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How do you decide what to cook?

One of my biggest problems as a home cook (I admit, there are several) is trying to decide what to make. I spend way too much time reading recipes and blogs and stories about food, but when it comes down to choosing what to make for say, a weeknight dinner, a small dinner party or a batch of something baked, I'm often struck with major indecision. By default, I look for recipes that are a) quick, b) call for most ingredients I already have in my fridge/pantry, and c) don't involve too many pots and pans to clean afterward. (Okay, I'm kind of a lazy cook). Once in a while I'll try something that takes time and effort, but then I'll just make that one thing and nothing else. ("Hi, honey, we're having sourdough bread from the starter I've been feeding for weeks! If you put some peanut butter on for protein, it's dinner! Bon Appetit!")

So, my question is part a plea for advice on getting over my indecision and part just curiosity. How do you choose what to make with so many freaking recipes out there?

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  1. I begin in the store or market, and choose whats fresh, in season, and reasonably priced. If chicken is on sale for weeks, I pick something that is more pricey, but will be worth it (scallops, crab...yum)
    From there, weeknight meals I try to prepare simply, yet concentrate flavor thru rubs, grilling, braising, etc. I love recipes where i throw everything in my 14in skillet, or all on the grill.
    For dinner parties, I choose a menu that features fresh seasonal items, and prepare them in ways I am proficient at. You don't want to be scrambling to make something you are unfamiliar with.
    For me the exact recipes are last. I browse thru EPI or books, and read what recipes will work for my ingredients and timeframe. "Shopping for specific recipe ingredient lists " is IMO a pain in the neck. The store may not have it, it may be expensive, and/or you may forget it!
    When you do narrow down a recipe, getting 1 specialty item you may not have in your pantry is not a big deal..
    As for something baked...I'm with you. How can you not want to make them all!!?? ;)

    1. For me it's almost exclusively about what we're craving. This doesn't always jive nicely with what I have in the house - the grocery store that's less than a block away does much to enable this inefficiency. :)

      1. I cook dinner 6 nights a week. (We eat out the other night.) I usually stick to: 2 seafood, 2 vegetarian, 1 poultry, and 1 red meat dinner per week. I usually choose the veggies first, selecting from my farmers market loot, then decide what to do with it. For instance, today I'm eying a Kabocha squash that's sitting on my kitchen counter. I have some Italian sausages in the fridge, and some fennel. I think I'll make a stuffing of the sausage, fennel, and onions and bake it in squash halves. An entree like this only requires a salad to round out the meal, so I'll use up the lovely salad mix I bought at the market.

        I have lots of cookbooks, and I'm finding the eatyourbooks.com website extremely useful for menu planning. If you cook from books a lot, I suggest you check this out.

        For parties, I keep a log of all dinner parties, what I served, who attended, and how the food was received. This comes in handy for planning.

        I write a food column for my local newspaper, so I end up reading about food for 2 or 3 hours a day. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. I find it helps me to focus if I stick to cooking from 1 book per week. (This week it's "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners." My baking book right now is "Good to the Grain."

        9 Replies
        1. re: pikawicca

          pikawicca, I love your "1 book per week" approach. How do fit COTM into that?

          As for me, when its CSA season, I am slave to the box of vegetables. I try to prioritize the vegetables by which are the most perishable, and use those first. Like pikawicca, I've found EYB tremendously helpful in finding recipes in my cookbooks. My backup to EYB is epicurious. It's true that there are a zillion recipes on the internet, but I prefer cooking from my books because I know I can trust them. Epicurious is pretty reliable, too, especially if you pay attention to the star ratings from other users. None of this is foolproof of course.

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            If I'm cooking along, I'll do the COTM for a week, or so. If it's a particular cuisine (e.g., Mexican, I'll dip into it throughout the month. My husband starts to complain if I serve up "exotic" dishes night after night.)

            1. re: pikawicca

              pikawicca, I know it's been more than a month since you posted this, but, I've been thinking about adopting your meal planning approach once CSA season ends later this month. It love the orderliness of your approach. Question: what is your shopping strategy?

              Thank you,

              ~TDQ

              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                My shopping strategy is a bit different these days, as I pay very little attention to the price of anything, unlike in days gone by. (And some of it, like the Wagyu steak I bought a while back, I can write off as a business expense.) Great food is what I choose to spend a lot of my disposable income on, so my freezer is stocked with local, pastured beef, lamb, pork, chickens, rabbit, bison, and elk. Fish (cryovaced and portioned for 2) from a seafood market in Seattle. The freezer is in the basement, so I keep a list of its contents on the fridge in the kitchen, crossing off items as I remove them.

                We now have a year-round farmers' market (twice weekly in the warmer 6 months of the year), so I shop for produce either once or twice a week. I usually don't have a particular dish in mind when I buy produce, I simply buy what looks particularly appealing that day. (And I'm a sucker for exotic produce of any sort, so I sometimes end up with totally unfamiliar stuff.)

                Things I always have on hand: Parm, arborio rice, chicken stock, frozen peas, dried mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, a hunk of great cheese, a good imported salami, wine, chocolate, and fresh fruit. A small army could drop by and I could feed them well. (Plus, we love rissotto and if I'm not in much of a cooking mood, a can have a tasty one on the table in less than half an hour.

                I generally make one trip per week to the supermarket for staples.

                Oh, and Friday is usually Soup Day. Any unused produce gets cooked up, and if I have any leftover meat or pasta, that might go in, as well.

                Any extra meat of fish gets turned into my Mom's Meat Spread: Put hunks of meat into food processor, toss in a little chopped onion, mayo, mustard, and S&P. Whir it around until it's a consistency that you like. This always gets gobbled up on lunch sandwiches. I've gotten very good at not wasting anything.

                1. re: pikawicca

                  Thank you, pikawicca! I am not a fan of soups, but my husband is, and you make it sound so appealing and easy to have soup day on Friday. And, even I can be a fan of soups this time of year! I pick up my CSA on Thursday, and so am accustomed to having frittata day on Thursday. But I like your soup day and Mom's meat spread idea.

                  I always plan to keep an inventory of what we've got in our freezer, but, with two of us adding to and subtracting from it, somehow, the discipline gets lost. But, I think I might be able to rein that in if I start doing a real weekly meal plan. We'll see how it goes.

                  Thank you for the wonderful ideas, everyone. These are all of the things I should have learned in Home Economics class, had we had one, right?

                  ~TDQ

                  1. re: pikawicca

                    As a poor college student, I hope that I can one day have your pantry!! I could just sit in there and eat!

                    1. re: milkyway4679

                      As a poor college student in Berkeley, CA, I once spent an entire quarter eating only hot dogs and artichokes. (Bought on the farm, artichokes were dirt cheap.) Took me a long time before I could again love 'chokes.

              2. re: The Dairy Queen

                +1 for eating seasonally. I'm a member of a CSA and I garden. Like TDQ, I prioritize by what is ripe and most perishable. I also can and freeze things for use in the off season. This week I got a lot of radishes in the box as well as fresh buttercrunch lettuce. Even though I typically think of it a spring dish, I'll be making my grandmother's wilted lettuce salad for our dinner tomorrow night. During winter I try to make good use of the foods I "put by" in the summer.

                I fix old favourites or look for new recipes using my fruits and veggies. I blog and I participate in some of the cook-alongs going on in the blogsphere. Also, I have a family. If they request something in particular, I fit that into the weekly menu.

                I copy and paste recipes that interest me into a cookbook folder on my computer. Some days I browse those recipes and I love reading cookbooks. Between my computer folder and my books, I keep a list of recipes to try and will sometimes go through the list to see what matches my veggie box or what looks good to me.

              3. re: pikawicca

                pikawicca, I just checked out the site Eat your books- what a cool idea! Thanks for sharing this site. I often find myself at work, thinking of a recipe in one of my books at home but cant remember all the ingrediants

              4. I don't use recipes. I read them to get ideas (about techniques or what ingedients might go together), but never follow them when actually cooking.

                Every Saturday morning, we go to the local farmers market and buy whatever produce and meat looks good. Throughout the week, just open the refrigerator, see what is there and figure out how it goes together.

                The biggest decision is usually the basic where to start. The two main factors that influence that are:
                1) what interesting ingredient is there that should be eaten asap. Lately, it has been corn on the cob fresh from the market that I want to eat within a few days of purchase, and chantarelles and other interesting mushrooms.
                2) let weather dictate that: is it nice enough to grill outside, if so, what meat do we have in the fridge, what might go with it... Weather not conducive to outdoor cooking: do we have pasta, if so what can go with it? Do we have ingredients for a good risotto? Really, no thought goes into it until it is time to start cooking and then it is a hit and miss, lets try something situation.

                For dinner parties, it is usually "those steaks/that chicken/etc look good...lets buy that" then wander around the market finding things that complement it. Since my market day is Saturday and most of my parties are either saturday or sunday, everything is still fresh and crisp and wonderful. Same procedure though - decision is made last minute.

                That said, my cooking style is based on simple preparation of quality fresh local ingredients, so not a lot of planning goes into it.

                1. One thing that's really expanded my repertroire this past year is belonging to a CSA. I'm fortunate enough to live in California, where the CSAs deliver all year. I get boxes of whatever produce is in season on this particular farm, and I go from there. Prior to belonging to the CSA, I never would have considered buying or cooking chard, kale, napa cabbage, or turnips. But having them delivered to my doorstep forced me to figure out what to do with them.

                  If a CSA isn't an option for you, farmer's markets are also a great source of inspiration. Buy whatever looks good, and then find some recipes that incorporate them.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: LaPomme

                    These are great tips. I definitely need to become more comfortable and confident not using a recipe (if I had a kabocha squash, I'd look through every recipe on epi for what to do with it). One thing that's enabled my indecision problem is that I just started a job across the street from Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, which sells pretty much everything: produce, meat, fish, poultry, hard to find ingredients, spices, etc. I'm not complaining. I love it, but it's totally overwhelming.

                    1. re: schmaltz

                      Lucky you on the access to the Reading Terminal Market! Perhaps centering in on ONE shop/booth (not sure of the set-up) per week might help you narrow what you'll be cooking. Or perhaps several booths - say you're going to one specific fishmonger, and then the spice market booth. Work with those two and make something that utilizes just those ingredients (with appropriate side dishes). A few days later, choose two other booths and go from there.