I’m glad those raw sushi rolls got such an enthusiastic response, and that some of you have already tried them! I haven’t yet eaten more of the cashew ginger pate, but I’m hoping to throw it into some lunches later this weekend.
“What’s for dinner?” It’s the questions that millions of people the world over ask themselves (or each other) every single night. I’m a born planner, so I usually have a sense of exactly what’s for dinner long before dinnertime rolls around. Planning a week’s worth of meals and leftovers keeps me organized and saves me money. There are those errant nights, however, when I come home with virtually no idea of what I want to prepare.
In the early days of my career as a cook, these evenings would terrify me. How on earth was I supposed to plan a coherent meal unless I’d read, memorized, printed, and practiced the recipe verbatim? How would I be certain that the food was nutritious and balanced and tasted good? As time went by, and my skills as a home chef were sharpened, it became easier and easier for me to face a blank canvas at dinnertime with a sense of imagination and fun, rather than dread and bewilderment.
Of course, the process of planning a meal from scratch and at the last moment is not entirely without method. If you’re at home facing a stocked fridge and pantry, but have no clue as to how to create a meal, simply follow these three steps:
1) Empty the contents of your fridge so that they’re orderly and visible. Yes, you may make a giant mess on your kitchen floor, but you won’t know what’s on hand to work with until it’s before your eyes. So often, we miss the chance to construct a great meal because we’ve virtually lost track of what we have and what we don’t.
2) Consider your macronutrient groups: carbs, proteins, and healthy fats. While I’m not generally a believer that a proper meal must include each and every food group each and every time–this kind of dietician’s thinking can become highly oppressive–I do think that planning one’s dinners around at least one source each of protein, carbs, and fat is the key to staying nourished and sated.
How do you know which foods are which? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule — nuts, for instance, are technically proteins and fats. And though I wouldn’t classify broccoli or kale as a protein, per se, it’s important to remember that they are quite high in protein. In other words, very few foods don’t offer more than one kind of macronutrient. But I generally think along these lines:
There are obviously many more foods that would fit into these categories, but this is just a quick sampling of the main stars.
So, take a protein (say, beans) and think: OK, how can I also pair this with a healthy source of complex carbs? This may mean layering hummus on sprouted bread; it may mean putting your beans in a starchy and comforting stew (think: sweet potato and kidney bean chili); it may mean tossing them with quinoa and vinaigrette and making a cool grain salad. If you’re making a raw meal and want to use nuts/seeds as a protein, think about which veggies are nutrient rich and will round out the meal: kale, seaweed, and broccoli are always great choices (and kale and broccoli will add yet more protein).
Before you finish cooking, you’ll want to think about enhancing any of these meals with some healthy fat, like avocado slices, a bit of olive oil on veggies or in the cooking process, or perhaps a drizzle of a creamy sauce (like cashew alfredo).
And–this is crucial–always be sure that vegetables take the starring role in your meal. Yes, it’s important to include macronutrients and density on your dinner plate, but if roughly 50% of what you plan on eating isn’t a vegetable, you may want to think twice about how you can up the veggie ante.
3) Use your pantry to add flavor and character to the meal. It’s all well and good to say, “tonight, I’m eating beans and grains and greens,” but a dash of cumin can turn those ingredients into a Mexican feast, while ginger and rice wine might be the foundation of an Asian-inspired dish. Pick your spices carefully, and have a general sense of what herbs/spices compelment each other and add ethnic flair. For instance:
Cumin, cinnamon, coriander, garam masala, curry, and ginger are often the stars of Middle Eastern and Indian dishes
Oregano, basil, thyme, parsley are abundant in Italian cuisine
Rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, fennel seed work nicely in authentic American comfort foods, such as rosemary mashed potatoes
Cumin, garlic, onion, and cilantro are frequent stars of Mexican dishes.
Once you’ve taken all of these steps, you should be in a position to throw together an organized, tasty, and harmonious dinner!
Of course, these tips are all well and good on paper, but I’m sure some of you are thinking, “I’m still not sure how this would work.” Let me take you back in time, then, to Monday night around 5 p.m. Still at the office, I began thinking about what I had to work with for dinner. I knew I had a few cups of cooked millet (I always make grains in my rice cooker on Sundays, to use as I’d like for the week ahead). I’m never short on beans, which are probably my favorite source of protein. I knew I had red peppers and vegetable broth in the fridge, as well as some leftover canned whole tomatoes. I always have carrots and celery, and I had some onions lying around, which I was determined to use in such a way that I wouldn’t taste them too much. And my pantry is always well stocked on spices, especially the Middle Eastern and Indian sort: cumin, garam masala, coriander, curry.
I thought about doing a millet/chickpea stirfry with garam masala and curry, but when I remembered those lovely, cheap farmer’s market peppers, my dinner aspirations grew loftier, and the notion of stuffed peppers were born.
Savory Millet Stuffed Peppers (Serves 4, or 6 as an appetizer)
4 large red peppers, cut in half vertically (that is, stand them upright and slice them right down the center, rather than chopping off the top — this makes them cook more evenly!)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large stalks celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 can chickpeas, drained
3 cups millet, cooked
1/2 small can organic chopped tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen brand)
3/4 cup low sodium, organic vegeteble broth
1 1/2 tsps garam masala
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp curry
1/2 tsp salt
Dash white pepper
2 tbsp hummus (optional)
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a baking dish and lay the eight pepper halves down. Give them a tiny spray or drizzle of coconut oil and a dash of salt and pepper, and put them in the oven to begin cooking as you prepare the filling.
2) Sautee the onion and grlic in the coconut oil for about five minutes, or till they’re translucent. Add the carrots and celery, and sautee till those vegetables are tender (about 5-10 minutes more).
3) Add all remaining ingredients except for hummus and warm them through. If the mixture is really thick, add more broth; if it’s soupy, raise the heat and let some of the liquid dissolve. Check seasonings and adjust as you like; this dish should be modified to fit you palate!
5) Remove peppers from oven. They should be quite cooked by now, which means that they won’t need much more oven time. Stuff about 1/3 cup of the mix into each pepper half. Reserve any remaining filling for leftovers. Place the stuffed peppers in the oven, and cook for about ten minutes.
Serve and enjoy!
I served this dish with some roasted broccoli (toss 3 cups broccoli florets in safflower oil, salt, pepper, and red chili flakes; bake at 400 for about twenty-five minutes) and raw carrots and hummus. It was love at first bite.
All the proof I could ask for that dinner on the fly can be delicious, wholesome, and balanced. It’s nice to think that situations like this — making dinner for two after a long day, and with very little planning in place — no longer scare the pants off me. In fact, I’ve come to enjoy rising to the challenge of the “what’s for dinner?” question. Where I once let recipes and cookbooks lead me, I now let my imagination gallop away, and it’s a lovely feeling.
What’s the last spontaneous dinner you made? How did it turn out? And how do you plan dinners on the fly?