Thursday, October 1, 2009

That dinner rut

I was complaining the other day to my sister-in-law that I just haven't been into that magic homemaking ritual called "making dinner" lately. Oh, I've been cooking something or other and feeding my family each evening, but my heart just hasn't been in it. I was blaming everything from the "back-to-school" schedule to my own lack of culinary creativity, but Charlotte pointed me in the right direction: we're in that long, slow, transitional season known as "Texas autumn," which shouldn't really be confused with autumn anywhere else (though some of our neighboring states have similar problems).

In autumn here, the sky is often cloudy and overcast, and there is even rain. Good, you think; I'll make that new harvest stew recipe I saw online last week. Except that there's one problem: it's still between 85 and 90 degrees outside. And that's at dinner time; chances are it was a bit hotter in the middle of the afternoon.

Nobody wants stew. Nobody wants you to cook stew, let alone to eat it. In fact, the kids still expect Popsicles to be stashed in the fridge, and would just as soon eat a sandwich of some sort for dinner--which is fine once in a while, but it's not the sort of thing you can do every night. As for the other warm-weather fare, we're all heartily sick of it. We've been eating salads or light fare since mid-April when the temperatures first started to climb, and I think the appearance of a bowl of vegetable-laden pasta salad on the table would probably be the signal for a family revolt.

In the stores, the produce that made up many of those salads is slowly disappearing, leaving some dispirited looking lettuce and the occasional questionable zucchini shoved aside in favor of apples, which are everywhere, and some of the root vegetables, which are starting to appear again. Now is the time for baked apples and apple crisp, for roast chicken surrounded by onions, potatoes, carrots, and celery in a dish that cooks slowly in a warm oven, seeping its magnificent scents into the surrounding air--except that any such process would raise the temperature in my kitchen well into the mid-80s, and that's with the air conditioner still running at full steam. So I find myself pouring over the "quick and easy dinner" sections of my favorite cookbooks or online cooking sites, wondering how many ways there are to cook those flattish frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts the warehouse clubs sell and that I've had a tendency to keep on hand over the summer; I wade eagerly into the "vegetarian" sections of these books or sites, too, only to realize that I've already served all the dishes that don't call for tofu, extremely expensive and out-of-season vegetables, or spices it would bankrupt me to keep stocked on my shelves.

Soon, I begin having one of those internal dialogs that goes nowhere fast, about why it is that I don't plan my meals ahead, and why I'm so disorganized in the kitchen, and why I get bored so easily with recipes my family enjoys such that I'm always finding new ones instead of serving the favorites over and over again, and why we have to eat dinner anyway, and...

The clock keeps ticking, I panic, throw some ingredients into the oven or on the stove, bustle around the kitchen as if I know what I'm doing, and serve yet another, to me, lackluster meal. When I really hit bottom I'll dig into my stash of "quick weekend meal" food, like spaghetti or grilled chicken sandwich patties or some such thing; even though my girls are adventurous eaters, they love these kinds of nights as much as any kid would.

The answer to my dilemma, of course, is perfectly clear. I should have a meal plan, a two or three-week's rotation of meals, a balanced selection made up of old favorites, new endeavors, and a quick meal or two for those nights when other obligations make cooking difficult. I should create my grocery list from this master meal plan, and should then stick to what's on it for the most part, adding in some seasonal favorites as necessary or removing meals that weren't hits. I should stop thinking of "slapdash" as an acceptable way to operate in the kitchen, and try to be more focused, more organized, more on top of things.

I can't help but think, though, that what will really help matters will be for the weather to change.


Dawn Farias said...

I often feel like that: "Really, we have to eat? Again? Seriously?"

Deirdre Mundy said...

The answer to your problem is to move up north! ;)

We're in the height of apple and squash season up here. And the temps have been dropping, but we're trying to hold off on the heater, which means LOTS of soups and baked goods and warm, heavy winter meals!

Honestly, we talk about moving to TX sometimes (It's one of the few places that would make sense long-term), but..... it's HOT where you guys live. And fall is my favorite season! :)

(We had one of my TX friends for the weekend once and took her apple and pumpkin picking----- she was thrilled because she'd never done either!)

As for lighter fare that's also different-- have you tried thai or indian? maybe some middle eastern? It might be a nice change--- and then you can use apples in the couscous!

c matt said...

I hear ya - got the same problem (I wonder of we are in the same part of Texas?). One standby we use that is not too bad is a quick chicken stir fry. Basically those flat chicken breasts you mentions, cut in cubes or strips, then throw in a bag of frozen mixed veggies (any kind you like). Then toss on top of a bed of rice. It's sort of between light and heavy, quick and easy.

The other thing I do to try to "fancy" things up a bit is sautee mushrooms in wine (white if chicken is main dish, red if beef)w/ chopped garlic/onions. It can cook along while the main dish is cooking, and doesn't heat the house up too much like using the oven and slow roasting, etc.

Dawn Farias said...

I have an idea: a friend of mine told me puts an entire frozen chicken into her slow cooker and it's done by dinner time. I was a bit skeptic that it would be cooked through, but this week I did it and it was great! I layered cubed potatoes and onions on the bottom, sprinkled chicken bouillion granules on top of that and then again on top of the chicken after placing it in. Cooked on low from 8 til 5 and it was done. The potatoes, especially, had great flavor.

Served with baby carrots and Ranch.

Anonymous said...

Ha! You need to be living in Trinidad & Tobago like me! Down here the temperature does not change very much all year - it's at least 90 each and every day. The only time it's cooler is February, and then only at night - it may get down to 72 or 73 at about 9:00 pm.

So, we cook stews any day during the year. In fact we cook hot meals much more often than cold ones. What's the saying? If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen? Most days I have a handfull of tissues to mop my brow, cheeks and neck with one hand while stirring a pot with the other!