Monday, April 20, 2009

Le secret

How do I decide what to make for dinner? Well, true to "the French way," I like to see what the grocer has to offer before deciding. I do some shopping at Whole Foods, and they offer a good selection of produce, meat and seafood. I can see what is fresh, what is on special, and decide in the moment what to prepare for dinner that evening.

But the secret, I believe, to this approach to shopping, is to have a variety of meals that you can make that don't require planning. We all have that handful of meals in our cooking arsenal that we've made dozens of times, oui? I have about 8-10 meals that I can pull together at a moment's notice--a few chicken dishes, some meatless dishes, a few favorite pastas, several seafood dishes. These meals require no recipe because I've prepared them so many times. No special ingredients are needed, only pantry staples and what I can buy at the market on any given day. For example, today the butcher had some small, fresh (and local) whole chickens, so this evening's dinner will be roast chicken.

A small chicken can be roasted in little more than an hour, and combining vegetables and meat in a single pot makes the perfect simple dinner (and, if I add a few extra potatoes, I’m guaranteed a delicious lunch tomorrow!) In addition to the chicken I put two good size carrots, a bag of small white potatoes, some mixed baby greens, and a box of cookies in my market basket and checkout.

I pick-up my son from school and we arrive home at 5:15. After we enjoy a snack together, he starts his homework and I begin to prepare the evening meal. This will be a simple roast chicken, so seasoning with salt and pepper is all that's needed. I tuck a few bits of butter under the skin, and heat the oven to 375°. While the oven is warming, I clean and cut the carrots, pull out my Dutch oven, place it on the stovetop, and warm some olive oil. Into the pot I put the cut carrots, ten small potatoes, and a few sprigs of thyme snipped from my pot of herbs.

The warm oil releases the fragrance of the vegetables, especially the thyme. Once the vegetables are slightly browned, I place the seasoned chicken on top of the carrots and potatoes, and put the pot into the oven for about 75 minutes. Dinner won’t be served until until 7:30, but while it is cooking, the house is filled with the aromas of a well prepared meal.

This isn't a homework assignment, but consider it food for thought: let's say you've decided tomorrow is the day you're going to try grocery shopping "the French way." You go to the grocer to do your daily shopping and discover that fresh wild salmon is on special, eggplant is only $o.98 a pound, and the beef short ribs look especially good. Can you decide, in the moment, what you'll prepare for dinner?

Tomorrow's post: Les ingrédients


  1. Since I started shopping every two days for food I have become pretty good at deciding what to make in the moment. I tend to experiment a lot too since I am not married and have no kids.

  2. I find it liberating to not have to plan ahead; I really appreciate being able to decide in the moment. It took a long time to get there, but, I now I can't imagine shopping any other way.

  3. I made your chicken with carrots and potatoes last night, and it was THE best roast chicken we've ever had. The only modification I made was to flatten two cloves of garlic and throw them in the cavity. It was such a perfect bird. Then I put 12 c. of water and bayleaf into the pot with the carcass and made stock. Great inspiration.

  4. I'm flattered but I can't take credit; I'm sure I picked up the recipe somewhere else. But it is delcious. I am convinced that simple is always better.

    I also made stock; it doesn't have a super strong flavor like store-bought chicken broth. The flavor is lighter, fresher, and I can season homemade to my taste.