I have been, for months, in a meal planning slump. Every weekend, I will stare at the calendar and blink at it, hoping each time I open my eyes there will be a list of appealing, easy dinners penciled into the coming days.
Instead, I fill it up with a combination of things I’m bored of making and eating or recipes that seem like a good idea on Sunday but a terrible one on Wednesday when I get home from work and just don’t feel like cooking.
The result: last minute reservations.
On Friday, I was out with a friend who teaches in a Philadelphia public high school. “Most days, these kids don’t eat any vegetables,” said my friend, despairing.
Mentally, I ticked back through my own meals of the week–I should point out that this very conversation took place of plates of meats, pastry, and fried cheese–and realized that I had barely eaten a veggie myself.
The worst part is, I actually love vegetables, even the unpopular ones like lima beans and cabbage. The fact that I don’t eat enough of them often really troubles me. The fact is, produce is harder and more time consuming to prepare than meats, cheeses, and breads. And then there’s the fact that my husband, like most husbands, is a bit vegetable resistant.
On Saturday, I started reading a book that’s been on my to-read list for a while: An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. It’s less a cookbook than a meditation on cooking, and truth be told there are moments of barely tolerable California-speak in it. But about a quarter of the way into the book, I was overcome with the compulsion to walk into my kitchen and start cooking.
The idea of cooking what you already have on hand to minimize waste is central to the book. I pulled out a slightly withered potato, a quart of leftover chicken stock, some boxed baby arugula going slightly yellow around the edges, and a cube of salt pork leftover from a rice and beans recipe. Along with chopped onion and garlic, this became a fortifying lunchtime soup, bits of crispy pork, cubes of potato, and a confetti cut of arugula drifting in a fragrant broth.
Emboldened, I retrieved an old quarter of cabbage, graying all over the exposed surfaces, and peeling and trimming it to expose its still-good interior. I shredded it, and tossed it with salt for about an hour to purge excess liquid and make it more tender. Meanwhile, I made mayonnaise to dress the cabbage and act as dip for the remaining potatoes, which I cut into wedges and roasted.
These simple provisions were delicious enough that we avoided a restaurant trip on Saturday, the day before we shop when we are especially vulnerable to impulse trips out to eat. Before I started reading the book, I thought we had “nothing in the house.”
On Sunday, I went to the supermarket with a very different plan. Instead of approach the week, recipe-first, I stacked my list with foods I wanted to eat. Namely, vegetables. I bought:
1 head broccoli
1 head cauliflower
4 large beets
1 medium butternut squash
1 large head red leaf lettuce
2 bulbs garlic
1 bunch parsley
Additionally, I bought a whole chicken, plus the usual milk and eggs. Before I went to Whole Foods, I strolled down to Mancuso & Son’s cheese shop on East Passyunk Avenue to buy a pound of excellent fresh ricotta cheese. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, but I love eating and I haven’t had it in a long time. It seemed like some Tamar Adler would do.
When I got home, I preheated the oven to 400 and roasted all the vegetables (except of course the lettuce, shallots, and parsley) in one shot. As per Adler’s suggestion, I roasted the squash whole and only peeled and de-seeded it when cool, at which point, I mixed it up with sauteed onions, pureed roasted garlic, and chicken stock.
Meanwhile, I cleaned and stored the lettuce and minced all the shallots. When the vegetables were finished, I roasted the chicken.
I was banking on the idea that if I had a lot of cooked and prepped components in the fridge, I would be able to easily and spontaneously assemble dinners and lunches all week long.
Here’s how the week has shaped up so far:
Sunday: Roast chicken with beet salad
Monday: Chicken and vegetable pizza with salad
Tuesday: Leftover pizza and salad
Wednesday: Dinner at Rangoon, drinks at Hop Sing (sometimes you need a midweek break)
Thursday: Butternut squash soup with beet salad and toasted baguette
Friday: Either pasta with roasted vegetable pesto or roasted vegetable and ricotta frittata with salad
I anticipate turning leftover beets into beet hummus for weekend lunches. I had enough leftover squash soup to put a quart in freezer for later. I anticipate having no waste. I have been throwing handfuls of parsley leaves into everything. Leftover chicken meat became a yogurt-based salad for sandwiches for Dan’s weekday lunches. The carcass was stored in the freezer for future stock. I ate a heap of roasted broccoli and cauliflower paired with a scoop of ricotta and topped with homemade butter-toasted breadcrumbs every day this week for lunch. It was delicious, filling, healthy, and good at room temperature.
I’m finished with the book now, but I know I will continue to draw inspiration from it for a while. There’s an ultra-simple olive oil based tart shell I want to make ASAP and a recipe for a strong-sounding Italian salsa verde.
Getting meals together all week has been much easier this week that its been for a while, but I must acknowledge I put in a full day of labor on Sunday shopping, chopping, cooking, storing, and cleaning up. It was definitely worthwhile, but it is tough for anyone to set aside that much time each weekend. I doubt I will during the upcoming one.
But I will try to get a couple trays of veggies in the oven to roast because I now realize I will eat them if I make it easy for myself.