Reclaim Weeknight Dinners and Clean Out the Fridge

For those who have asked how I manage to cook great meals at home, even on weeknights after long days at work, here's the answer...

I live in a constant state of planning. I can't turn it off.  I awake in the morning and start mapping out my workday. I sit in meetings making mental lists of what I need to do first when the meeting ends. I respond to emails, offers, questions, and problems all day long...and in the back of my mind, I'm also planning my next meal(s).

This week on a morning drive into work, I found myself cataloging the contents of our refrigerator and thinking I needed to figure out a game plan to use them before they go bad.  What was in there? 

A bunch of celery I bought because I forgot I already had some, a bag of carrots purchased with the best intentions of juicing that never came to fruition, thyme, parsley likely wilted by now, half of an English cucumber, and half of a tomato...and that's only what I could remember. 

Okay, what can I do with this?  Let's start with the celery and carrots since I have large quantities of both. For the celery, I can make soup with celery stalks, onion, some sort of root vegetable (maybe celery root), those wilted parsley leaves, and chicken stock. For the carrots, I can just roast them whole...maybe curried carrots....or wait... I forgot I have fresh thyme. Perfect! I'll make a fresh za'atar with that thyme for the carrotsWhat to serve with the carrots? I promised my husband to make healthier foods this week. I can grab a few pieces of salmon to roast when the carrots are finished. The oven will still be hot, so it will be quick and easy. I'll just make a glaze with some whole grain mustard, olive oil, and whatever jam I have in the refrigerator.  Since I'm adding za'atar to the carrots, I'll stay with the Middle Eastern theme and throw together a chopped salad with the tomato, cucumber, and a stalk of that celery. I just need to pick up a head of iceberg lettuce and olives for the salad.

During lunch, I rush to the grocery store with my mental list: root vegetable, iceberg lettuce, olives, and salmon. Grab the lettuce. No celery root on hand, but they have sun chokes. That will work. Got my salmon and olives. Just had a thought that chickpeas would be good in the salad, so grab a can. Walk past the prepared foods, see boiled eggs, and grab one of them for the salad, too,  Done...back to work.

Finally, I'm home.  Let's open the fridge and see what's in here. Oh, I forgot I have fresh chives. I can use them in the soup, and even better, I'll make a chive oil to drizzle on the soup. What else is in here? I forgot I had some Stilton. I'll add it to the salad.  These chopped peppadews I used as a garnish last week will be great in the chopped salad, and this little ramekin of leftover unsweetened pear butter will work in the soup.

Let's get started:

§  Preheat the oven to 425. Scrub the carrots, toss them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, spread out on a baking sheet, and set aside.

§  Set a big stockpot on the stove. Add celery, peeled sun chokes, a quartered onion, wilted parsley leaves, chives and chicken stock. Put a lid on it and set the heat to medium-high.

§  Chop the remaining chives. Put them in a jar with some olive oil and refrigerate for tomorrow night.

§  Pull the thyme leaves off their stalks and add to a mortar. Grab the sumac and sesame seeds from the pantry. Toast some sesame seeds in a small skillet. Add them and a spoonful of sumac to the mortar and grind it all together.

§  Put the carrots in the oven and set a timer for 10 minutes.

§  Grab a mixing bowl. Throw some dried oregano and red wine vinegar in the bottom. This will be the base for salad dressing. Let it sit a few minutes so the vinegar soaks up the oregano flavor and softens the dry leaves.

§  Dry the salmon filets with paper towels. Rub them with olive oil and a little salt. Now, I need to make a mustard glaze...what's in the fridge? Aha... A little bit of mango chutney mixed with whole grain mustard and olive oil will do the trick.  Mix it up. Brush it on the salmon. Set aside.

§  Check the carrots. When they are tender, remove from the oven. Put the salmon in the oven,  and set a timer for five minutes. Toss the carrots with za'atar.

§  Chop the cucumber, tomato. celery, boiled egg, and lettuce for the salad. Whisk some olive oil into the vinegar and set aside.

§  When the salmon is ready, remove it from the oven. Plate it with roasted carrots. Then, toss the chopped vegetables, egg, chickpeas, and peppadews with the dressing.  Plate it with the salmon and carrots.

§  Sit down for dinner and a glass of wine (or two) with my husband. Enjoy. Chill.

§  After dinner, check the sun chokes in the soup to see if they are tender. When done, transfer the stockpot contents to a blender in batches and purée. Let cool and refrigerate for tomorrow night's dinner.

Should I also include the step where I sit at the bar finishing my wine while my husband cleans the kitchen? Another essential ingredient to my weeknight dinners.

Okay. 24 hours passes. Really long day at work. So happy that most of tonight's dinner plan is finished. Let's do it:

§  Pour the soup puree into a saucepan on the stove and reheat.

§  Grab the jar of chives and olive oil from the refrigerator. Strain the oil pressing on the chives to get out all of that great flavor. Set aside.

§  Open the refrigerator and hope that we have some kind of dairy products besides skim milk to add to the soup. Aha! I forgot I bought buttermilk for a pie two weeks ago. Is this still good? Yes!  Major score. Add to the soup along with salt and pepper until it tastes right.

§  One last thing. I need something crunchy for my soup. Open the freezer to see what kinds of nuts we have....pecans, walnuts, pine nuts. Yes. Pine nuts will be great. Maybe I'll fry them in something for a little extra flavor. Wait a minute...I think I have some bacon. Check the fridge...yes. Bacon. Fry up a piece. Snack on the bacon while quickly frying the pine nuts in the leftover bacon fat.

§  Time for dinner. Pour soup in the bowl. Feel fancy with the chive oil so drizzle it and some buttermilk on top. Add the fried pine nuts.

Dinner is served...after I take a picture, of course.

And that my friend is how I manage to cook great dinners at home on Monday and Tuesday nights. Leave fancy planning for the weekends. Save the fat and calories of take-out for dinner on a night you can really enjoy them.  And, clean out your refrigerator in the process!