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Net-less meals pull in more suggestions for easy, fast dinners

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

What do you cook when you don’t know what to cook?

I wrote a column about that recently, calling it “cooking without a net” – those things you make without a recipe, without planning, without much time to think about it.

And I heard from other people who have those fallback positions, those meals that just come together.

One friend of mine suggested that it’s a version of what he calls small-bite meals. That’s when he and his wife just graze a little: A handful of nuts, some olives, a few pieces of baguette spread with something simple like pimento cheese. Put it out, pour a glass of wine, and on some evenings, that’s enough to be dinner.

Other readers shared their tricks and fast dishes.

Paula Onxley, for instance, has a habit that makes her life easier. Whenever she has extra bits of fresh vegetables that won’t get used up before they go bad, she dices them up and freezes them in plastic freezer bags, pressing the bags out flat.

She does the same with chicken broth and leftover chicken, measured out in 1-cup portions.

When it’s time to make a stir-fry, soup, omelet, pizza or pasta, she can just break off a chunk of vegetables, broth or chicken and toss them in the pan.

Jetta Washington calls her impromptu meals “Gazing into the Refrigerator.” She had done it the night before she read my column: Leftovers from a bag of white and wild rice with vegetables, leftover sliced black olives, some green onion, a can of water-packed tuna. She mixed in a little light mayo and piled it into lettuce cups, with gluten-free garlic bagel chips on the side.

Ruth Mennitt had two dishes like that, one with leftover meat mixed with rinsed black beans and salsa, rolled in tortillas in a baking dish, topped with a little salsa and baked: Instant enchiladas.

The other: Chopped vegetables and leftover meat piled in a pie plate, topped with eggs, milk and a little baking mix (aka Bisquick) and baked.

Finally, Sharon Starks ended up creating a dish that she liked so much, she wrote it down so she wouldn’t forget.

She started by sauteing a fresh, chopped tomato with a little garlic powder and some Marsala wine. She stirred in white sauce, some fresh basil from the pot on the deck and leftover shrimp she cooked for Mother’s Day. With a little grated Parmesan, it went over angel hair pasta.

Sharon’s white sauce trick, by the way: She heats a cup of milk and 1 tablespoon of butter in the microwave, then whisks in 1 tablespoon flour and microwaves until it comes to a boil. Stir it again and let it sit for a few minutes. She gets a thin version of white sauce that’s faster.

I’ll put recipe versions of all their dishes on my blog, at obsbite.blogspot.com. And just remember:

What do you call it when your recipe for dinner is just to open cabinets, grab stuff and throw it together?

We call it cooking. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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