weeknight staples

The current chatter I’ve been reading (mostly tweets) has been dealing with the idea that cooking “real food” doesn’t have to take a lot of time. That you can put a wholesome dinner on the table (often local/organic/sustainable/whatever) in 30 minutes or less. Hmm… no, that’s not quite right. The chatter is responding to Michael Ruhlman’s claim that average, working people do, in fact, have time to cook and make dinner and not rely on processed, packaged foods and the resulting fallout of his statements. Some people agree, some think he’s being arrogant, and some can see both sides.

I am of the camp that it does not take a lot of time to put a good dinner on the table. However, I can see how non-frequent cooks can get that impression. I think a lot of the meals and dishes highlighted in food blogs are a tad more complicated than your everyday weeknight meals. Personally, I rarely take a picture or think about writing up the fast, easy meals I make for dinner. One reason is because they usually aren’t photogenic.  Another is that there’s rarely a recipe.  It’s more like one part veggie, one part protein, sometimes a carb underneath: heat, eat, throw in dishwasher.  The main reason is probably this: if I’m rushing around and have to whip up dinner in half an hour, I don’t have time (or rather, don’t want to make the time) to make the plate look pretty, take a good photo, and sit down to write a post. The ones I take pictures of and write about are the ones I’ve spent a lot of time to prepare, so I want the four people who read this blog to see it, appreciate it… and then move on. Fried egg with veggies over quinoa? It’s cooked and eaten before the thought of a camera even pops up. Plus, if I’m squeezing dinner into 30 minutes, it’s because I have more important (to me) things to get done with the rest of my night.

However, I agree that the attitude of weeknight dinners needs to change. Weeknight dinners do not need to start with bags or jars to be fast. [Full disclosure: there is a box of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese in
the pantry and a box of frozen mac n’ cheese from Trader Joe’s in my
freezer. For desperate times when we’re home and I’m so hungry I can’t even think of putting a meal together. If we’re this desperate and not home, we go to Luc’s Bistro.] I do think you need to rely on the pantry and freezer to pull together last-minute dinners easily, if you aren’t one of those people who plans their week of cooking in advance (I am not one of those people). I don’t think relying on your freezer means stocking it with (homemade) frozen lasagna, casseroles, soups, etc.

Travis doesn’t really cook, and I think a lot of it is because he isn’t really sure what goes with what.  Plus, he’s equally happy eating pork & beans, lentil dal, teriyaki chicken, and sauerkraut.  It’s an eclectic taste, I guess.  He’s mentioned putting together a “weeknight dinner” card box.  It would have index cards of various things (pork chops, chicken, Italian sausage, steak, etc) and then a list of what you could make with them.  There would also be a section for veggies and starches, the idea being he could grab one card from each section and match them up to make a dinner.  To me, it doesn’t make sense because all that info is already in my head and because the veggies and starch components will depend on what we actually have (although, I guess if we did this for the week, we could go shopping for those things).  But, for him, it probably would be a great idea because all the tidbits of cooking prep I take for granted would be detailed for him in black and white.  He also doesn’t like recipes, so having him learn just some basic stuff would probably go a long way.  I suppose this applies to a lot of people out there.

I am in awe of the bloggers out there who churn out recipe after recipe, post after post, all with pretty picture collages and witty phrases. Maybe that’s what they do all day; maybe that’s their job. I don’t know how they fit it in with all the other things I’m sure they have to do in their busy lives, but they do. They just make it their priority. Blogging is not my priority. The moment it starts feeling like a job or obligation, I’ll probably get sick of it. But, I do like good food and I do like sharing it (both on the table and online), so I’ll just keep going for now.

So, here’s a little bit of “I’ll show you mine if you show my yours”. Here are some of the things I keep around to make dinner when I haven’t planned ahead. What do you do?

  • Frozen shrimp – you can do just about anything with these suckers, they thaw in minutes, and they cook up quickly. Shrimp cocktail, pan-fried shrimp (dust them in cornstarch to make them crispy), simmer in pasta sauce, serve over rice or quinoa or whatever, toss with veggies, make shrimp tacos. It’s an easy, fast protein.
  • Chicken breasts, pork chops, ground turkey – I know freezing meats “changes the texture”, but having them in the freezer means I only need to think a day in advance. I portion them out for the two of us and can throw them in the fridge the night before and then spend the day deciding what to do with it.
  • Frozen veggies – spinach, broccoli, soycutash, green beans, corn, peas, carrots (or that mix). I usually buy fresh produce, but sometimes you just don’t have any. Steamed, they’re a nice side to any fact protein. Mixed with canned tomatoes, it kind of becomes a sauce. I always have frozen spinach or broccoli because that’s what I mix into mac n’ cheese (see above disclosure) to add a tiny bit of healthiness into the meal.
  • Quinoa and polenta – I may be wrong, but I think these are healthier than white rice. They both cook up really quickly, you can throw in whatever veggies you have on hand, and if you have absolutely no protein in the house, you can top it all with an egg.
  • Whole chicken/chicken stock – there is often a whole chicken in the freezer because I buy them from Costco (I know, I know… but I like Costco and I’m probably not going to stop buying meat from them) and they come in a pack of two. Even when you buy the organic ones. So, I’ll roast one (usually on the weekend) and throw the other in the freezer. When I run out of frozen chicken stock, I make plans to cook the other chicken and then make more chicken stock.
  • Beans – at least I buy my beans from Rancho Gordo. Between the crockpot and pressure cooker, I can decide to use them for dinner that morning. Beans make a good side, taco filling, and soup. Right now, there’s a ham bone simmering away with beans and onions for dinner. No recipe, so I hope it turns out well.

There are various other things I tend to keep around (sausages, tomatoes, whole wheat pasta, etc) and, of course, I try to make enough so we have leftovers for lunch. I like to have a loaf of bread in the freezer, since you never know when you’ll want a sandwich, toast, garlic bread, or something to dip into soup. I should also mention that Travis is not very picky, so I don’t really have to work around what he’ll eat or won’t eat. I also don’t have any kids to deal with. And I don’t cook for my dogs. My life is pretty easy, but I do work full days and I like to have dinner done by 7pm so we can get to other things on our list and sometimes have time for exercise.  I’m a fan of fast dinners, but I pride myself on being able to make them “from scratch” more or less.  I think if everyone (who wants to learn to cook) could just learn the basics of how to meld ingredients together, they’d have a great start.


One response to “weeknight staples

  1. I have similar lists and I’m in a bit of a rut with my cooking, but I generally do a roasted veggie warm salad with quinoa, bulgar or something similar once a week, roasted veggies with chicken/home made veggie burgers, and then sometimes a curry.

    I usually make enough to have lots of leftovers too.

    I find that having tons of tins of beans help me out, because at a pinch I can empty out half a tin of beans into a bowl with a bunch of chopped veggies and its a healthy salad for lunch or dinner!

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