Monday, March 21, 2011

Finding Inspiration for Dinner

Because I am a Chef and a mother of young children, people often ask me what I cook for dinner. I know they have grand delusions of me cooking fancy three course meals every night to well behaved children who will eat anything I put in front of them. Ha! Dinner time on a week night is a mad dash to cook food before two hungry kids either: #1 eat too many snacks and have no room for dinner or #2 start fighting and crying. I have shared a number of tactics for dealing with this in the past. But when most people ask me what I cook for dinner, what they are really asking is " How do you think of something interesting to cook for dinner?".  It is easy to get in a rut of cooking the same few meals over and over again, I'm guilty of that myself. But over the years I have come up with a number of  ways to draw on my deep love of food to breathe new life into a menu, the hardest one of all being the family dinner.

Inspiration for a weeknight meal can come from anywhere. I often find that I will cook the same few things unless I challenge myself to remember neglected ingredients or put a new twist on some dinner  time staples.

Inspiration #1:  a great photo or recipe from a magazine, newspaper or blog.*
Earlier in the day I had seen my mom's copy of the NY Times food section. On the front cover was a giant bowl of roasted sweet potatoes. Roasted vegetables are one of my favorite winter time foods, and I had a bag of sweet potatoes sitting on my counter left over from last week's shopping that I hadn't used yet. These were roasted with coconut oil (which I didn't have), and added a little sprinkle of brown sugar to the mix which seemed tempting, so we were on.

Inspiration #3: a previously successful recipe from your repertoire. 
Money is tight in my house, so I have to shop wisely and be strategic. This week I splurged and bought a bag of walnuts, and those walnuts were calling to me. I wanted more protein for dinner and didn't want any meat. The week before I had candied some nuts for a salad when some friends came for dinner. Just the thought of them was enough to get me going. 

Inspiration #2: an ingredient in your cabinet, freezer or fridge that has been sitting there for far too long. I pulled out a small yellow tin of anchovies that had been lingering in my mostly bare cabinet for nearly a year. Their salty concentrated flavor made me think of Caesar salad and seemed like it would add a great burst of interest to the meal.

Inspiration #4 - The needs and wants of a balanced diet.
Then I had to figure out how I was going to put all these pieces together, both for myself, my husband and my kids. I am not interested in cooking "kid food" and "adult food". I think that kids should be exposed to all kinds of foods and that a family meal of shared food is a valuable and essential experience in a family. Having said that, I also know that good presentation of a meal to kids, can be key to getting them to like it, and that the needs and wants of my adult pallet do not always match those of my children. I might be craving a huge bowl of lettuce with delicious and nutritious toppings to balance out the heavy (and not so healthy) meal I ate for lunch, while my growing children might want and need a hot hearty meal.
So, we ended up with a big salad for me and my man, tossed with a garlicky dressing (with a hint of anchovies), honey orange candied walnuts and roasted sweet potatoes. The kids got the sweet potatoes with some spiced chickpeas and broccoli on the side and they munched on the walnuts too. I think I was the happiest one of the bunch, but at least we ended up with something delicious, nutritious and interesting for dinner.

Honey Orange Candied Walnuts
Place nuts in a bowl. Drizzle just enough honey on them to give a light coating. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Using a box grater or zester, zest the orange over the nuts. mix the nuts very well until they are lightly coated with all the ingredients. Spread nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment, foil, or silpat and bake in a 350 degree oven until light brown and the honey is bubbling on the nuts. remove from oven and cool completely. These are addictive and delicious. You can add any spices or herbs that you like: rosemary, cumin, cayenne... have fun with it!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes
here is the link to Melissa Clark's recipe
Essentially: cut up sweet potatoes (peeling optional), toss with oil (any kind is fine), a little salt, pepper and optional sprinkle of brown sugar. Place on a lined sheet pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until golden on the edges.

Quick "Caesar" dressing

Garlic, 1 clove

Anchovies, 3 fillets
White wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons
Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon
Salt, 1/2 teaspoon
Pepper, freshly ground, 1/4 teaspoon
Olive oil, 1/3 cup

Finely mince garlic and anchovies. Whisk in the vinegar, honey, mustard, salt, and pepper. Continue whisking while slowly pouring in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

* some of my favorite places to look for inspiration are: saveur magazine, 101 cookbooks, epicurious, nytimes, my cookbook shelf, and on and on, once you start looking it is hard to stop, so just get some inspiration and get cooking!
Please share your ideas and inspirations for a meal!


  1. nice post! we've been doing family dinners on sundays with the girls, which is a real trip cooking-wise since we're vegetarians, rebecca is intolerant to gluten and yeast and tiana is a carnivore who prefers processed foods. so far we haven't run out of ideas yet, but it's a a creative challenge . . .

  2. Oh my gosh Tagan what you have here is a tasty, beautiful, inspiring food blog for normal people, unlike, say, smitten kitchen, whom I LOVE but rarely cook from because it is often just too darn complicated. This all looks delicious and approachable. Bravo! I'll be back.

  3. Even if you don't think so, your meals always look yummier and fancier than my daily grub! Love the break-down of how your creative noggin comes up with these delish dishes.

  4. These nuts are completely addictive! And I don't usually like walnuts. We've been eating a lot more nuts and seeds lately so I've been on the lookout for good recipes. Bingo! Dinosaur Crunch in the New Haven cookbook was also a hit.

    Here's a news story a client just sent about walnuts:

  5. cool! glad to know that people feel like the recipes are approachable. Since I spent many years cooking in fancy restaurants and catering companies, I sometimes feel like the things I put up on the blog are not a interesting as the food of fancier days. But the point is exactly what you said, to have everyday food that is possible to cook at home (often quickly) for friends or family.
    thank you all for reading!