Why Recipes Are Just a Starting Point

I am not a big YouTube watcher – after talking on Zoom all day 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want is to watch videos. Also, I just generally prefer the printed word, but a recent profile of June Xie on The Guardian got me watching.

This woman is a badass cook, and is much more along the lines of mostly how I grew up, with a bunch of things throw in a pot or pan, and very few measurements. It was creative, and cheap, and while there were definitely a few recipes that were followed to the letter, most of the time it was simple.

This past weekend found us very busy on Friday and into Saturday. Friday afternoon my son had a haircut, I had to run to the farm to get the next installment of our winter CSA, and then we had a much-delayed Azure Standard pickup. All 3 of those things meant our plan for homemade MYO pizza was off the table until Sunday, so I started picking through our very full freezer for options. I pulled out some pulled pork from Walden Local to thaw, and noodled around the interwebs for ideas. And found it – a tamale pie recipe. Which called for things we didn’t have.

I had ordered groceries – mostly based around the idea that we need lots and lots and lots of cheese for Thanksgiving appetizers, so it wasn’t hard to add (gasp!) a box of corn muffin mix to the order. Do I normally buy pre-made mixes? No, not really, but with only a few minutes here and there to cook, and hungry cold kids after school, I figured I had better take a couple of shortcuts.

I didn’t have creamed corn, but I did happen to have one random can of corn in the house, nor did I have sour cream, but I did have plain Greek yogurt. So I added a full cup of that, more than the recipe called for to offset the lack of cream in the corn.

I baked that, then I covered the top with some of the homemade refried beans I’d made and frozen a while back. Then I added the pulled pork but I also sauteed half a red pepper in with the onions and garlic for a little color and extra veggies (our current goal is to eat 30 varieties of plant-based foods a week) put the enchilada sauce on top of that, and then topped it with shredded cheese and baked it.

And that was how I loosely baked Delish’s Tamale Pie, but not really. At the end of the day my oldest pronounced it good, but it really could have used more flavor. Still, it was filling and warm on a cold night.

I’m a huge fan of the food renaissance that has occurred over the last 2 decades, and I love that people who make food are just as big as rock stars, because food is literally life. I adore trying new recipes, mostly on weekends when I have extra time. I take delight in feeding my family wonderful, healthy meals. I love learning about different cultures via their food.

But look – we all have to eat, right? And not every meal we eat needs to impress Gordon Ramsey. And I’m a fan of the idea that most of the time you shouldn’t be trying.

I mean that. What you should try for is: healthy, nourishing, tasty, and with variety. Pretty, too, I like a good looking meal. But you know what you shouldn’t worry about? Whether you used Himalayan Sea Salt or plain old table salt. If you didn’t use the Burrata the recipe called for vs. just some mozzarella. The pressure to follow recipes exactly and use ingredients that may or may not be out of your budget should be jettisoned.

Completely.

It was just as busy Saturday, so I got up early and tossed some stringy cuts of beef from our meat share into the crock pot with red wine, crushed tomatoes, and onions and carrots – the recipe called for celery but we didn’t have any and I never use it fast enough to make it worth buying – sauteed and then coated with a combination of cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cloves. 10 hours later the stringy beef was shreddable and it went well on top of pearl couscous and a cabbage slaw I just made up, with a dressing of the juice of 2 limes, a couple teaspoons of sugar, a generous scoop of plain Greek yogurt and a little bit of olive oil. I topped it with toasted pumpkin seeds.

This pot roast is always a hit in our house.

The slaw turned out great, even for my not-really-cabbage-loving husband, a win for the ‘use what’s in the house and use a recipe as a jumping off point’ method of feeding everyone.

Because it’s Thanksgiving week and our autumn bulk food stock up time, even though we don’t host this holiday, the pantry and freezers and fridge are literally bursting with food. We’re on for starters Thursday and a series of sides and a dessert for the other side of the family’s Saturday feast. On top of that, it’s holiday cookie baking season, and we ordered our Christmas turkey – oh how i love turkey – so that’s taking up a bunch of space in the freezer. Because everything is so full it’s easy to lose track of things, so I’m working extra hard to try and stay on top of what we have.

This week’s meal plan is a little wonkier than most because of the holidays.

Sunday: Homemade pizza with various toppings – finally! Pesto, fresh mozzarella, sauteed onions, sun dried tomatoes, sausage, shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce are all good options, but really any veggie or condiment we have in the house is fair game. Everyone chooses their own toppings for MYO night.

Monday: Leftover night – Parmesan-crusted chicken I made a while back and froze for a future meal, leftover Italian pot roast, with noodles or more pearl couscous, whatever the kids want. Sauteed spinach on the side, simple with garlic, oil and salt.

Tuesday: Eli Cooks..maybe homemade Empanadas

Wednesday: Chicken Gyros with Naan and tzatziki, a house favorite with roasted Brussels sprouts and onions on the side. Probably a cucumber salad too.

Thursday – Thanksgiving: We make some appetizers and plate some cheese and things. Then onto mashed potatoes and stuffing! Oh, and I’m making these (with sprite for the non-alcohol drinkers and littles) and this amazing salad.

Friday: If we get lucky my older sister and her family will be with us at lunch, and that’s likely going to be a pizza order. Eli and I head out to holiday shop and maybe we’ll get some delicious Indian food out as well. Not a frugal day!

Saturday: Thanksgiving #2. We’re on for creamed onions, a dessert, some wine and Cranberry-raspberry sauce.

Sunday: Time to cut down our Christmas tree, and we’ll need warm comfort food after that outing. Bread of some sort, either Foccacia or our traditional Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I’ll pair it with One Skillet Greek Meatballs and Lemon Butter Orzo.

And then I’ll prep a dish for Monday, just to get us through. Occasionally our meal plan holds us through the week, but often things change and our plans get upended. Still, we mostly eat at home, even if it’s just some Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, rice and sliced veggies because no one had time to cook. Or some ground beef and veggies in a simple stir fry over rice.

But we’ll be flexible. And if we don’t have an ingredient, we’ll find something we can use in our house or we’ll move on to another more fitting dish.

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