My approach to meal planning is, for the most part, nonexistent. I never plan before going shopping. My “no-plan” method involves buying only what’s fresh at the market and combining it with pantry staples. C’est tout!
I tried meal planning for a while. My mother is a rigid meal-planner and taught me how to match coupons with specials, and plan a week’s worth of meals based on the weekly circular ads. I never had much luck. Nine times out of ten, if I plan to make braised chicken with mushrooms, the market is out of mushrooms or the ones available are mushy and smell like . . . well, you know – off. If I plan a Mongolian-inspired sheet pan dinner with haricots verts and slices of flat iron steak (A recipe I clipped from the newspaper years ago – one of Eva’s favourites!), the steak will be sold out. Of course, my butcher will suggest flank steak as a substitute. Mais non, it’s not nearly as tender! Perhaps I want to make artichokes à la barigoule. The artichokes will be bruised and wilted, and I will have to re-write the entire meal plan right there in the produce department. So I stopped.
Occasionally I jot down little notes as I shop. Ideas and possible dishes that can be assembled with what’s in my basket. Cabbage with apples and sausage. Roasted chicken breast with lemons and sautéed potatoes. More often than not, though, I end up cooking something completely different from what’s on my notepad, driven entirely by what I’m craving when wake up in the morning. My mother thinks I’m completely impractical. I say it’s just a little harmless impulsiveness. I love to treat my pantry and refrigerator as my own personal market. It becomes a sort of game – fitting ingredients together like puzzle pieces. If I have a bit of meat, some rice or potatoes, loads of vegetables and fruit on the dining table, I know that I can cook a complete meal without a plan. And if I don’t, the market is just down the street.
Do you remember Nigella Lawson’s old cooking shows where she’d take us into her overstuffed pantry? As she’s rummaging through it, looking for a certain ingredient, she would always tell us about her half-used bags of pasta or show us a collection of Spanish olives, all the while unapologetically munching on a bit of chocolate that she bought in Italy. I absolutely loved watching those segments. Talk about pantry goals! There’s something to be said about having a (very) well-stocked pantry.
The kids both came down with a back-to-school cold last week. It never fails, by the second week of school, all the kids are sniffling and coughing. They brought the bug home to me and, though I usually don’t get quite as sick as they do, I was feeling a bit under the weather on Sunday. It’s on days like that where I really appreciate this “no-plan” approach to cooking. Had I planned a big or elaborate Sunday dinner, I would have felt locked into making a meal that none of us (aside from my husband) really were up to eating. Instead, I “shopped” the kitchen for some quick comfort food. A few potatoes, a smokey kielbasa, combined with a bag of frozen kale. I don’t buy many frozen vegetables, I really don’t like the texture of most, the exception being frozen organic kale. It’s washed and chopped, taking all the prep-work and mess out of preparing greens. I add it to so many different dishes. Frozen kale is, possibly, my favourite frozen convenience food.
The meal was a variation on one I often make with pasta and bacon. So simple, quick and easy, it came together in less than 30 minutes and, despite the stuffy noses and sore throats, everyone loved it.
P.S. Switch up the potatoes for pasta and use bacon in place of the sausage and you’ll have a completely different but equally satisfying weeknight meal.
Kielbasa with Potatoes and Cream
6 medium-sized red potatoes
1 bay leaf
2 tsp olive oil
12 oz (340g) Kielbasa sausage
10 oz (283g) frozen, chopped organic kale
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 cup cream
salt and pepper, to taste
Dijon mustard, for serving
Cut the potatoes into bite-size pieces. Place potatoes and bay in a medium sauce pan, cover with cool water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer. Cook for 8 – 10 minutes, until the potatoes are fork-tender. Set aside.
While the potatoes cook, slice the kielbasa into thin rounds. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Place the kielbasa slices in the pan in a single layer and cook turning occasionally until the sausage is brown and cooked through.
Drain the oil from the pan, leaving about 1 tablespoon. Stir in the frozen kale, the chicken broth, the red pepper and freshly ground black pepper. Cover loosely and simmer 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the potatoes to the kielbasa mixture and drizzle the cream over top. Toss gently over medium heat until the cream is heated through and the sauce has thickened. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
Serve the sausage and potatoes with Dijon mustard on the side.