Things in the kitchen have been going uncharacteristically well. In the past, I’ve put a lot of pressure on dinner to transform my days and have stood in deli sections of grocery stores having near meltdowns about what to cook. But lately, I’m happy to report, the matter of dinner has been shockingly easy.
You wouldn’t think a night of Chinese takeout would result in a week of serendipitous, off-the-cuff cooking, but there it is. I believe its key role was that of confidence-booster. One night I threw leftover steamed broccoli in the food processor with toasted walnuts, garlic, and olive oil, and out came a creamy pesto. We ate it on pasta that night, and later in the weekend I spread it on a leftover heel of baguette for a snack. It was bracingly garlicky and shockingly good. The effect of that pesto was that I stood a little taller: maybe I know more than I give myself credit for. Maybe all this reliance on recipes is slowing me down.
For many of us, I think this might be true. Think of all the recipes you’ve read in life. The cookbooks on the shelf. The blogs we turn to for inspiration. We know how to cook dinner. We know the little tricks, that shallots or garlic or lemon or chile pepper can perk up an otherwise simple dish. But maybe it’s our desire for something new, something more creative, something more beautiful that keeps us looking outward when really, we’ve already accumulated quite a number of the answers ourselves.
I’ve been afraid to write about this for fear the ease would stop, but it’s like this: there’s food in my fridge, and somehow I am able to bring bits and bobs together into simple, delicious meals, again and again. This has been going on for about two weeks now. There’s been no agony, no frantic looking at recipes at 4 o’clock. I don’t know if the stars are on my side or I finally decided to rely on what I already know, but guys: it’s working! Here’s what I’ve gleaned as the takeaways of this system:
Buy an anchoring protein. For me it’s roast chicken. I’ve got my easy method that turns out something succulent with zero effort, and on Sunday nights we eat what feels like our most traditional meal of the week: roast chicken, a big green salad, and some kind of grain. Throughout the week, I throw leftover roast chicken into lunchtime salads and then on one weeknight later in the week I’ll made a chicken curry with my favorite store-bought sauce, steamed cauliflower, and whatever seasonal produce I’m feeling excited about (see below).
The template stays the same but the details change. One week our chicken curry will be madras, the next, vindaloo. Sometimes my lunchtime salads are made with quinoa and spinach. Then it’s farro and pea shoots. The roast chicken stays the same, but the dressing on the salad changes. We haven’t been doing this for months and months, but so far this spring, it feels like a system that works.
Buy seasonal produce you’re excited about. This is key to changing up details in the template. I felt really excited about the ruby red radishes last week. I sliced them so thin you could see through them when held to the light and tossed them in a salad with the tenderest butter lettuce. The next day, I felt happy to throw them in a lunch time dish with leftover chicken, spinach, and a lemon dressing. Next, asparagus. I chopped them up and added them to our late-week chicken curry. I peeled them into long ribbons another night and tossed them with pea shoots. The creative challenge became, “what else can I do with this wonderful vegetable using what I already have on hand?” Another key: Keep veggies in plain sight in the fridge so they’re not forgotten.
Fill your pantry with a supporting cast of grains. This also plays a big part in making the template approach feel new. Some days you just don’t want quinoa. I like to have red, brown, and black rice, farro, barley, couscous, and those bags of quick-cooking mixed grains sold at Trader Joe’s. Lately I’ve also been springing for fresh pasta in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Maybe it’s psychological, but it feels so much more sumptuous.
Do you have some templates you turn to week after week? For those weeks when cooking feels really easy, what are your secrets?