“What is your favorite dish to cook?” This is one of the most asked questions among cooks yet it’s not always an easy one to answer. Most of us have a handful of “go-to” recipes in our arsenal; dishes we’ve made many times and are guaranteed to leave the plates of our guests clean. While cooking what is familiar is a great way to approach cooking I would propose a slightly different model.
I call this ingredient driven cooking, or “what’s in the fridge” cooking. For the seasonal food fans and farmer’s market enthusiasts this would be referred to as“what’s at the farmer’s market this week” cooking. Adapting your dinner to a handful of ingredients instead of the other way around is a learned skill, yet when practiced it can truly spice up your weeknight dinner routine and your weekend guests will be impressed!
The ingredient driven model is all about quality. This is a rising trend with many new “farm to table concepts” entering the food scene. If a chef is planning a menu in April you better bet the young asparagus that barely needs bending to snap in half and the firm, plump and earthy shiitake mushrooms just harvested are going on the menu instead of a greenhouse cucumber or tomato. From those two ingredients a laundry list of dishes can be created:
• Creamy mushroom risotto with herbed crusted salmon and roasted asparagus
• Asparagus, goat cheese and mushroom frittatas
•Pizza with mushrooms, asparagus, shaved parmesan and prosciutto
•Creamy asparagus soup with balsamic marinated mushroom topping
...just to name a few that come to mind.
This style is very vegetable/fruit driven, which means your family is eating healthy and local food all week long! Most starches and proteins can easily work around any fresh seasonal item you might have access to. This could create anxiety for the recipe-following type A cook, but it is much less random than it seems. While the internet is great for recipe finding and creating, below are some simple guidelines for creating a delicious and simple “what’s in my fridge’’ meal.
Dish Driver: Choose 2-3 vegetables/fruits.
We call these items, your ‘dish drivers’ because these will point your dish in a general direction. Using the internet or a flavor and food pairing guide will help you become more familiar with items that go together. This tends to be the most ‘scary’ part of this sort of on the fly cooking. The more you eat and cook with these fruits and vegetables, the less scary it will be.
Dish Bones: Choose 1 protein and 1 starch. Determine the ‘style’ of your dish.
We’re not talking about literal bones although a good soup bone adds great flavor to any meal so if you have that on hand, use it! The bones of your dish refers to the structure of your meal and is often determined by the starch/proteins you have on hand. Without even thinking about it often your bones will match the season you are in. In the spring/summer you’ll naturally want more grilled meats, fresh salads and grain bowls. In the fall/winter, you may find yourself gravitating to more soups, stews, bakes and roasted or braised meats. Pasta can be used in all seasons and is a very easy bones option when starting out!
Dish Story: Choose 3-5 spices, herbs or other “flavor changers”.
The story of your dish is the details, the ‘flavor profile’ of your dish. Much like the driver and bones, your dishes’ story will often be seasonal. Fresh ingredients growing in spring/summer pair well with bright flavors like those in many Latin, Thai or Mediterranean dishes. Many winter root vegetables go well with aromatic herbs like rosemary and thyme or rich spices like those found in Indian curry. Other “flavor changers’’ such as wines, vinegars, cheeses, onions and garlic often play a huge role in telling the “story” of your dish. Check out some examples below to see how easy it can be!
Winter Dish: Cranberry Baked Chicken Thighs, Glazed Carrots and Mashed Potatoes
Driver: Simmered Cranberries and Maple Roasted Carrots
Bones: Mashed Potatoes and Chicken Thighs
Story: Rosemary, Sage, Butter, Maple Syrup, Balsamic Vinegar
Spring Dish: Pea Risotto with Wine Braised Lamb and Mushrooms
Driver: Peas(cooked in rice) and Sauteed Mushrooms
Bones: Arborio Rice and Braised Lamb
Story: Parmesan, wine, stock, garlic, butter, Thyme
Summer Dish: Summer Vegetable Balsamic Chicken Fettuccine
Driver: Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Zucchini
Bones: Fettuccine and Balsamic marinated baked chicken
Story: Basil, garlic, Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, Shaved Parmesan
Fall Dish: Butternut Squash Red Curry
Driver: Cubed roasted Squash, Leeks
Bones: Rice and Broiled Salmon
Story: Red Curry Paste, Ginger, Garlic, Coconut milk
Keep it super simple! Starting out with this style of cooking can feel like unchartered territory. Start with what you do know. If your family likes Italian or Latin dishes, start there! Let your tastes and hunger take the lead! I always challenge cooks to use one ingredient they aren’t as familiar with and you may find yourself creating some new family favorites before you know it!