May 7, 2012

Template Cooking

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?

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  • Julie: Sarah, you have perfectly described how I like to shop, keep the pantry filled, and get dinner on the table (but you’ve done it way better than I could have). So happy this system is working well for you!6 years ago

  • Amy: My template is super similar: I make chicken on Sundays and use it creatively throughout the week. I usually make a pot roast or something early in the week, too, because it stands up for leftovers. My other “trick” is to buy a lot of fruits and nuts and keep them in plain site with small tupperware so that I can take them for snacks quickly and easily.

    Love this post!6 years ago

  • Kristina Strain: I love your ability to offer fresh wisdom on tired subjects! Our anchor protein is usually beans, which can be tricky to work with, especially in spring. They don’t play so well with asparagus and tender lettuce, those beans. But, we manage. Eggs are good, too. Marinated beans and grains in a salad, sauteed kale with eggs or garlicky black beans. We make a version of that broccoli spread you mentioned, with white beans thrown into the mix as well.6 years ago

  • Amy C: I do something super similar! We have a main protein on monday night (let’s say, chicken and pork kabobs with rice and roasted vegetables). The next night I slice up the leftover chicken and throw it in a salad with the roasted vegetables. The next night I will chop up the leftover pork and throw it in with the leftover rice into a soup of some sort. and so forth. We end up wasting very little, and it saves sooo much money on our groceries.6 years ago

  • Cadi: The idea of an ‘anchor’ protein has always been what’s helped me, too. That and a well-stocked pantry, many thanks to my dear Mom for teaching me how to have one. I also make up a weekly menu plan, with a couple of really easy things that practically make themselves (I call this ‘cooking from the hip’ – salads, vegetable hash with eggs, baked potatoes or loaded quesadillas) and a couple of things that require brain power and kitchen bustling (for nights when I need cooking catharsis). This way, at the end of the day, I have a couple of options and it saves us a ton of money as I’m only grocery shipping once every 5 days. And if nothing else sounds good, that’s when we have a Breakfast for Dinner night.

    Glad you are finding some tools to help you! As much as we love food, it shouldn’t be a struggle to get a healthy dinner on the table, but we manager to make it that way sometimes!6 years ago

  • Monday's Nugget-Lana: We’re vegetarians, so our protein is often in the form of a grain or a bean. Right now, with the temperatures unseasonable warm and the smell of grilled meat filling the evening air, I have been craving burgers. But what I realized is that it’s not the meat I crave. It’s all the goodies that top a good burger. So if we have beans-n-rice one night, I form them into patties and lightly pan fry them the next night, topping with all my favs. Red onion with aruglua and smoked gouda? Winner Winner UN-CHICKEN dinner! 🙂6 years ago

  • Melissa @ Hilltop Hausfrau: Oh yes…this is home economics at it’s very best!

    Basically, I have the colourful Canadian Food Guide’s wheel of our four basic food groups emblazoned in my brain and cook from it. (Canadian kids…I’m sure American ones too, review the wheel closely in our early grades, over and over…) It results in applying more or less the “template” you speak of here.

    As well as considering the four food groups, I try to consider the plate I’m about to serve: are there MANY colours on it?? I’m a disciple of Jamie Oliver, what can I say?!

    For real: my mom is a home economics teacher from Switzerland. That has given me confidence. She was and still is my biggest culinary influence 🙂6 years ago

  • Alexis: I absolutely love this post. So many people discuss meal planning right down to the snacks you’re going to eat every day, and while that works for some people I simply cannot do it. I would rather have a “template” as you put it, and outline for the basics of what I’ll be cooking for the week and fill in the gaps depending on what’s on sale in terms of produce that week and how I feel about a certain food. Great post, thank you!6 years ago

  • Elizabeth: I’m just really glad you’ve given me permission to use store bought sauce 🙂6 years ago

  • Ashley: It sounds kind of silly, but my template is that I make the same things on the same nights each week – Monday is pasta, Tuesday is soup, Wednesday is rice/grain and Thursday is salad. It makes my life super simple bc I only have to choose what *kind* of thing to make in that particular category and the menu can change all the time. when we ate meat, I had a similar system based on chicken, pork, beef and fish.

    I do the same for breakfast – mon is eggs, tues oatmeal, weds pancakes, thurs yogurt and granola and fri peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This system has made my life so much less stressful bc I don’t have to really think. I just do.

    Friday nights are always a big pizza party or I eat out if I’m alone.6 years ago

  • katy: I love this and it’s so true! I’ve been realizing lately that, while I love the blogosphere and food magazines and all my shiny cookbooks, I don’t *need* them to cook dinner; I simply like having them around for inspiration and for the simple pleasure of reading them!

    This also comes on the heels of my having read “An Everlasting Meal” (so so lovely and wise). Between it and a few kitchen successes, I’ve started letting my intuition guide me a little more. It’s a wonderful feeling. It makes me think that I’ve finally arrived! 🙂6 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: Such great tips! I have a rotation of about a dozen recipes – soups, pasta, pizza, some Tex-Mex dishes – that I fall back on. Many of those either revolve around chicken or are vegetarian. Making a shopping list and sticking to it is also key for me.6 years ago

  • Tracey: I love this post! I have been trying to cook this way for awhile. You reminded me that I can use those jars of tikka masala sauce I have in my pantry (which I’ll be doing tonight, so thanks!). I also just read The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler which totally got me thinking about what and how I cook in a whole new way.6 years ago

  • These are great ideas! I like to keep a note going on my iPhone of simple dinner ideas–I’m definitely adding a bunch of these.

    I’m so glad a couple of you mentioned An Everlasting Meal. I read Tamar’s essay in Salon and found her writing elegant and enchanting. Of course I so admire her approach of graceful economy.

    And katy, I love the sentiment of having “arrived”! It sounds silly, but that’s honestly how I feel, too. It’s so freeing!

    And y’all, those jarred Indian sauces are no joke! Resistance is futile!6 years ago

  • Anita: At 47 I’m finally taking the plunge and going vegetarian. I’m doing it slowly and I finding a whole new world in recipes and flavors. Truffle oil has become and obsession.6 years ago

  • Laureen: I just got An Everlasting Meal. Two pages in and I love it already…..6 years ago

  • Anne Marie: Sarah,
    I love this post! I think this ability to find a template/formula is what builds confidence in we homecooks. How great is it to come home from a long day and know that with some basic staples and know how we can make dinner work, satisfy, and yearn for next week. Awesome.
    My go to protien lately has been shrimp. Quick and easy and takes on marinade and sprng/summer herbs so well! Super quick…zest a orange, squeeze the juice of the orange, add some thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper and marinate shrimp in mixture for 30 min (15 minutes is ok, too.) Sautee until cooked and serve with broccoli and brown rice. Booyah! Hello, Tuesday night.6 years ago

  • JimNotMike: I use this approach too. I call it “Cooking By The Seat of My Pantry”. My life became so much less stressful when I stopped worrying about having a recipe handy and closed my eyes and grabbed something out of the pantry or fridge. So many more wonderful combinations come to light.6 years ago

  • Terry: Great post! I have a chili template: some sort of ground meat, some sort of beans, some sort of sweet peppers, onions, garlic. Then the optionals or extras: tomatoes, carrots, an ancho chili in adobo? Whatever… sometimes I turn it into mole chili by adding cocoa powder, sometimes it gets “curried”, sometimes I cube the protein instead of using ground. Sometimes it’s over pasta, or over rice, or wrapped up in a tortilla like a burrito… or just in a bowl smothered in shredded cheddar and chopped scallions.

    And then there’s the stir-fry template… 🙂6 years ago

  • Diana Erickson: For some reason, this is all very timely information for me. I was missing a method template.6 years ago

  • oriste: Bravo! You’ve discovered the time-honored traditional Cretan way of cooking.6 years ago

  • Just glanced at the first book and it looks amazing! I can already feel the creativity flowing…Awesome recommendation!6 years ago

  • Geek+Nerd: Pizza dough. I make a basic recipe in bulk and nearly always have extra dough lurking in the freezer or the fridge. It’s the perfect blank canvas for a slew of leftovers – the possibilities are truly endless. One of my easy faves? Brush the dough with a little olive oil and herbes de provence, cover with greens (any kind really), chopped walnuts and cheddar cheese. Easy. healthy. done.6 years ago

  • Nancy: There are days when I just cannot face cooking. And I will buy a roast chicken. We eat it as you do and then the next night I will make chicken pies with whatever is in the cupboard – with chickpeas cannelinni beans etc. Or if I am feeling super lazy just toss it through linguini with barely cooked tomatos and red onion. That night I will also put the chicken bones in my stock pot with whatever sad looking veges that are in the fridge and make stock for the freezer or to have the next night. It’s one of those meals that I really stretch out and I always feel good because I have really used most of the chicken. It works wonderfully with home cooked roast chicken (or any roast meat) and you feel super virtuous afterward.6 years ago

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