My new approach to cooking: Filling in the holes

15 Mar

At my high school, we were allowed to bring in cheat sheets for all our chem, physics, and even religion tests. Those cheat sheets had limitations, of course: a periodic table with anything written on the front side, one sheet of formulas, or a bible, annotated however we saw fit. But as my husband and I were talking about this the other day, I realized that those cheat sheets helped teach me how to develop effective systems.

As a result, systems generally work for me. I’ve created systems around many of the nuisance things in life, like where I put my keys (in the same pocket in my purse every time or on the same table in our house) and how I take care of bills (unpaid bills sticking up in a folder on my desk, paid bills tucked inside the folder). Efficient systems help me deal better with odious or annoying tasks because I can get them done faster and with less thought.

That’s why I was kind of surprised that the Dinner: The Plan system was not working for me. But after my mild crisis, described in self-pitying detail in my last post, I realized that I needed to adapt the system to me. Trying random recipes was kind of stressful. My brain likes categories. I realized I needed to fill certain buckets of recipes, rather than just build new repertoire generally.

What I really needed were two to three tried-and-true ways to prepare all of the things we regularly eat. I also needed some recipes that were fast from start to finish and some recipes that I could put in the oven for at least 30 minutes so I’d have time to leave, get the Bug at daycare, and have dinner be ready when I got home. When I thought about it this way, I was much, much closer to my goal than I thought I was.

So here’s my (in progress) list of go-to recipes. I still have many holes to fill, but you get the picture:

Chicken parts

  1. Apricot-dijon glazed chicken
  2. Cornflake-crusted chicken

Whole chicken

  1. Roast splatchcocked lemon chicken
  2. Bittman’s simplest whole roast chicken, with variations (I actually roast mine according to the recipe in the original How to Cook Everything, but I am going to try the cast-iron skillet approach)

Pork: tenderloin or chops

  1. Spicy pork with parsnips and sweet potatoes. You can use cayenne or any rub.

[Some sort of beef]

  1. Oat-based meatloaf

Fish (especially salmon, trout, and shrimp)

  1. Shrimp and vegetable tempura
  2. Miso-glazed salmon


  1. Roasted veggies, especially sweet potatoes (or other root vegetables), broccoli and cauliflower, and Brussels spouts.
  2. Green beans with ginger and garlic
  3. Braised and glazed Brussels sprouts
  4. Brussels sprouts, apple, and bacon hash
  5. Lemon-garlic Brussels sprouts
  6. Greens with double-garlic


  1. Any pasta with Dave’s homemade red sauce and meatballs
  2. Penne with butternut squash, kale, and pecorino

Slow-cooker or other make-in-the-morning, eat-at-night dishes

I could use some help here.


  1. Roasted chickpeas (easy to make, and a big hit with the Bug)
  2. Perfect chocolate chip cookies (labor intensive, but they live up to the name)
  3. Any stir-fry or fried rice (great way to use up leftovers)
  4. Jim Lahey’s no knead bread (not fast, but very little hands-on time and good for when you’re spending a lot of time at home, say, with a newborn)
  5. Yogurt (like the no-knead bread, it’s not fast but good for when you have a lot of partially occupied time)
  6. Pizza with this sauce and this dough.

Not all of these are super fast, but they are reliable, tasty recipes that I can cook while only glancing at the recipe. I clearly need to fill out some of the categories, but it’s much more encouraging to think that I only need one more chicken parts recipe than that I need A BILLION NEW, EASIER RECIPES TO COMMIT TO MEMORY OR ELSE OUR FAMILY WILL BE EATING MAC AND CHEESE AND PEAS FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES! (Which, I am embarrassed to admit, is kind of how I’d been thinking.)

Do you have a favorite recipe that fits in these categories? Share it in the comments below.

Actually, there is quite a lot of room for failure

17 Feb

I have utterly failed in my 30-day cooking plan. I am not afraid to admit it. After December’s run of illnesses that took down Dave and the Bug, my finals, and the holidays, I came down with a cold that lasted most of January and have had no voice for the past three weeks. Then Dave got sick again about a week ago, the Bug caught another cold (fortunately, just sniffles and a cough), and one of our dogs even had to make an emergency trip to the vet for some scrapes he got on a hike last week. I am looking forward to the day when we are all healthy again.

With all of this, we pretty much completely abandoned cooking for ourselves. Dave made pasta with red sauce and meatballs (the red sauce and meatballs were, at least, homemade in a large batch and frozen for emergency meals) and mac and cheese with peas the past two nights. Tonight, the Bug and I ate from the Whole Foods prepared foods section. She picked out a citrus salmon, which, after insisting that it was chicken, she gamely tried, then spit out onto the table. I picked out a broccoli salad, which I must have left in the basket. Go team.

That all said, I have learned quite a few things from my experiment:

  • It kind of sucks to plan every home-cooked meal. It sucks in many ways, but mostly it sucks because you are the one responsible for pleasing everyone. That said, a lot of this was an experiment in trying to find some new recipes and expand our recently limited palate. But key to achieving this goal–and Rosenstrach addresses this right up front–is getting buy-in from the rest of your family. If you don’t have buy-in from at least the adults that this will be a month of trying new things, seeing what works, and moving on from what doesn’t, this will be a thankless endeavor.
  • It works if you work it. The good ol’ AA slogan applies to many things, including Rosenstrach’s smart strategies to get dinner on the table more efficiently and easily. Specifically, I’ve been pretty good about the end-of-week tasks: cleaning out the fridge before going grocery shopping, using up leftover veggies in recipes like stir fry and fried rice, and cutting up week-old fruit for snacks. The ones I had a harder time keeping up with were the beginning of week tasks: menu planning, shopping on Sundays (or any regular day of the week), and prepping the week’s meals on Sundays. These tasks would have greatly improved my success rate with getting meals on the table. I utterly failed to follow her meal-planning guidelines, such as having fish early in the week, cooking easy meals early in the week, etc.
  • I don’t like the recipes in Rosenstrach’s book. Or rather, my entire family doesn’t like them (except for the veggie tempura, which is a winner). Almost all of our misses were recipes from her book–although the rest of the disasters were from Martha Stewart Living or Everyday Food, which used to be two of my go-to sources. I even went back through old issues, since they had better recipes than the current ones, but…no. I bought Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast, but nothing has really jumped out at me from that, either. Which leads me to the saddest conclusion…
  • I just don’t enjoy cooking right now. Maybe it’s my ambivalence about unwillingly falling into this role of being a stay-at-home mom; maybe it’s just that, after two years, I’m sick of doing the vast majority of the meal planning, food shopping, and moderately healthy cooking (see mac and cheese and peas dinner above); maybe it’s that being sick for a month, in my third trimester, and trying to please my family has left me exhausted.

It’s this last one that I really need to sort out. I don’t know why, but this is the first time in my adult life that something that has given me so much joy for so long has become an absolute chore. Which is a bummer, because part of the goal of this project was to rediscover a love of cooking. I don’t have any answers on this one, but…to be continued, I’m sure.

Catching up | Recipe report cards

30 Jan

I have been sick for the past 2+ weeks, which has put a serious damper on my Dinner: The Playbook plan! This cold has really wiped out my energy, plus getting word that my iron levels are low with this pregnancy, has led us to eat a lot of hamburgers and other quick or store-bought meals. But here are a few updates on what I did cook.

Roasted broccoli and cauliflower, Dinner: The Playbook

Note: I served this with a store-bought rotisserie chicken.

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A. Easy peasy. Dave likes broccoli but not cauliflower, and I like both but my stomach isn’t a big fan of broccoli. This was the perfect “meet in the middle” side, and the red pepper flakes gave it just enough punch. Another good side for when you’re roasting anything else in the oven.
  • Kid’s grade: B+. The Bug does not like spicy food at all. She liked eating the little trees until she bit into a piece with a red pepper flake. “Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot!” We got her to drink some milk to cool her tongue down, and I picked out some pieces without pepper on them for her. But other than that, this would be an A+ for her.

Vegetable Tempura (with shrimp), Dinner: The Playbook p. 178

Note: This was a second attempt at the veggie termpura, making a few changes, as noted below.

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A-. This isn’t hard to make, but frying anything is labor-intensive and creates a fair bit of stovetop cleanup (even with a splatter shield). I tried a few things to speed up the frying, none of which I would recommend. First, I dumped the veggies and frozen (cooked) shrimp into the batter, then pulled them out one by one. Then I slid the contents of my battered veggie plate into the oil. This, as one can really guess, created a giant veggie tempura pancake, which worked OK, but it prevented the batter from crisping all the way around each vegetable. It was faster, but not by much, and I wouldn’t say the results were worth it. To add some protein, I also used frozen cooked shrimp, which ended up being a little tough. I can’t quite tell if I used the wrong brand or if I should use raw shrimp (I wasn’t sure if 6 minutes frying time was enough to cook shrimp). I want more from the sauce, though. Plain soy sauce just isn’t quite tasty enough for the yummy tempura.
  • Kid’s grade: A-. Bug likes anything with rice and anything she can dip. She ate the veggies but not the shrimp.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • As Rosenstrach concedes, this is a good recipe for when you have a little more time (it’s in her “keep the spark alive” recipe section). It’s great for a slightly special meal that doesn’t require too much time in the kitchen.
  • Use up your end-of-week veggies, and it becomes a fridge-cleaner recipe PLUS a fancy meal.
  • To save time:
    • Cut the veggies beforehand
    • Don’t skimp on the batter and frying process
    • Use a rice cooker. Even better, use a rice cooker with a timer and literally set it and forget it. You could probably add the rice vinegar to the cooking water.
  • We bought a SodaStream for ourselves for an early Christmas gift, and that makes this recipe so much more accessible. I drink a lot of fizzy water and Dave drinks a lot of soda, but keeping single-serving portions on hand created so much recycling. Since the recipe requires club soda (i.e., unflavored fizzy water), I just use it as an excuse to make a bottle of fizzy water to drink, saving a cup for the recipe.

Knockwurst with braised cabbage and apples, Martha Stewart Living, October 2004

  • Meal: dinner, sometime last week
  • Kid tried?: Sort of. She had a modified version.
  • Keeper?: Yes for parents, try again for the kiddo
  • Cook’s grade: A-. About a year and a half ago, when I made sauerkraut from scratch (soooooo tasty), I made a crock pot version of this dish, but I can’t find the recipe. I stumbled across this one while going through some old magazines and decided to try it. Cooking-wise, it’s fairly simple. It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes to cook, but you need to tend to it only a few times during that time. A crock pot version would be still easier. Since our local grocery had house-made bratwurst, I used that instead of knockwurst. The apple chunks get integrated pretty thoroughly in with the cabbage, which initially disappointed me, but I really enjoyed the flavor and texture. Dave said, “This is the best version that you’ve made of this dish.”
  • Kid’s grade: D. She had one bite of “hot dog,” and enjoyed putting her fingers in the mustard, but she mostly ate the buttered peas and corn that I gave her with it.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • Use a mandoline or–even faster–a food processor to cut the cabbage and onions, and prep is sooooo simple.
  • For extra flavor, I would brown the sausages before then. You’ll be at the stove periodically while the onions are softening, so although it adds another pan for cleanup, it doesn’t really add time to the recipe.



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Weekend cooking: Chocolate chip cookies and roasted chickpeas

14 Jan

Cook's Illustrated Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

This weekend, I found myself in a semi-clean kitchen with about 45 minutes before the Bug woke up from her nap. Too little time to prep dinner (since I hadn’t defrosted any meat) or sew a dress I’m working on for the Bug, too risky to practice mandolin… I know! I’ll make roasted chickpeas! The Bug and I tried them at the Discovery Museum last week, and she really liked them, so I thought they might make a good addition to the healthy, non-carb, some nutritional value snack list that we have going. (That list? Minty peas, cinnamon squash, and…that’s it.)

I used the Chow recipe for Spicy Roasted Chickpeas, although I mixed the ingredients right in the pan, rather than get a bowl dirty (see previous note about being in an already-semi-clean kitchen). They turned out really well, though I wish I had roasted them a bit longer and maybe waited for them to cool down more before storing them. After a day or two in a Pyrex, they lost some of their crunch. But, the Bug has eaten them a couple of days running, which is a good sign.

Inspired, I also made the Cook’s Illustrated Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, which live up to their name, even for someone who is as cookie-baking-challenged as I am. I baked the first batch a tiny bit too long, so they were a little crunchy on top. Too hungry for the second batch, I made them in a baking pan we usually use for roasting and cooled them on top of the stove. They flattened out quite a bit, but tasted delicious. I decided that this year, one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to perfect chocolate chip cookies.

The Bug woke up when I was almost done, and helped stir the batter and dump in the chocolate chips (eating a bunch). She had her first raw cookie dough (I know, it has raw eggs, but licking the spoon is one of the joys of baking) and after eating half a baked cookie, had her first demonstrated sugar rush. It was pretty cute watching her dance around the family room with chocolate on her face, clearly buzzing from the little bit of sugar.

Oat-based Meatloaf Recipe

14 Jan

We’re not sure where this recipe came from (maybe Dave’s Aunt Irene?), but there are plenty of variations on meatloaf with oatmeal online. Here’s the recipe Dave uses.


  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 2 handfuls Quaker oats (use steel-cut oats for a nuttier flavor, though you might want to let them soak in water for a bit before adding them)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1/2 onion
  • Salt
  • Pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Chop celery, carrots, and onion into chunks.
  3. Put cut veggies into a food processor and process until fine.
  4. Mix processed veggies with meat, egg, and uncooked oats in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Transfer to bread pan and cook in over at 400 for 45 minutes or until browned.

Aunt Irene recommends sauteeing the veggies before you add them to the meat, egg, and oats.

Meatloaf, plus Pork with Cherry Sauce | Recipe Report Card

14 Jan

After last week, I was kind of patting myself on the back for all the successes we’ve had so far. But this week is helping bring me back down to earth. On Monday, Dave had a hit with meatloaf with mashed potatoes and our favorite kale recipe, Bitman’s kale with double garlic (here’s a similar recipe that proves you can use it with any green). His meatloaf recipe uses oatmeal, and though he usually uses Quaker Oats, he swapped it for steel-cut oats this time (since that’s all we have). It was soooooo good.

Oat-based meatloaf (We’re not sure of the source.)

  • Meal: dinner, 1/12/15
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: Yes
  • Cook’s grade: A. Since Dave made it, I have no idea how easy or hard this was to make, but I do know it was delicious and clean-up was easy. The steel-cut oats added a really nutty flavor that helped it rise above your standard meatloaf. Although, I have to say, I do love even standard meatloaf.
  • Kid’s grade: B. The Bug tried it and ate some–enough to say that it was more successful for her than most of our dinners these days. She ate one bite of mashed potatoes, which used to be a favorite, and one bite of the kale, which is more than she usually tries.

On Tuesday, I made pork with cherry sauce, which I had marked in an old copy of Everyday FoodNot exactly a hit, and also a reminder not to cook anything from the more recent issues of Everyday Food.

Pork with cherry sauceEveryday Food December 2013

  • Meal: dinner, 1/13/15
  • Kid tried?: Yes
  • Keeper?: No
  • Cook’s grade: C. This was a fairly easy dish to make, and there were plenty of steps to do ahead, which streamlined the actual cooking. It was also very, very simple to clean up. But it just didn’t taste great. I’ve realized that, unless I’m frying something for real–like making fried chicken or tempura–I have no interest in dredging meat through flour and browning it in the pan. It seems like too much work, and I don’t enjoy the taste. The cherry sauce is more of a cherry topping, which was fine with me but disappointing to Dave. I also served it over polenta slices, baked in the oven, and that was not tasty at all. Better to go for creamy polenta or to pan-fry the slices (and maybe use better polenta than the prepackaged Trader Joe’s kind).
  • Kid’s grade: F. The Bug started pilfering the cherries from my plate, tried one, and then moved all the cherries on her plate over to mine. “No like cherries.” She tried a bite of pork, but was not interested in that, either. Dave called the polenta rounds “cookies,” but that didn’t work. “No like cookies.” (Which, for the record, is not true.)

Penne with Butternut Squash, Kale, and Pecorino | Recipe Report Card

8 Jan

Tonight’s dinner did not go as smoothly as last night’s. Trying to get the Bug home after the playground is always a challenge (“MORE PAYGROUN!” And then when I carry her away: “MY WALK!”), but when it’s a playgroup playground day and she’s getting hangry (I swear, she’s going through a growth spurt now in addition to getting her two-year molars), it is no fun. Pair that mad dash home with a fussy toddler who doesn’t want to hang out with Daddy, leaving him little choice but to stand directly behind me the entire time I am cooking, and it does not create an ideal cooking situation. Also, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE WATCH ME COOK! OMG I HATE IT SO MUCH! So, yeah, not ideal. I did remember to take a phone photo, though, so there’s that.

Penne with butternut squash, kale, and pecorino

Penne with Butternut Squash, Kale, and Pecorino, Tante Marie’s Cooking School

  • Meal: dinner, 1/8/15
  • Kid tried?: Kind of
  • Keeper?: Yes, with modifications
  • Cook’s grade: B. So, when I started this whole project, Dave said, “You used to cook all the time. Why don’t you just start making the recipes you used to make?” To which I responded, “I have no memory of what I used to make.” He, helpfully, reminded me that I took a lot of photos of food I made. (Many are probably on this blog somewhere.) This was one of those old standbys. My coworker Jen recommended it to me and it became a staple, until I decided that the prep was too arduous. Peeling and cutting a butternut squash into 1/4″ dice? AGONY! But I decided to break down the prep, cutting the squash last night and then during the Bug’s nap today, and it was much easier. Though, still only good for a week when you have time to prep a meal. The actual cooking is dead simple: one pot. See more notes below.
  • Kid’s grade: B. It involved pasta and cheese, so she liked it, and I think she would have liked the squash (which she normally does like), but she was fussy toddler tonight.

Cooking tips for busy parents:

  • Follow Jenny Rosenstrach’s advice from Dinner: The Playbook and prep as much as you can beforehand
    • Cut up the squash and clean and rip (I didn’t chop) the kale after you go food shopping
    • Either grate the cheese when you do the other prep or while you’re cooking the squash
    • Set out the nonperishable items on the counter the morning before you cook
    • Put a pot of salted water on the stove the morning before you cook
    • Do all that, and the cooking is easy peasy.
  • Minimizing clean-up has to do primarily with pot management.
    • Use one colander.
    • Drain the squash, then put it back in the bowl you had the raw squash in.
    • Drain the kale, then put it in the bowl with the squash. (If you are feeling adventurous, wash the salad spinner or whatever else was holding the kale while you cook the pasta.)
    • Drain the pasta and leave it in the colander.
    • Eyeball the olive oil, butter, garlic, and stock so you don’t have to clean measuring spoons/cups.
  • Dave’s beef with this dish is that it’s not flavorful enough. I like cleaner flavored food than he does, but I can see his point. Here’s what I am going to try next time:
    • More veggies, less pasta. I didn’t notice until after I cooked the whole bag of pasta that you’re only supposed to use 8 oz. Oops.
    • Double the garlic.
    • Use homemade chicken stock, if available. We use boxed, and the flavor is often…subtle. You could also put more stock in and boil it down longer, but this adds to the cooking time.
    • Use more cheese than recommended on the warm pasta.
    • Be generous with the salt and pepper.
    • Extra credit: cook the squash in the chicken stock. This will double the number of pots, but also reduce the cooking time since I could start the kale and squash at the same time.

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