During most of 2013, Whipup.net will hosting a monthly mini-series, each month edited by different crafters and designers. Enjoy!
Introducing Mary Jo for the month of April :: The theme for this month is functional creativity.
Mary Jo :: Five Green Acres
Some days I feel like it is such a burden to have to eat. Again and again — it feels like a never-ending chore to feed myself and my family. These are the days when my creative bandwidth is entirely consumed by other, more exciting making, leaving nothing for creative meal prep. These are the days when a frozen pizza becomes the go-to meal, when all of our food ethics fall to the wayside out of sheer necessity and poor planning.
But there are other days when my kitchen is humming with creative food energy, with bread dough rising on the counter, milk for yogurt scalding on the stove, and supper emerging from the glossy pages of a new flashy cookbook. These are the days when there are more meal choices than mealtimes, and my countertop is littered with spent citrus halves and the papery sheathes of garlic cloves. These are the days when we eat like kings, fulfilling the tenets of our food dogma bite by bite. I sure would like to bridge the gap between these two extremes. I’d like to have a backup plan to the frozen pizza program that doesn’t require me to pull a gourmet meal out of a hat, because on those days, I’ve got no magic left.
Meal planning emerges as a no-brainer solution to this vacillation, but I haven’t been able to make that a workable solution for me. I prefer slightly more spontaneity, and the ability to incorporate whatever I can get my hands on that is fresh in that moment. This is what I tell myself, all the while suspecting that I’m just not organized enough to pull off a successful planning program, or maybe I’m just overwhelmed by all the choices. Another voice reminds me that I find myself most fulfilled in the kitchen when I’m tasked with a limited amount of ingredients or a leftover chicken that is about to expire. These are the times when I’ve been able to shine, creating meals that I liken to shooting stars — one-off concoctions that we’ll never have again in exactly the same way. These are the meals that emerge as part of a natural progression, born from a need to use up leftovers, a cascade of dishes that spin off of one big meal. This is Functional Creativity in the kitchen, and I think it just might be the key to bailing us out of intermittent frozen pizza purgatory.
I’m discovering that there is (can be) a logical progression of cooking that can be harnessed with just a tiny bit of meal planning. The Chicken Dinner was the gateway for me into this kind of thinking. We have a freezer full of our home-grown whole broiler chickens that I personally pulled around on pasture, hauled water to, bought grain for. You can bet that I’m not going to let a drop of that sweat equity go down the drain.
So I’d roast a bird — there are a million creative ways to do this — and we’d feast on the fruits of my labors, and that was satisfying for about 2 hours. But then what? This family of four can’t (and shouldn’t) eat a whole roast chicken in one sitting, so what should become of the leftovers? (I wasn’t interested in making chicken salad sandwiches) I quickly learned that a roast chicken dinner can yield at least two more meals from the bits leftover: the meat is easily pulled off the bones, chopped up, and commingled with an entirely different array of flavors as, say, the anchor for enchiladas. The leftover bones and tiny meat bits can easily become the hearty base for a soup or stock — to be eaten fresh or frozen for later. At a minimum, one chicken can yield three different meals for our family, but I’m finding I can stretch that even further. I recently used the delicious pan drippings as the liquid base for couscous instead of turning them into gravy. There are a million different riffs on this progression; we’ll certainly not be limited to this sequence. And I’m not at all suggesting these meals must be served on consecutive days — my palate is bored just writing that.
Through the course of exploring this kitchen synergy, I’ve identified some dishes/techniques that make a fantastic framework for the leftover-du-jour. Soups are a classic example, adapting themselves brilliantly to whatever you have on hand to throw in them — bones, beans, veggies, etc. I’ve never made the same soup twice. Enchiladas are another of my favorites, though my versions become very different interpretations of the classic, out of necessity. Lasagna is a fantastic vehicle for using up whatever I have; nearly anything will taste good smothered in sauce and cheese, sandwiched between noodles or thinly-sliced noodle-like layers (squash is a great not-noodle substitution). Salads are a whole playground of possibilities, you can well imagine, especially when hopped up with nuts, cheese, or fresh fruit. Pasta — another blank slate. Got eggs? Quiche is a nimble accommodator of whatever is lining your fridge or pantry. Call me lazy, but I’m a big fan of the one-pot meal, and these dishes reflect that desire for relative simplicity.
Being omnivorous has illuminated a meat dish as the natural starting point for cascade cooking in our house, but one could find the same synergistic chain of meals in a pot of beans or whole grains, or an armful of winter squash, or a spring harvest of fresh nettles. I’ve found the same kind of logical but creative use of resources a necessary complement to our fresh milk program. Every two weeks I collect the milk from a trusted organic farm and apply a similar cascade of use to it. The cream is skimmed off for our morning coffee, for use as half-and-half in cooking, or cultured with Piima or buttermilk as a delicious substitute for sour cream or creme fraiche. The milk is eagerly consumed as-is and used throughout the two weeks in other cooking/baking. What remains before the next pickup of fresh milk is turned into yogurt that will last for weeks, or if too sour, used in lieu of buttermilk in cooking. And we’ve not even ventured yet into the realm of ice cream.
My kitchen bookshelves are brimming with cookbooks — so many that I feel overwhelmed by the burden of choices if my method of meal planning is to pull out recipes at random. Trying to pair that with what is in season is a pressure that often drives me further off the cliff, into the frozen pizza aisle. But even I, with my exploding creativity thoroughly used up with wool or cloth, can manage to pick one starting point that can beget meal after meal by simply utilizing and remixing what’s left. Feeding the family is a functional need at its core. Letting that function drive your creativity, instead of trying to let your creative impulses contrive the meals day after day, can be a refreshingly nourishing way to fill the plate.