EVERY NIGHT I fight the same battle with myself. I am a culinary school grad with more than 20 years experience developing recipes and even more years of cooking experience, but all the experience in the world hasn’t spared me the sinking feeling that comes as the clock inches toward dinnertime. I’m tired. The stresses of the day have worn me down. I feel as creative as an earthworm. I have to fight the urge to order takeout.
Most nights, I fight it back. And I win the battle because I’ve stocked the larder, quite literally.
When I put away the groceries it’s scary, I buy so much stuff. I don’t have a list of recipes I’m planning, just some vague ideas, based more on the family schedule, about what I may or may not want to make that week. I always have pasta and rice on hand. Onions, garlic, some green vegetables, carrots and celery are on my must-have list. I have stocked the shelves with beans and chickpeas, and I stash easy-to-defrost portions of chicken breast and chopped meat in the freezer. I win the dinner battle because I have so much stuff on hand I can always find something to make. Also, I have two other things pushing to victory. One, my frugal side doesn’t want to waste what I’ve already purchased; and two, I really know how to cook—not haute cuisine cooking but down-in-trenches get-the-meal-out cooking. I can open the fridge and the pantry and almost always make something.
You don’t need a culinary degree to make my dinners. In my everyday cooking, garnishes are a nonstarter and plating is optional. Most of my meals are pretty simple, but they get the job done and I think they taste pretty good. I know everyone at my house looks happy, and a little relieved, when I announce, “Dinner’s ready.”
So if you stick with me, every week I’ll give you an idea of how to do it. No strict recipes to follow, no strange ingredients to buy—and I have tricks to share too. Every week I’ll pick one ingredient and give a few ideas/loose directions for how to turn that into dinner, whether it’s a pound of ground pork, a bag of zucchini or two cans of black beans. Along the way, I’ll make suggestions for how you can stretch one night’s cooking into two or three nights’ meals and how to make leftovers into new meals. Your freezer will become your friend, really. And I’ll make you a promise: If I can do it, so can you.
—Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Editor’s note: This whole idea came about after I got home from the supermarket one evening this summer with a dilemma.
I sent out a quick email—”I bought a package of ground pork by accident, thought it was ground turkey. What the hell do I do with it?”—to my sister, Pat, a girlfriend, also Pat, and Stephanie, who used to be Recipe Editor at the Washington Post Food section back in the Pleistocene, when I edited the section.
Within 12 minutes—no exaggeration, I double-checked—Stephanie had emailed me back with “I love ground pork” as the first sentence and giving three dishes using ground pork that I could execute that night, probably without a return trip to Safeway. The Pats chimed in a bit later with meat loaf and a minced-pork stir-fry, but I was already working on Stephanie’s Pork Dumpling “Burgers.”
These aren’t step-by-step recipes, just ideas of ingredients to put together to create different flavor profiles. They just may come in handy one evening when you’re staring at the clock or the fridge, or both, and wondering in despair . . . What’s for Dinner. . . ?
Asian stir fry: Sauté 1 pound ground pork, breaking it up, until cooked through (use a little oil and salt). Transfer to paper-towel-lined plate. In the same pan, sauté sliced scallions, onions, etc. with a little oil. Add lots of minced ginger, cut up veg of choice, soy sauce, sesame oil and 1½ to 2 cups chicken broth or water. Cover and let cook until veg is just tender. Add pork, 1 tablespoon or 2 of cornstarch dissolved in sake, white wine or whiskey, stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Eat.
Very easy pork and black beans: Sauté 1 pound ground pork, breaking it up, until cooked through (use a little oil and salt). Transfer to paper-towel-lined plate. In the same pan, sauté, with a little oil, diced carrots, celery and onion (about ½ to ¾ cup each), 1 finely diced jalapeño and salt and pepper until just tender. Add the beans. Add a tablespoon of Italian double- concentrated tomato paste and chili powder to taste (I like to combine adobo and chipotle powder, but any chili powder works). Sauté, stirring for a minute or two. Add ½ cup chicken broth or water and the ground pork. Stir to combine and let simmer for 10 minutes to combine the flavors. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more water or broth if needed to keep mixture moist.
Pork Dumpling “Burgers”: Mix the ground pork with finely chopped scallions (2 or 3), 2 to 3 teaspoons finely minced ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and salt to taste, 1 egg white and a teaspoon cornstarch. Fry a baby burger to taste for seasoning, adjust as needed. Form into patties. If your mixture feels wet, dust the patties with additional cornstarch before sautéing in oil.