Friday, August 26, 2011

More with Less in the Kitchen

As a college senior,
I seem a little startled to have pulled
this Cornish hen from the oven. I actually
had to call the 1-800 number on the hen's
wrapper to find out how to cook it. 
For most of my childhood, I was banned from the kitchen. Determined to create "original" food, I refused to follow recipes, and while my seven-year-old self was quite happy with my "Alien Cake"  (a pinkish-gray combination of Kix cereal, peanut butter, strawberry NesQuik) and similar concoctions, my mother deemed these experiments wasteful. She told me I was not allowed to cook until I was willing to submit to a recipe, so for the next several years I stayed away from the kitchen.  My premature desire to invent foods eventually faded, but even in college cooking was something of a novelty for me.  I was always so pleased and proud of myself when I cooked anything that I would make my roommate take a picture as proof of my success.
Gazing with loving pride
at a fruit-and-yogurt Bundt cake

Knowing my sketchy culinary background, you might appreciate how ironic it is that after my last post  I received many requests for ideas about planning meals to correspond with my grocery-shopping values.
My marvelous friend Kt, among others, asked for some ideas regarding what to do with all the wise, thoughtful food we buy once it is in the kitchen.

As I reflect on the ways I plan my meals, I realize that I usually make my cooking choices based on the following values. Ideally, a meal will fulfill at least four of these criteria:

Meals should be nutritious 
Meals should build on my staples
Meals should follow the seasons 
Meals should be convenient
Meals should teach me

Meals should be nutritious

I still have much to learn about nutrition, but I do try to create meals provide good sources of protein, usually in the form of a grain plus a legume or dairy product. Less often, the protein comes from eggs or meat. Then I add vegetables. I tend to use broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, and leafy greens quite a lot.

Meals should build on my staples

One advantage to using More with Less as my core cookbook is that I have many good recipes for the basic staple goods the cookbook recommends. This means that I can plan a meal by checking my cupboard, picking one of my staples, and going from there. If I'm in the mood for rice, I might pair it with a green vegetable curry. If I want something less time-intensive, I'll simply cook the rice with red beans, butter and salt for a tasty and simple meal. If I have a loaf of bread in the kitchen, I can make a light lunch by drizzling the bread with olive oil, topping it with salad greens and parmesan, and then toasting it in the oven.  If I am cooking for others, I know how to turn stale bread into a basic souflée. Lentils can be baked with honey and a bit of bacon in the dutch oven, or turned into a soup.  Having at least four or five meals based on each of your staple dry goods ensures that you have an array of options when it comes time to plan a meal.

As a corollary to this value, I also try to cook meals that use up what I already have in the kitchen. I consider it a victory if I can prepare a meal without any last-minute trips to the grocery store.  Yesterday, for example, I decided to make a rice and lentil dish called kichiri. The recipe called for potatoes and cauliflower, but since I didn't have either, I used canned chickpeas instead of potatoes and the last of the salad greens instead of cauliflower.

Meals should follow the seasons 

Following the seasons can be a challenge, especially if you live in a place where fresh food is only available during the summer.  However, with a little research you can find out what foods are growing in your area, and many grocery stores and farmers' markets will suggest recipes for in-season foods (click here for a really cool "peak-season" food map, with recipes and tips for each food listed).  I love the sense of rhythm and reward that comes with eating in season. Enjoying high-summer tomatoes, autumn squash, and winter greens helps me pay attention to all the beautiful changes that come with each season. 

As an added resource, the publishers of More with Less have released a book about seasonal cooking, Simply in Season. Sadly it is not yet part of my library.

Meals should be convenient

While I do love to cook, I don't love it enough to spend hours each day in the kitchen.  I tend to prefer straight-forward, unfussy meals, and I have little patience for dishes that collapse, explode, or scorch if I try to step away from the stove. Certainly, I have tended pots of buttery risotto, made pâte à choux from scratch, lured boiling vats of caramel into submission, and topped pies with homemade whipped cream, but I only cook like that for special occasions.  Everyday meals should require one or two pots and minimal preparation. Thus, I cook many of my favorite meals in my life-saving Crock Pot (this blog features a whole year's worth of slow-cooker recipes). In the winter I make several soups each week, and I like to freeze portion-sized containers of soup for easy meals at the office or on busy days.

Meals should teach me

Ever a student, I enjoy learning as I cook. Sometimes this means learning about the places where "Groundnut Stew" or kichiri are "daily bread." Good little Baptist girl that I am, I have always enjoyed learning about different cultures and countries through food.

At other times, I will plan meals that teach me a new skill. For example, I love soup, and so I often will try a new soup recipe if I think it will teach me a new secret for making good broth.  In the same way, because baking bread has become an important part of my homemaking, I often plan meals around a new kind of bread I wish to learn how to make.

The meal I cooked last night gives a good idea of how these principles can come together. Peaches were in season and on sale at the grocery store, and I bought some because I've wanted to learn how to make fruit chutneys for a long time.  However, since chutney doesn't really work as a main dish, I used my Extending the Table cookbook to find an Indian entree that called for ingredients I already had. Kichiri is a kind of stew using rice and lentils, and I have plenty of both. Add flat bread to go with the chutney, and my meal was complete!

These values will evolve as my home and circumstances continue to change, but for now they provide me with a flexible structure for planning, cooking, and learning.

What values or criteria do you use for meal-planning? What are some "musts" for the meals you make?


  1. Bethany,
    I really enjoyed this post. I've always loved to cook, but I'm definitely not much of a recipe cook. In fact, I've been thinking of writing my own cookbook called "Cooking for the Picky Husband". Whenever I want to make something, I look at several recipes to get an idea of the different takes on it, and basic amounts, and then I make it my way, substituting onions for mushrooms or making other small changes to fit the tastes of my picky husband.
    Thanks for the interesting post!


  2. Bethany, visit It's my history of food. My very little kids are there shown making a cheese ball. I had the same experience as your mama with a determined creative daughter in the kitchen. I couldn't convince her that pepper, granola and vanilla wouldn't make a cookie unless you added some liquid! Eating a preschooler's idea of cooking is like trying to identify her artwork.

  3. I still remember the "Alien Cake" and though it was the consistency of chewing gum than cake, it tasted wonderful! (And one didn't have to eat a lot to enjoy it for a long time.)