By Gayle Levine Schindler
For more columns on cooking from Gayle, click here.
Recently I was a guest on a podcast to talk about my recently published cookbook. (More on that next month.)
I knew most of what the host was going to ask, but she threw me an unexpected question that got me thinking. She asked, “What do you do when you find yourself in a cooking rut?”
Even the most confident and enthusiastic home cooks can find themselves in a rut. You feel like you’re eating the same meals over and over again. You can’t think of anything new to make for dinner – or any other meal. You’re bored and frustrated.
I don’t know whether it was triggered by her question or not, but a couple of weeks later, I found myself feeling exactly like that. Ugh. What did I do?
Made a list of my favorites: When I moved into a new house fifteen years ago, we gutted and remodeled the kitchen. For two months we ate prepared meals we could microwave, items small enough to be heated up in a toaster oven, and mostly meat and chicken on the grill.
One evening at dinner, one of my kids said, “You know what I can’t wait to have when the kitchen is done?” I grabbed a piece of paper and we made a list of our favorite meals, things we missed the most. That list hung on my refrigerator until we moved out of that house. Whenever I made something new that was a hit, we added it to the list. And when I found myself in a rut, I went back to the list, where I always found something that we hadn’t had in a while.
So, to get out of my recent rut, I created a new list. I divide my list into four categories: Chicken (or turkey), Beef, Fish, and Vegetarian. You create the categories that suit you. These are dishes on my regular list and some of the new ones I found.
Chicken: Schnitzel, roast whole chicken (which also produces chicken salad), skillet chicken with various vegetables and fruit, and Asian chicken stir fry. When I went through my recipes I also found Shwarma, Kung Pao lettuce cups, Moroccan chicken with couscous, and peanut butter chicken.
Beef: Meatloaf, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, stuffed peppers, spaghetti and meatballs or meatball subs, and beef stew. Here are some new ones I included: Behilat (a Middle Eastern patty in sauce), Sloppy Joes, stuffed cabbage, stuffed onions, shredded Italian beef with pepperoncini, and short ribs. Unfortunately, some of these dishes depend on me getting my hands on good kosher meat other than ground beef – not always an easy task here in Cincinnati.
Fish: Fish with tomato rarebit sauce, cod with capers and lemon, crabless cakes, salmon patties, Poké bowl, tuna noodle casserole (My husband loves this. Me, not so much.), and fish tacos.
Vegetarian: Tacos and taco salad (This is a frequent meal in my house.), eggplant parmesan, cabbage pie, and Shakshuka. New ideas I included were African peanut stew and quiche.
Look through your recipes:
If you’re a regular reader of this column (Thank You), you probably have a collection of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines, printed out, or stored online – a collection mostly of recipes that looked good, but you never made.
Take some time to go through them. Look for ideas that seem like they could work in your meal rotation. Look for recipes that use ingredients you tend to keep on hand.
Also, look for recipes that use techniques you know and don’t require equipment you don’t have. By the way, another great source of recipes are the little manuals that come with your countertop appliances. Do you have a slow cooker? Did you succumb to the hype and buy an air fryer during Covid? If you can track down the booklets that came with them, you’ll find they’re loaded with recipes and new ideas.
Change up Your Protein:
Many recipes can be adapted to various proteins. Ground beef can be replaced by ground chicken, turkey, or plant-based crumbles. If you eat a lot of chicken, look for recipes where it can be replaced by a piece of fish. If the only fish you eat is salmon, try some different ones. Think about eggs for dinner.
Consider shopping at a different store occasionally. I buy most of my fish from a company in Alaska; it’s shipped to me flash frozen in six-ounce portions. But I go to one store periodically, where I buy frozen cubes of sushi-grade tuna, which I eat in a poke bowl or as tuna tartar. Different stores carry different products; you might find something new for yourself.
If you can afford more unusual proteins, consider bison or duck as an occasional treat.
Change up Your Veggies (And Cook with the Season):
Too many people don’t eat enough vegetables or don’t eat a variety of vegetables. Nutritionists advise us to “Eat the Rainbow.” In general, the more saturated the color of a vegetable, the more nutritious it is. Darker greens are more nutritious than pale ones. Carrots and peppers are more nutritious than cucumber. You get the idea.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a hundred times more: produce that’s in season tastes better and is more affordable. Asparagus is abundant right now; look for new ways to enjoy it. Visit local farmers’ markets to know exactly what’s in season now and try some veggies straight from the farm.
As we move into warmer weather, fresh salads can replace hot veggies on the side. I love a big, tossed salad loaded with all kinds of veggies. Add protein to make it a whole meal. But don’t limit yourself to tossed lettuce salads. Mix green and red cabbage, plus shredded carrots, onion, and sliced apples for a colorful, delicious slaw. You can dress it with a traditional mayonnaise-based dressing, a vinaigrette, or your favorite salad dressing. Slaw gets better over a couple of days in the fridge, so don’t worry if your recipe makes more than you can eat in one meal.
Israeli-style salad is another great option. Tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, and onion – all chopped small – are the traditional base but add anything you like. Chopped broccoli or cauliflower will add a fun crunch. Enjoy the leftovers for breakfast or lunch with a hard-boiled egg tossed in.
You can find hundreds of recipes for salads and vegetable side dishes on the internet. Next time you’re watching cat videos, tear yourself away and search for some new ideas.
Change up Your Starchy Sides:
In my home, while I was growing up, we had potatoes at almost every meal. Unless we were having spaghetti or the occasional Rice-a-Roni, there were potatoes in one form or another on the plate. I love potatoes and they’re nutritious too. But there are so many other options. Consider a sweet potato. Bake it in the skin and top the same way you would a regular baked potato. Or boil and mash it with a banana.
Consider following the USDA advice and add more whole grains to your meals. Try brown rice instead of white. Kasha (buckwheat) is a whole grain; you don’t need the bowties too. Polenta or grits are made from whole corn and they’re so versatile. You can make risotto from whole farro. And in the last few years a variety of “ancient” grains have appeared on store shelves, including the now ubiquitous quinoa.
Skillet Chicken with Vegetables and/or Fruit
This “recipe” is more of a formula than a detailed recipe. Chicken + veggies or fruit + flour + broth + Flavor Bombs = Skillet Chicken.
This dish works with any kind of chicken – boneless or on the bone. Boneless breasts or thighs can be left whole or cut into chunks. Large breasts on the bone should be cut in half to match the size of thighs or legs, so everything cooks at the same rate. Remember, chicken must always be cooked to 165 degrees.
Use either vegetable or chicken broth. You can use water too, if that’s all you have, but broth is more flavorful. Or mix half water and half white wine.
The real variation in this dish comes from the other ingredients. It started out as a recipe for Chicken with Artichokes and Mushrooms, but over the years I found that the technique works with almost anything. Serve with rice or a dinner roll.
Here are some combinations I have used. Use what you have and what you like.
- Apples or Peaches + Onion + Walnuts or Pecans
- Mushrooms + Onion + Artichoke Hearts
- Zucchini + Bell Pepper + Olives
- Green Beans + Carrots + Walnuts
- Season chicken with salt & pepper, then toss in flour. In a large skillet, use neutral oil to brown the chicken, then remove it and set aside. The chicken should not be cooked through at this point.
- Add more oil if needed and cook raw veggies until barely tender.
- Add the chicken back to the pan, along with any softer ingredients such as canned or frozen vegetables, fruit, or flavor bombs like nuts, capers, olives, sundried tomatoes, or artichoke hearts. Add enough broth to come about halfway up the chicken, bring to a boil, cover, and lower to a simmer until the chicken is done, about ten to fifteen minutes.
- If the sauce isn’t thick enough, remove about ¼ cup of the pan liquid, mix with a tablespoon of flour until smooth, then add back to the pan, and stir it around for a couple more minutes.