The art of making unplanned dinners

The art of making unplanned dinners

I’m lucky to have a large organic garden and to manage a small beyond-organic farm. As a result, the relationship I have with the produce I eat often extends all the way back to the seed it came from.

The majority of the other ingredients in my and my wife’s kitchen comes from certified organic farms or from other local farmers, many of whom we know (examples of foods we don’t produce: organic stone-ground whole wheat flour and grass-fed, grass-finished beef).

We can tell what time of year it is by looking at our dinner plates, because each season offers different foods to look forward to. Eating ripe blackberries in December would feel like celebrating Christmas in June – something’s off tempo.

Garden fresh berries and peaches taste like July 4th, not December 25th.

These garden fresh berries and peaches taste like July 4th, not December 25th.

Cooking: Folk art or just art?

Over the last 10+ years of eating this way, my wife and I have taught ourselves a LOT about food, and are now pretty good in the kitchen. To us, cooking is a fun, shared activity that’s also way more convenient, affordable, healthy, and better tasting than having to get dressed up and drive to a meal out.

We don’t expect everyone to eat the way we eat. However, we do think that many of the largest economic, social, and environmental problems facing humankind wouldn’t really be problems if most people did take their food choices more seriously.

One big factor in this problem? Cooking has largely become a folk art: something that past generations had to learn how to do (like sewing clothes), but something that’s no longer necessary because a frozen pizza or big mac has made that old-style knowledge obsolete.

Or has it?

Since the United States now boasts the most overweight population in the entire world and also has the most expensive healthcare system, we think it’s time we take a second look at the assumption that the cost of food starts and ends at the price tag. More on that topic here.

In short, it’s time for Americans to value cooking AND the ingredients that go into their cooking.

Image: Homemade calzones stuffed with garden-fresh veggies cooking in our backyard, wood-fired cob oven. We made a cob oven when we got serious about becoming better bakers.

Learning to cook: a high ROI life skill

Problem is: you can give someone the best local, organic ingredients possible, but if they don’t know what to do with those ingredients, it’s just paint and a blank canvas in the hands of a toddler. Something will happen, but it probably won’t be pretty.

That’s why we think cooking is not just an essential modern art, but an essential life skill that we all should devote some time to learning. You don’t have to be a culinary Picasso, but you can move a few steps beyond stick figures.

One of the things we enjoy doing is unplanned dinners, often for no other reason than we just didn’t plan ahead.

What’s ready to harvest in the garden right now? What’s getting harvested at the farm? What other ingredients do we have laying around, and how can we combine the various pieces into a delicious meal?

Image: Fresh from the garden: immature green garlic bulbs and greens. What to make? Green garlic pesto. (This one positively terrifies vampires.)

What’s the worst thing that can happen in this unplanned dinner scenario? We learn from our mistakes and get better. What’s the best thing that can happen? We make a great meal and learn from that as well. Either way, it’s a win.

Granted, 10 years ago, an unplanned dinner would have seemed a rather intimidating proposition to us. If we made a good meal, it was because we used a good recipe that someone else created. That’s how you start (sort of like paint-by-numbers) and how you develop your skills and intuition.

Thankfully, you don’t even need a cookbook or a culinary degree to get better at cooking. There are infinite numbers of free instructional videos on YouTube and recipes centered around every ingredient and cuisine imaginable, including all the recipes here on Daily Harvest.

Un-planning meal recipes

The way we make unplanned meals is usually inspired by equal parts past experience (“remember that time we made __?”) plus informed intuition (“these flavors should pair well together!”).

We usually start from the center: what primary ingredient are we building around? Then we work out to the sides.

Maybe the center is duck eggs from our backyard flock and we end up with a frittata loaded with garden-fresh veggies and foraged gourmet mushrooms. Maybe the center is a beautiful piece of grass-finished beef that gets flash-cooked in a cast iron skillet with minimal accoutrements other than sides that enhance and balance out the meal (baked purple sweet potatoes and Napa cabbage slaw).

A beautiful chicken of the woods mushroom! This gourmet, high protein fungi has an identical taste and texture to actual chicken. This mushroom became a central part of several meals, including chicken fingers and chicken parmesan (made from mushroom).

Every unplanned meal is an opportunity to be creative, stretch, and learn a little more, whether everything turns out great or not.

Accidentally healthier

Something else interesting happened to us when we started making our own meals… We didn’t actually think about it until Michael Pollan pointed it out in his phenomenal video series Cooked. We pretty much stopped eating dessert except on special occasions.

Not eating dessert wasn’t a conscious decision on our part, it just happened. Why?

First, our meals are very nutrient-dense so our bodies don’t develop odd cravings. Second, when you have to cook your food, you tend to stick to the essentials for practical reasons. Sure, I could turn those stored pumpkins from the summer garden into pumpkin pie or pumpkin pudding tonight, but that’s going to take an extra hour+ of time. Instead, I’ll save those pumpkins for an essential breakfast item: pumpkin bread.

Image: Winter squash and pumpkins from our summer garden. We love pumpkin pie, but we tend to use our pumpkin for essential like pumpkin bread.

By making what we eat, we accidentally eliminated the parts of meals that often pack in the extra sugar and calories that lead to weight gain and health problems. Oops.

That’s why one of Michael Pollan’s central health tips is, “Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself.”

Get cooking

If you practice anything several times per week, imagine how much better you’ll be at it in 1, 5, or 10 years down the road.

Since you have to eat to survive, learning to cook seems like one of those things you need to get good at. Cooking not only affords you the opportunity to take pleasure in the meals you make, it’s also an opportunity to take better care of your health (and your family’s health), the environment, and the local economy.

What a delicious opportunity! So get cooking today. Your future self will thank you.

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