My cooking strategy: small tasks + improvise

In my house, we’ve ended up dividing our chores in a way that I am the primary brains behind meals and cooking. My husband does a LOT of other household tasks so please don’t think I’ve got the raw end of the deal. And he often is happy to prep mise en place (thank you Top Chef for teaching us that awesome phrase we abuse daily) and sometimes even execute my ‘executive chef-ed’ meal ideas (HT again to Top Chef). Plus I care about what we eat and I do enjoy the creativity that comes with cooking.

But, it is also a big source of stress. This past summer the ante was upped because our toddler’s summer Montessori program — which serves snacks and lunch each day during the regular school year — did not serve lunch. So, not only did I have to make sure we were all fed each evening for dinner, I needed to have meals for lunch. And the toddler lunches had to pretty much be served cold.

The well-placed meal planning white board in our kitchen cruelly taunts.

The well-placed meal planning white board in our kitchen cruelly taunts.

I was on a pretty good meal planning kick for a while, but recently my kitchen spirit has become utterly non-committal. Our genius meal planning white board in the kitchen taunts.

All is not lost, though. I’m actually a trained (and ingrained) improvisor. I’ve dabbled in comedy, theater and movement improv forms. And now I embrace kitchen improvisation. That combined with breaking meal-prep into small tasks (chopping, roasted, pre-cooking) whenever we can fit them in during the week, it’s how we roll, for better or worse. I’ve also embraced Costco, and keep things like chicken stock, canned tomatoes, garbanzo beans on hand for inclusion at a moment’s notice.

Some recently improvised meals:

Chicken sausage, kale, garbanzo soup – In a Dutch oven, brown some chopped onions, then add chopped garlic stir in pan for a minute, add chicken sausage (I like to use uncooked, no casing sausage) and brown until fully cooked. (I added some spices I had on hand here, too.) Add chopped carrot cook until soft.  chopped kale and cook until soft. Add garbanzo and cook for a couple of minutes. Add a can of diced tomatoes. Mix it all up. Then add a box of chicken stock. Simmer and then season to taste with salt and pepper. So simple, super yum and kid friendly. Easy improvisations I might try in the future: use kidney beans (thanks to Costco, a little heavy on cans of kidneys in my basement), swiss chard, meatless, winter squash, noodles.

Slow-cooked beef short ribs over rice – In a dutch oven or skillet brown all sides of short ribs. Line bottom of slow cooker with chopped onions and garlic. Top with browned short ribs. Add fresh parsley, bay leaf of two, tomato paste and can of diced tomatoes. Add 2 cups of dry red wine. Slow cook for 7 hours. I’ve done similar with pork shoulder. Easy improvisations to try: create more of a rub and cook in dutch oven; create a sauce deglazing with wine; serve with potatoes instead of rice.

Beef quesadillas – Weeknight meal made from short ribs leftovers. Cheese, corn tortillas, beef, fried (no oil needed) on a skillet. Need I say more? Serve with side of guacamole and salsa. Easy improvisations: taco salad, burrito, taco bar with fixings.

Roasted butternut squash soup – Chop squash into bite sized pieces. Toss with a little oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 400 or so for 40-45 minutes. Meanwhile chop and then brown onion and garlic in a dutch oven or stock pot until soft. Add any spices you might like (curry, cumin, cilantro, cinnamon work well – improvise!). Add roasted squash and mix well. Add stock or broth. Mix well and simmer. Puree using and immersion blender (my favorite kitchen machine) or in batches uses a traditional blender. Easy improvisations I’ve tried: add cream or coconut milk at the end; add roasted carrots or any other roasted root veg.

If you have easy improvise-able meals you like to do, please share!