highly recommend!) nix everything I just said, fish bones shouldn’t simmer for more than 30 minutes or they get a funny flavor.

And now that you have your homemade gold, what do you do with it? Soup is the obvious answer, but if you put some stock in the freezer in smaller portions (ice cube trays or small tupperwares work good) you can just throw a little into almost anything to give it an extra meaty oomph.

Never wash your pan. When you fry up some meat in your trusty cast iron, the pan is not “dirty” the pan is “meaty.” Do not scoop your food out and put said pan in the sink! All that dark brown sticky stuff is concentrated and carmelized meat juices. Fancy gourmands call it ‘fond,’ but we can just call it yum. You get the yum off by ‘deglazing’ which means, keep your pan on the heat, food still in or out, depending on if you want it to cook more, and pour in 1/2-1 cup of liquid, preferably stock, booze, or tomato juices. More on those in a minute. Now boil hard, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a pancake turner. Congratulations, you’ve deglazed your fond! You don’t need to be making a saucy dish for this to work, because after a few minutes of boiling, it will have boiled down to just enough thick liquid to coat your food. If you took your food out, return it to the pan, off the heat, and mop it around to pick up all that yum. That’s how I did the fajita shtuff.

Meaty flavor boosters. Booze is a pretty classic flavor enhancer, and you don’t even have to drink it first to get it to work. Wine is quite common, but I discovered last year that dark beer specifically makes meat taste meatier, and even makes not meat (like mushrooms) taste meaty. I posted about it here, Good News for Half Beer Lovers. Other good meaty flavor enhancers include:

  • soy sauce
  • Worchestershire sauce
  • peanut butter
  • tomato paste

You don’t want to add much, just a bit. Not enough that your meal tastes like peanut butter, of course unless it’s peanut sauce, just a couple of teaspoons.

Fear not your fats. Now that the Weston Price movement is hip, fat is finally losing it’s bad reputation. Thank god. That was the stupidest idea we ever had. Traditional peoples all over the world ate plenty of fat, got plenty of exersize, and were always ready for swimsuit season. If you are trying to cut down on meat (I will assume it is because you are trying to be a conscientious consumer on a tight budget), remember to cut up on butter, or olive or coconut oil. I mean, it’s only fair to add back in the fat you’re taking out. A few tablespoons of organic butter is still far cheaper than a pound of organic meat.

Beans, beans the magical fruit. I love beans. This is saying a lot considering I ate them twice a day for an entire summer when I was at my most ascetic. Unless I have the habit of doing it every single day, I never remember to soak them, and I hate recycling a whole can just for a few beans. So I cook them in big batches and freeze them. When I had a pressure canner, I used to jar up my own beans, and that was fabulously convenient, but the freezer works almost as good. Beans are good on their own, but can really help stretch a small amount of meat. I recently made a batch of refried black beans with a traditional amount of fat (butter tho, not lard) and boy am I a convert.

Meat stretching tricks in action: Plenty of fat, carmelized onions and deglazed pan with stock, refried (more fat) black beans

Whole Wheat Pasta Rises from the Grave

If you, like I had, have given up on whole wheat pasta thinking it’s all mushy and repulsive, and ain’t never no brand gonna be good, take heart! There are good brands of 100% whole wheat pasta in the world! It’s true! Really, really, I’m not even pulling your leg.

There’s not many, but I’ve found two good brands. Not as good as the best white pasta, but very good. Good enough that if no one told you, I bet you wouldn’t notice. One is by Bella Terra, the first time I tried it, on a whim since I had given up all hope remember, I was shocked. I kept looking back at the bag, scouring it’s fine print. It said 100% whole wheat, but could there be a trick? Apparently, no trick. It’s organic even, and runs about $1.85 for a 12 oz package from their online store (no, I’m not getting paid in pasta for this, though I ought to be). Pretty good deal, even with shipping, unless you live in Cordova, and stupidly enlist someone who’s coming to visit from “down south” to bring it up for you, and when they forget, have to pay an arm and a leg for shipping anyway, and be really annoyed. Hypothetically speaking.

The other good brand I found down here (praise jesus!) is just the Whole Foods 365 brand. About $2 a bag. One of the cheapest, too. I tried some other fancy imported brand on sale, and it was very good too, but twice the price normally.

Even if you can’t get either of these two brands, just keep it in your mind that good whole wheat pasta is possible in the world. Seek out whatever good brand might be available in your area. In other words, don’t lose hope! It’s a worthy hunt if you, like me, love pasta as a staple but hate the idea of filling your families’ bellies with a bunch of empty calories on a regular basis.

My only question is, if good whole wheat pasta is possible, why do they make so much bad stuff?

In a similar vein, if no-iron shirts are possible, why the fuck do they make must-iron shirts?!?!? (Can you tell My Man is working at a ‘real job’ for the first time ever?)

Calamity in the Kitchen: Day 1

Oh I’m so excited that you all actually want to hear me ramble on and on about food, cooking and my own brain’s inner workings!

I just wish I had so, so, so much more time. I know I won’t really be able to write a post every day, but we’ll see how she goes.

Okay, Day 1!

[Caution: The following is a description of one of my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. This is not necessarily to be emulated or envied folks.]

I don’t know why I do this to myself. One thing leads to another, and then there I am, in the middle of 16 cooking projects at once, and I never even got the kitchen clean. It happens once every couple of weeks. If it coincides with a kids’ good day, it might pan out. If it coincides with a bad day, take cover.

How it went was this, and I’m going to tell the whole story, because this is not about how to cook, it’s about How to Be a Home Cook, which includes all aspects of food in your life, right?

So. Start scene at 8:30, when I am otherwise ready to go, and trying to rally the 3YO for our morning outing. The Babe needs an outing round about that time, or he just fusses and fusses endlessly and drives me up the wall. Understandably, the 3YO likes to stay in her home and play in the morning, . It’s an ongoing clash. A part of motherhood that really confounds me. Let alone one’s own needs, how are you supposed to balance two separate kiddos’ needs with a mere one life?

The reason this has anything to do with anything is that it was Tuesday. Farmer’s market. In order to get there, do our business, and get back before the Babe is falling asleep all floppy headed in the bike trailer, we have to leave by 8:30.

This is pertinent because even though we did leave shortly after, he was tired early, and fell asleep in the Ergo at the market. Thus completely destroying his nap schedule for the day.

Do I need to explain why that is pertinent?

At the farmer’s market I usually get eggs and some kind of produce. Whatever looks good, which is of course how fresh markets work. But yesterday I was in the mood for some protein as well. What I wanted was fish, but get this– fish at the market is more expensive than shrimp. Jumbo shrimp were $5/lb (!) so I figured, better enjoy those Gulf shrimp before their stocks are all decimated, right? Then a small whole chicken from a nice older farmer couple selling all manner of fowl. A 2 1/2 lb chicken at $3/lb. And, it’s hot so we eat a lot of fruit here, a 3 lb box of peaches, $6. I was on my way out at that point, but Holy Shit, could it be? Eggplants 3 for $1 ?!?!?! Wow. Mostly I’ve found the farmer’s market prices not that exciting. But geez, I’ve payed $4 a piece for eggplant before in Cordova. So of course, I got 6. They were small. Ish.

Now. Do you see now how this sets the scene for the day?

In fact, the shrimp were the only things needing immediate using. If I were a saner person, I could have put the rest in the fridge for tomorrow.

But.

As soon as I saw those eggplants I remembered something I made for my last big birthday dinner which has haunted me since. An eggplant and walnut ‘pate’ with pistachio oil a friend gave me drizzled on top. Dynamite, I tell you.

The recipe was from Paula Wolfert’s Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, an incredibly gorgeous, drool inspiring book. I didn’t bring it to New Orleans with us, dammit, but I remember that the recipe started with roasting the eggplants over open flames. (I remember because, not having a grill back home, I raked the hot coals in the woodstove to one side, layed a short piece of 2×4 down opposite, and set the eggplant on that, turning it every time one side was blackened. When I pulled it out I thought, shit, I overdid it. It’s completely torched. What a waste. But no, it was magnificent.)

So. That is how I determined to fire up the grill. Then (and here’s what always happens with me, that I can not necessarily recommend, particularly to mothers of two) I thought ‘weeeell, if I’m gonna grill… I might as well grill the shrimp, that would be delicious. And heck, if I grill the chicken, it will be all cooked and ready to throw into whatever later in the week.’ And, oh yeah, I recently discovered baking flatbread on the grill. I’ve never read anything about this, but surely others have figured it out because it is absolutely brilliant. I love flatbreads. Not the cardboard pita from the grocery store, have mercy! But good fresh, chewy flatbreads, like you get at Lebanese restaurants. I have a wonderful recipe I got ages ago while traveling. But you have to bake them at 500 degrees, and even when I live in a cold place it’s hard to justify all that heat.

Enter my new propane grill. It works fantastically. They’re just like from a restaurant, in fact I suspect that must be how they do it. I’m still working on the technique a bit. More later.

So. There’s my mental line-up.

  • make flatbread dough
  • carve chicken
  • grill eggplant
  • + shrimp
  • + chicken
  • + flatbreads

But even though my brain was tick-tick-ticking all the way home, it’s not like I get to set straight to work, remember. Oh, no. The Babe, having taken a cat nap at 10 am, wouldn’t go down until noon. And then finally, with the 3YO plugged into Curious George, I got started. Like so:

Yup, a little mental space is a necessity. And, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I was also too excited to not try the second batch of ice cream in my new ($3 at a garage sale) ice cream maker. Chocolate gelato, there’s no way I was going to put that off for a more sane day.

Now, after ten minutes of recipe perusal (can’t linger long, with a 45-90 minute timer ticking away in the other room), I was ready to face the kitchen.

And here’s the truly insane part about my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. Almost never do I start them with a clean kitchen, because almost never is my kitchen clean. And although it would make (heaps of!) sense to say, ‘okay, gotta clean the kitchen and then I can get cooking,’ do I? Oh hell no. I tell myself, ‘I’ll just get this one thing started, and then I’ll clean in between times, in the lulls.’

A truly disappointing thing to me about life is how, even now after a good 33 trips round, I fail to learn from my past. How, how? can I tell myself the same fairy tale day after day after day, for years running, and never catch my own lie?

Note to self: There will be no lulls.

Do I need to get it tatoo-ed on my arm?

So, after clearing a space just large enough for a bowl to mix up the gelato, I told myself (in earnest even! What a fool!) ‘I’ll just get this gelato going so it can be cooling. Then I’ll clean up.’

gelato is basically a cooked pudding that has to cool completely before churning it in an ice cream maker

Once the gelato was in the fridge, I remembered that the flatbread dough really needed to be started, so it could be rising. Okay. Then I’ll clean up.

I use a big white garbage bag, cut open, as a reusable cover for rising dough. Works great.

Once the dough was rising, I started looking around with my cleaning eye, and realized there was The Cantaloupe to deal with. Shit.

I had gotten the cantaloupe the day before at Whole Foods. Seduced by memories of What Melons Can Taste Like (in Italy). It had an unusual look to it, not the regular cantaloupe look, and I thought, ‘What if it’s actually good?’ So I bought it.

Of course, it was just another American cantaloupe. Almost crunchy even. Fortunately, in Central America I discovered ‘liquados.’ They take any kind of fruit and stick it in a blender with water and sugar, and mi amor! the most amazing things happen. I did this recently with a watermelon, and it was divine. A perfect answer to sub-standard fruit. So, instead of getting on to cleaning, I chopped up a less-than-desirable cantaloupe, whizzed it with water and a little sugar, and yes, made it 12 times more desirable. Magic.

the rest of the cantaloupe juice got put in the freezer in popsicle molds

But, by now, The Babe had woken up. My kitchen time was over till the afternoon nap. Sometimes he’ll play happily on the floor with tupperwares and clangey lids for awhile, but lately he’s been too fussy.

So I left the kitchen, and my half finished projects thusly:

wait a minute. I can't just leave a chicken thawing on the cutting board. Even I have some standards.

After an exhaustingly difficult mid-day, a very long lay down session, then infuriatingly a wake-up-by-3YO and subsequent re-lay-down session, I was ready to get back to my projects.

I cut up the thawed chicken (photo shoot to follow in separate post). Rolled out my flatbreads. Cut one of the eggplants up for dinner, and picked my first ever red pepper (!) for the grill as well. The 3YO played in her new trash-find swimming pool while I fired up the grill.

rolling flat breads on an oiled (virgin) trash bag

Now you’re wondering how and what exactly we are going to eat for dinner, because isn’t it about that time by now? Well, with all my projects going on, I wasn’t about to do anything else complicated. I knew I wanted to eat those shrimp, so I boiled some pasta in Trixie, then I just tossed it with garlic and shrimp. A quick dressing for the grilled eggplant slices, and at the last minute while I am trying to rally the family to the table, I am peeling the red pepper to go with the eggplant salad. Chop, chop, stir, stir.

Me: Yes, dinner really is ready. Can’t you guys set the table? (Insert last minute cooking annoyance)

My Man: Is it really ready though? You look like you’re still cooking.

Me: Listen. Set the table. By the time you are actually sitting down with your plates and forks in hand, this will be on the table.

Real Life Dinner Night #1: Shrimp and Garlic Fettucine

This is super simple once you’ve cooked and peeled the shrimp. If you aren’t grilling them like I did, just toss peeled shrimp around in a hot skillet with garlic and butter/oil until barely cooked through.

  • 1 lb whole shrimp
  • 1/2 lb whole wheat fettucine
  • 3 + Tablespoons butter
  • 3 cloves mashed roasted garlic (you know I am now addicted to that Trixified garlic but if you don’t have such Tom-foolery, just saute up 3 cloves)
  • 1 clove freshly crushed garlic
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper

Grill shrimp, cool and peel. Cook pasta. (See post about whole wheat pasta to follow. Soon, really. It’s already half writ.) Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water (1/2 cup?). Heat butter and roasted garlic, or saute your 3 cloves, whichever. Add shrimp. S & P to taste. Stir in fresh crushed garlic for a few seconds, then mix in pasta. Serve!

Grilled Eggplant and Red Pepper Salad

Cut one eggplant into rounds. Cut a red pepper in quarters. Brush each with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill all till tender, placing pepper skin side down so that the skin gets all black and charred. Yum! While they’re cooking, in the ‘lull’ you’re supposed to use for cleaning, make a simple dressing, then toss hot eggplant with it. ‘Sweat’ red pepper under an overturned bowl for a few minutes, then remove peel. Chop and add to salad. Get on the table before the Husband sets the silverware so you can say, “Nyah.”

Culinary lessons to be learned tonight kids:

  • Always save a little pasta water to use in your sauce. Especially if your “sauce” is just butter and garlic.
  • Cooked plus fresh garlic equals zinga-dinga-bing-bong!!
  • Butter is good.
  • Grilling is good.
  • If you’re making a cold salad out of cooked veggies, dress them while they’re still hot, for maximum flavor, baby.

Dinner Every Night

I found a link recently to a blog that was doing a Home Cooking 101 online class. That’s cool. But it was a lot of money. I just hate the idea that anyone should have to pay to learn how to cook!

I was wondering if there are any of you readers who would appreciate more instructive posts on the art of home cooking? It seems like most of you know your way around a kitchen, and have your thang going. But believe me, I would love to go on and on for hours the way I can about How to Be a Home Cook, if anyone out there wants help. I touched a little on it in this post. Being a home cook is about so, so much more than the actual cooking. I think it mostly boils down to creative thinking, and a familiarity with ingredients that can only come from lots and lots of fucking around in the kitchen.

The other night when I realized at the last minute I was out of potatoes and decided to brave substituting cubes of homemade wheat bread in my chick pea, tomato and spinach casserole (!) I thought of you, dear readers. I thought it would be fun to give a more intimate peak into what goes on in my brain when the dinner hour approaches.

I do so much leftover management that I hardly know how to cook without something that needs using. That particular day, without any scraps to start from, I had felt adrift. Hmmm… I have…. Well, lets see. (Start with starch.) We had rice last night, pasta the night before and rice the night before that. So. Potatoes it is. Okay. (Next, protein.) We don’t have more than a few special occasions worth of meat and fish from home. So. Chick peas from the freezer? That sounds good. Ummm, potatoes, chick peas… Should I go Moroccan (a favorite of mine), northern Mediterranean or Indian curry? I had just made those roasted garlic in oil yummies, so a Mediterranean style casserole of potatoes, chick peas, plenty of olive oil and garlic, tomatoes, and (always last on my mental checklist for no good reason) what vegetable? Unlike the FDA I do not consider potatoes a vegetable when meal planning. And tomatoes are a fruit, plain and simple. So. Spinach from the freezer?

Sounds like dinner! I blundered along, assuming the constant presence of potatoes in my fridge, until, Crikey! Could it be? But I don’t feel like pasta again! Let alone rice. Or even quinoa. The mix would be good dumped out on a pizza crust. But I didn’t have a pizza crust. I was stumped. I scanned the fridge 12 times before the loaf of neglected bread finally registered. Hmmm. Could you maybe…? Like– stuffing? Sort of? Without even toasting/drying it first? It seemed like complete culinary heresy at the time. Now it doesn’t sound so strange at all. But that could just be because now I’ve eaten soggy bread, chick peas and tomatoes and yes, it was perfectly good food. Don’t know that I’d do it again, exactly like that. The pasty bean texture next to the slightly soggy bread texture was just a bit not right for me, but My Man loved it. Toddler ate her share. And it was a revelation that stuffing doesn’t have to start with dried bread cubes, and doesn’t have to taste like celery, onions and turkey.

In this vein, I thought I would follow myself around for a week of dinners, and report. I could just describe my thought process and ingredients, one cook to another, or I could give real instructions, if you’d like. Vote here and now if you want instructions!

Not Menu Planners

There’s been lots of buzz about menu planning on all the cool, frugal blogs. A bit of rebellion has been on my list for ages. But, when Gina at Clutterpunk started despairing her own troubles with the concept, I was finally spurred into action.

My friends, without judgement or malice, I have to say that there are two kinds of cooks in the world—menu planners and not menu planners. There is surely nothing wrong with menu planning, in fact it is a useful tool for many of the righteous homemaker babes I so admire. Whatever helps you get a thrifty, nutritious yet savory dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time, I’m all for.

But, for any of you out there who are thinking, like Gina did, how many extra hours the menu planning will take and isn’t there any other way, I feel compelled to assure you—there is!

I have been cooking every day of my life since I was seventeen (that adds up to 16 years btw). It might be a little hard to suss out exactly how I don’t menu plan, because I suspect it’s all wrapped up in my essential Way of Cooking. This might get involved.

One of the things I really wanted to do when I first started this blog was try to share for anyone new to revolutionary housewifery, just how to be a home cook. I’ve never seen a cookbook on the subject. No one ever really talks about it. I guess everybody figures it out in their own way eventually, but many of us did not grow up in a home with a home cook, and it seems unnecessary that we should all have to reinvent the wheel.

Home cookery for the revolutionary housewife is only partly about knowing how to cook. The rest is a balancing act. Between being frugal and upholding your values, between cooking healthy and cooking delicious, between respecting your families preferences and keeping the diet varied and inspired. The skills you need are far beyond the scope of how to poach an egg and make a béchamel sauce. You truly are conducting the economy, social structure and artistry of your home. Although housewifery involves plenty of other work, food is central. We eat three times a day (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s five), and keeping up with all that home-cooked food is a complex endeavor.

But, back to not menu planning. I’ve been trying to dissect my Way to figure out what exactly it is that allows me to cook efficiently and with almost no waste without ever planning dinner beyond 24 hours in advance (and usually not until I start to feel hungry). I think it might have something to do with being an Alaskan. People in any rural place are completely used to not having a store around the corner. There are three important principles that I’ve picked out so far. Stocking up, doing without and thinking creatively.

Like all rural people, I always have a large stockpile of food. Whenever some natural disaster sparks the media to advise people to keep 2 weeks of food on hand, Alaskans look at one another with disbelief. Any Alaskan worth their salt always has at least two months of food in the pantry, and probably could survive for a full year if all hell really broke loose. I am not exaggerating.

Even though I’ve lived within walking or quick driving distance of a store for all but five years of my life, I still grew up with this principle in action, and have even far surpassed the stockpiling of my childhood.

I am a hoarder.

When you have all your staples on hand, you don’t need to plan out at the start of the week what exactly you’re going to cook in order to do your grocery shopping. Instead you keep a list, mental or tangible, of what you’re low on to get next trip to the store.

You can’t keep everything you might ever want in your cupboard at all times, so this must necessarily be followed by the principles of Doing Without and the subsequent Thinking Creatively.

This is a catch 22. On the one hand, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. On the other hand, I can successfully cook a hundred different and distinct meals out of the same 12 ingredients*. I can (and have!) substituted fish for chicken, cabbage for eggplant, carrots for red pepper and onions for almost anything.

[*Here’s my top twelve: potatoes, pasta, meat, fish, onions, canned tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, lentils, butter, cheese, eggs.]

Leaving something out of a recipe is straightforward. But bringing in a new ingredient instead takes a certain kind of culinary courage. Fight back the cultural taboos that tell you what does and does not go together! Experiment! Tasting of many different cultures’ cuisines will help. Ever had B’stilla? It’s a Moroccan “pie” that rocked my worldview. Phyllo dough layered with: shredded chicken spiced with sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom; ground almonds and powdered sugar; and scrambled eggs.

Sounds horrid, but I have never seen anyone biting into their first B’stilla exhibit anything but wide eyed, ecstatic marvel.

So, play around. Occasionally you’ll make a dud, and your husband will quietly raise his eyebrows across the table and politely refuse seconds. Once in a great while you might even have to throw food away. But far more often, you will be shocked with delight.

When it’s time to make dinner, I don’t consult a menu plan (though as I said, nothing against ’em. We all find our own way), I consult my fridge. I have a mental list of staples on hand, and as I peruse what needs using up from the fridge, I make test combinations in my head.

Me: “Oh, right, that smoked salmon’s getting old. Better make something with it. Ummm…. Salmon cakes? Too much work, I’m tired. Macaroni and cheesenfishnpeas? Na, we just had that. Hmmm… alfredo? Too rich, I’m not in the mood. Well, there is that half can of corn. Something Tex-Mex sounds good. No tortillas though. Cornbread and….? What if I put the fish in the cornbread? Hmmm…. That’s weird. But… I like it. And the corn, and some cheese? Maybe with half an onion chopped up? Say, that sounds pretty good! I’ve got a little a chunk of lime, I’ll make some Mexican slaw to go with it.

Dinner!

How do you manage the daily dinner routine?