On Sunday nights this summer, I would often stare at a blank sheet of paper as I tried to plan a week’s worth of meals.
I would try to think up something new to cook for dinner. Often the menu would look like this: hot dogs, pasta, tacos. And the same the next week. And the next.
I was in the depths of a dinner rut.
Luckily, “Dinner: The Playbook,” a new book by Jenny Rosenstrach, came across my desk. Rosenstrach, author of the popular food blog Dinner: A Love Story, once committed to cooking 30 days’ worth of new recipes to break out of her dinner doldrums. (Hers: cutlets, burgers, pizza.)
Her new book is devoted to breaking out of that cycle.
I couldn’t commit, like Rosenstrach, to a month of planning, shopping and cooking new recipes. But I gave myself a reasonable goal: one to two new recipes a week. Soon enough, I was finally leafing through those recipes I had ripped out of magazines looking for weeknight winners. I was dog-earing pages in cookbooks that I hadn’t looked at in ages.
New dishes were appearing on our dinner table: rigatoni with turkey and mushroom Bolognese, roasted chicken thighs with potatoes and carrots, sauteed zucchini with Za’atar and crispy chickpeas.
To help others shake up their dinner routine, I sought advice from Rosenstrach and two other experts with new cookbooks. Jack Bishop, editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, shared tips from its latest cookbook, “The Make-Ahead Cook: 8 Smart Strategies for Dinner Tonight.” New York Times writer Mark Bittman offered suggestions based on his new cookbook, “How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food.”
Get the family involved
Rosenstrach said she and her husband loved to cook. So when they found themselves deep in a dinner rut, they felt they had to do something drastic: commit to a month’s worth of new recipes.
But, she said, start where you can. If you have seven solid regular recipes, expand from there. If you can’t do a month, try a week. (Check out blog posts Rosenstrach did when she helped a New York-area family with a week’s worth of dinners for Motherlode blog.)
A key is getting the entire family involved, Rosenstrach said. She and her husband presented the challenge to their daughters as a family adventure. They all pored through cookbooks and magazines choosing recipes. Everyone was asked to give feedback – good or bad – on whether a dish worked. Everyone had to commit to trying new foods. Rosenstrach even heard from some families who undertook a similar challenge and rewarded themselves by choosing one night to dine out.
Another key to making a change, Rosenstrach said: Just do it. Dinner has to happen. If you wait for all the stars to align to try a new recipe or week’s worth or a month’s worth, it won’t happen. Just start.
“Once you start making it happen regularly, you get addicted to it,” she said.
Bishop works at the Massachusetts-based America’s Test Kitchen, which produces Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, television shows on PBS and numerous cookbooks. He has one rule for avoiding dinner ruts: Plan ahead.
“Late decision-making rarely results in good things,” Bishop said. “For most people, the ruts occur because they don’t think about dinner until 5 p.m.”
Spend 10 minutes before bedtime to pull something out of the freezer, assemble a marinade for meat or vegetables or to set out ingredients on the counter. Or sit down and write up a list of meals for the week.
“Thirty minutes on Sunday is time that is really well spent,” Bishop said.
The test kitchen’s new book, “The Make-Ahead Cook,” offers strategies and recipes that put that time to the home cook’s advantage. Marinades and spice rubs allow home cooks to let flavor to penetrate the food. Soups and stews often taste better the next day. Even making a kale salad and letting it sit overnight dressed with olive oil and vinegar tenderizes the greens. “This is where it actually makes the dish better if it is made in advance,” he said.
Bishop said making dishes ahead means tweaking cooking techniques. Instead of fully cooking a stew, for instance, cook it partially and cool it down by adding some chilled broth or water before putting it in the refrigerator or freezer. That way, you will avoid overcooking the dish when you reheat it.
Bittman, The New York Times’ food columnist and cookbook author, is a bit of a contrarian: He doesn’t believe in dinner ruts.
“If you are cooking the same thing three times a week and you are OK with that, that’s not a rut,” he said. “I wouldn’t let anyone else define it for me.”
However, Bittman said, a good cookbook can help inspire a home cook to expand horizons. While he admits to being prejudiced, his new book, “How to Make Everything Fast,” with more than 2,000 recipes, shows cooks how to get in the kitchen and start cooking.
Bittman’s book dismisses the idea that the restaurant-style preparation called mise en place, where a cook prepares all of the ingredients ahead of time, has any place in the home kitchen. Instead, the book’s recipes take advantage of downtime during the cooking process to tell cooks when to chop onion, peel shrimp or prepare other ingredients. Bittman said this new recipe style reflects how real cooks operate in the kitchen.
“The advantage is you can plunge right in,” Bittman said. “You can put a pan on the stove and you just go.”