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My Dinners Are Going Downhill, Help!

I am really struggling with dinner these days. I know I am a decent cook and I have all the tools but lately my food just isn't coming out the way it used to. I find myself struggling for inspiration.

I think it started when I bought a certain TV chef's book (we'll call him tf) and made a few recipes all of which came out horribly. I embarrassed myself and a good friend with a nasty salty meatball rendition for his birthday and made another dish which my husband passed on for a ham sandwich. Yikes! Normally I am known for my good cooking but these were disastrous. Ever since then I feel like I am losing my edge.

The food I want to cook I would call upscale comfort food or maybe bistro. I like cookbooks but I have a hard time finding books on the food I want to cook. I also have a one year old son so not a lot of time for cooking classes. We do eat a variety of things although I never really developed those "go-to recipes" but i am not afraid to try things. We enjoy Japanese, Italian, American and the occasional Mexican or Thai restaurant.

I should also say that I feel like my food is always better in the summer. Roast chicken with smashed potatoes and a corn and nectarine or caprese salad is heaven for me. I just want to make good comforting food that my husband looks forward to each night and brags about at work the next day.

Any tips, recipes, ideas or cookbooks that can help get me out of this slump? Has anyone else gone through something similar? Is it too much to want to make restaurant comfort food without cooking school?

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  1. I don't mean to sound simplistic...but did you try some of the recipes here? There is a thread for everything!!! Really, most are very "tried and true". There is even a thread for favorite Epicurious recipes.

    Two food network people that I like for everyday inspiration and comfort food are Rachel Ray and Giada Everyday Italian. Both have plenty of Bistro style pasta, soups, sandwiches, salads & sides that are easy to add your own spin to- even when tired after work. I consider them "no brainer" weekday inspirations. I rarely follow the recipe exactly, but I think.." oh, yeah, a simple artichoke parm pasta with a salad sounds good tonight"..." I'll add that leftover chicken"... etc.
    Maybe save the Julia Child ( and "ultimate" ) recipes until you get your mojo back?

    Edit: if anyone scoffs at RR for bistro food, I highly recommend her saltimbocca veal burgers, Lamb Patties on Fattoush salad or Scotch Salmon with Farfalle...all very bistro, easy and quick.

    1. Don't worry about having a "off" period. I've been through it to, and the best way to get through it is start simple and don't think too much about it. I agree with the above post - there are lots of recipes here. But here are a few of my weeknight, easy, comforty staples that I do: (I'm cooking for 2)

      Pasta and Brussel Sprouts (on epicurious, but I improvise)
      slice a container of brussel sprouts, saute in oil, cook a half box fettuccini, toss with brussel sprouts, butter and parm cheese.

      Pasta and Cauliflower
      Boil short pasta (like penne). Saute a little pancetta till crispy, remove. Saute 1 head of cauliflower chopped in pancetta rendering (and oil if needed), till browned. Drain pasta reserving some water. Mix with cauliflower, a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, bread crumbs, pancetta and parmesean.

      Chicken cutlets (I don't know why, but for years I refused to make these, then I got back into the habit) breaded and sauteed.
      Kale Salad - caramelize a red onion, toss over torn kale, add goat cheese crumbles, drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

      Chicken and artichokes (on another thread, and I realized how much I liked it)
      Saute chunks of chicken with garlic, add canned or frozen artichokes, squeeze a lemon over and add oregano and fresh parsley. Make sure artichokes are warmed through. Serve with rice or couscous.

      Lucy's Pasta
      Cook spaghetti/linguine. Carmelize 2 onions. Mix onions with 1 egg, 1/2 cup grated cheese and 1/2 cup parsley. Toss over pasta and let the heat of the pasta cook the egg.

      Hope one of them works for you.

      1. The Barefoot Contessa Recipes would be a good place too

        1. Amanda,
          Feel your pain-sort of... Much easier to get into a winter slump here in Pittsburgh than California! Besides cookbooks I've got 12 binders of recipes I've collected over the years. I consider this on "my" best. I'ts K Paul original shrimp creole recipe. Defiantly not a weeknight dish homemade shrimp or fish stock a must and a long cooking process but magic.



          1. There are lots of times when I can't be bothered to give dinner much thought and those are days that I'll come here for inspiration. The What's For Dinner threads always has brilliant ideas and the helpful additions from posters can get your creative juices flowing as you think about the ways you might tweak a recipe to fit your upscale comfort food style.

            4 Replies
            1. re: JungMann

              Jung your the man how bout throwing us one of your best :)


              1. re: don515

                I think a poster here, linguafood, was far more inspiring this past year when one was in need of inspiration. In fact a couple of experiments I had earlier were very much inspired by some of what I read posted in WFD.

                1. re: JungMann

                  The JMann is right - go to the Home Cooking board and type in "What's For Dinner" in the search, and you'll find 71 threads with 200+ posts each filled with people sharing their dinner ideas and getting inspired by each other. It's a great resource. And tho he's absolutely right about linguafood and her delicious meals, JungMann has himself been an inspiration many a time. Don't despair, and good luck!

                  1. re: JungMann

                    aww. that just made my day :-D. thanx, young man. of course, for every inspiration, i have a failed dinner to show for, too! trial & error, and the occasional good eats...

              2. It is easy to put too much pressure on yourself to make "fancy" food. Most of the "foodie" TV hosts on the food network are chefs, their job isn't to make heathful, comforting food, its to make things that will impress you when you look at them on TV. Trust me, most people don't feel that they have to eat fancy to eat well. My advice is to make a few more simple things that you really enjoy, pull out a few recipes you haven't made in a while because you thought they werent good enough and in a week or so you will be back on your feet and back in the kitchen!

                1. i'd take the opposite tack.

                  forget recipes. they take you away from (re)developing your skills.
                  focus on simple things that please you to make. don;t stress about how it comes out, just enjoy the groove of cooking. it will come back in the end

                  2 Replies
                    1. My suggestion is to go to your favourite food store when (if?) you have extra time, wander around and look at interesting ingredients you may not have used before. Let them excite and inspire you. Try something brand new - take time to really play with ingredients.

                      3 Replies
                        1. re: chefathome

                          That's a good one. Also whenever I walk around an ethnic grocery, I seem to get inspired.

                          1. re: jvanderh

                            Totally. My heart races and I immediately begin planning on what I am going to do with the fresh curry leaves, black limes or goat or whatever.

                        2. Happened to read this yesterday:
                          "The best thing about Mark Bittman, to us, is how he validated our particular lifelong half-assed “well that looks pretty good enough” cooking habits. Because we were right, all along! There is no single recipe for anything, and people who obsess over measuring and “having all the ingredients” and everything are, basically, insane people. That is not how you cook to eat, which is the point of cooking: to make a meal you are going to eat, at that point in time."
                          (The whole post is here: http://wonkette.com/436337/best-ever-...

                          The cook who got me interested in cooking was Lee Bailey. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_...

                          Here's a good one from him --

                          Chicken Pancakes with Peach Salsa

                          meat from 6 nicely baked chicken thighs, chopped coarsley
                          1 1/2 cups shredded potato, squeezed dry
                          1 small onion grated
                          2 tablespoons flour
                          3/4 teaspoon salt
                          1/4 teaspoon pepper
                          Tabasco to taste
                          Vegetable oil and butter for frying
                          3 medium eggs, lightly beaten

                          Mix the onion with the flour, salt & pepper, Tabasco to taste (2-3 drops?).
                          Heat oil and butter in a skillet. Mix chicken into potato mixture and stir in the eggs. Drop by rounded tablespoons into hot pan, cooking until golden. Then flip over, flatten a little and again cook 'til gold.
                          Today, a chef would probably use a much fancier product or pepper than Tabasco. But his food is often just right for me.
                          And don't forget haha hunger is the best sauce!

                          1. Have you looked at "The Union Square Cafe Cookbook"?

                            1. Here is a great one, could not not not be easier and it's quite delicious, and it could get you back on your feet. You say you like roast chicken, and you could play around with a creative side to accompany this one, or serve with Israeli couscous for a change of grain. I use all chicken thighs here. You can play with the ingreds, as others have suggested adding olives, artichokes, or mushrooms to the pan as well. This is comfort food, certainly, and it also looks beautiful and tastes unusual with the fresh marjoram.


                              1. **also, Amanda, look at the Cookbook of the Month archives. You can order a few of the books that appeal to you from the library, and try some of the recipes getting rave reviews from hounds. The troubleshooting is usually done for you if another hound or two tried the recipe in advance

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: twilight goddess

                                  And CHs usually give links to a lot of the recipes so you don't even have to go to the library much less buy the books.

                                2. I have very few cookbooks, but I do subscribe to Bon Appetit and a couple of other food related mags...I find those recipes better than cook books BUT when I first started getting into cooking food, I went to the stores and just browsed the shelves, the meats...fresh produce, etc. for things that I hadn't cooked or tasted before then I began buying something new every week to take home and play with.

                                  To me, cooking food is another form of art...I can't paint, sew, or draw but I can coax the flavors out of a piece of meat or a sauce. I can come up off the top of my head with ideas when I see something exciting in the stores. I'll pick up things I've never worked with and ask myself what I can do with it. Sometimes, the dish is a home run, some times not so much. If not, I try to think what I can do to make it better or determine if it's just something I don't like.

                                  This way of thinking for me has opened myself & my family up to new worlds of food that I may not have ever tried if I stuck to one author's cookbook or one food tv host. Not saying this works for everyone but think of your ingredients like clay or putty in your hands, think about how you can manipulate your ingredients, the types of food you like & flavor combinations. Think outside of what you're used to and make your own recipes. I like to think of it like an episode of "Chopped" . Come up with an idea and challenge yourself

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Cherylptw

                                    Couple of questions:

                                    Why is a roast chicken and smashed potatoes and a caprese salad a "summer" meal? OK, you can't get fresh tomatoes right now. So make it an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing, or romaine and grapefruit sections--you get the picture. You know what you like and are good at, so hey, why not make it now?

                                    Second question: did you grow up with any kind of food heritage? Any immigrant grandparents or particular regional specialties? Any foods your mom or dad used to make for you? Any things you really loved as a kid? Any early eating out happy memories? Any culinary breakthroughs like spending time in France and realizing they ate the pink parts of the scallops, or in Mexico saw they used avocado instead of mayonnaise as a spread on sandwiches?

                                    Do you know how to make those things you enjoyed as a kid, or a young adult? Or in a restaurant you went to recently, or a long time ago?

                                    Finally, are there any constraints that you or your husband has? Are you avoiding high cholesterol foods, or gluten, or saturated fat? What things make you feel really wonderful after you eat them, and what makes you feel leaden or foggy?

                                    People think of constraints as a problem, but they can also serve as an inspiration.

                                    I'd take a personal food inventory, and maybe ask your husband to do one, too. Then focus on making food that you really really love. And if you've remembered things that you used to love, but haven't had in a while (or don't know how to cook), make them again, or learn to make them for the first time.

                                    Hope this helps--

                                    1. re: Cherylptw

                                      I echo Cherylptw on subscribing to Bon Appetit. Also the Food Network magazine. Both have inspired me without being a big cooking challenge on a busy weeknight. I grew up with Southern comfort food from my grandma and very plain cooking from my mom. (She hates to cook.) Neither pushed out of their comfort zone. When I started cooking (at age 5), I started dabbling in different cuisines: Mexican, Italian, French, etc. Now we all love trying new things. That may be something you want to look into, getting out of your bistro- loving comfort zone. :) It will expand your r'epertoire. Once a week, pick out and try a recipe you've never done before. Reference many different sources. You'll have your mojo back soon enough.

                                      1. re: UGAFan30

                                        I'm finishing up a subscription that my late MIL had for BA. I find FAR better recipes here on CH.

                                        @OP: take a vacation from "real" cooking. Make casseroles, breakfast for dinner, etc. And one of my favorite things is Hazan's carbonara. I always have the ingredients on hand (bacon instead of pancetta) and it's got a wow factor that belies the simple ingredients. And, yeah, winter cooking can get boring. But remember how in August we were looking forward to it :)

                                    2. This thread is why i love hounds, always ready to pile in if there's a cook in trouble. I can totally relate to those periods where cooking just keeps coming out blah, though your husband should be reprimanded, if you cook it they can eat it.

                                      Getting back on the horse is important, try and spend a bit of time thinking about a style of cooking you are really good at, do you fry really well? Are you a dab hand with a grill, or at soup? Perhaps you make pasta with butter and shallot so good it's why pasta was invented. Try and get back to where you feel comfortable in the kitchen so that you can get your confidence back. Try not to think in terms of recipes but thinking in terms of technique. Even acknowledging the fact that you do something like dice an onion beautifully really helps.

                                      I know when I'm going through these phases I second guess myself constantly and always end up over seasoning, under seasoning or overcooking. I hate sitting down to a meal and thinking, 'What the hell is this? I'm better than this. What's happened?'Inevitably it passes, but it's tough.

                                      1. When I'm in a rut (which is really all a slump is, right?) I tend to go back to the foods I cooked as a young wife - but with techniques and ingredients I prefer now that I'm not so young.

                                        This time if year it's easy for me to get in a rut, but the recent weather has snapped me out of it - I've been all over stews and soups and gumbos. All of which are hard to mess up, easy to adjust to taste, and can be classified as restaurant/bistro comfort food in anyone's view. Just one example, beef stew with a quarter or half bottle of whatever red wine sounds good (I like a cheap pinot noir from Mirrassou in particular - it's inexpensive and has a nice peppery bite) plus a few sprigs of thyme thrown jazzes it up just a touch above what I'd have made back in the day. Big fluffy dumplings dropped on top (I like a biscuit mix version with some cornmeal, garlic, parsley and cheese grated in) complete the bowl.

                                        Essentially, I think you just need to trust your instincts again.

                                        Oh, and search for the Paul Prudhomme Cajun Meatloaf recipe. It's fun to cook, perfect this time of year, and is such a killer reminder of what comfort food can be.

                                        1. When I hit an everything-goes-wrong season I have to remind myself of the KISS rule---Keep It Simple, Stupid. Plain roast chicken. Baked Idaho potatoes busted open with butter and salt. Frozen peas. Lettuce and tomato salad. Ice cream with frozen strawberries. Because when screw-up gremlins are loose in my kitchen, I know not to do anything even halfway fancy. Just retreat a few steps and play every card close to the chest. The diners won't care---they are just glad to have somebody cooking for them.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Querencia

                                            I constantly have to be reminding myself of the KISS rule. I'm one of those people who shell out great advice to others on cooking but for some reason always have trouble following it myself. I always tell other to keep it simple but I always feel like I have to go beyond that and that's when I get discouraged when something doesn't turn out the way I want it.

                                            Cooking is all about confidence and if you start losing that confidence on something new then I would suggest to go back to your comfortable spot to build it back up again. But don't just do the same old thing because you'll get bored. Go back to your keep it simple spot but change it up just a little so you get a new dish. Your making the ol' tried and true but with a new spin on it and then your confidence will soar again so you can take on those more challenging tasks.

                                          2. My advice is to skip the upscale stuff, recipes and go back to basics so you can develop your own repertoire.

                                            For me, recipes are a crutch if you don't have the basics down. With the basics, you'd recognize that a recipe may be too salty based upon the ingredients.

                                            Also, I've learned from past experience that I should never try new recipes for special occasions.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: dave_c

                                              I agree with part of what you said 100%; never use a new recipe for special occasions until you've tried it first.

                                              I'm interpreting her post differently than most who have responded; I gathered that she is looking for recipes that appeal to her that she can trust. She hasn't found that yet; but I'm also assuming that she has read the different threads on cookbooks, that time is an issue as well. The op has a one year old, wants to eat well but probably doesn't have time to do so much research.

                                              I'll be starting a thread soon for my ds who is showing an interest in cooking; I cannot scare him away with the standard cookbooks; there have to be dishes in there that will speak to him at his age, for inspiration.

                                              1. re: lilgi

                                                I think you'll find plenty of that already here. Lots of us have done or are doing that.

                                            2. Thank you all for responding and helping me out. It is much appreciated and I have read everyone's comments at least twice.

                                              After more contemplation, I think my problem seems to be that my food isn't tasting the way I want or expect it too. For example, yesterday I made apples and pork chops. Simple enough right? After searing the pork chops and moving them to the oven, I sauteed the apples in the pork drippings then added cognac, reduced it, then added chicken stock, some brown sugar and rosemary. After reducing it down until syrupy, it came out super bitter, like I burnt something but nothing was burnt!

                                              A lot of you have said that I should return to the basics. Where should I get those basic recipes from? I have a few basic cookbooks but the recipes i have tried taste too simple for me. I can make good burgers and spaghetti and meatballs but I don't want to eat that every week. What are some good, healthy dishes that are fool proof?

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: AmandaCA

                                                Not to recommend the much-hated CHOW part of this site, but they have a whole section with basic recipes called "the basics", which seem like a decent starting point.

                                                1. re: AmandaCA

                                                  Do you ever try to fix things when they surprise you?

                                                  OK, so the sauce tastes bitter--is it so bitter you have to just throw it out and start again? Is it fixable with a some more brown sugar, a grated fresh apple, a little cream and some horseradish? Could you use it half and half with stock or apple juice? You're doing all this puttering with cognac and reducing--can you putter just a little bit more at the end till you have it the way you like it?

                                                  (My hypothesis is that there were some solids in there among the pork drippings that didn't burn flamboyantly, but they did burn slightly when you fried the apples there. Me, I'd pour out the drippings, deglaze the pan, and then, in the clean pan, fry the apples in either some fresh oil or butter, or the clear part of the dripping spooned off the top.

                                                  Or I'd just cut the apple in slices and stick them among the pork chops in the oven! (The KISS method.)

                                                  I don't cook meat anymore, but when I was learning, I though all those quick cooked chicken breast recipes in the first Julia Child book were pretty easy and deliciious.

                                                  1. re: AmandaCA

                                                    Gio, one of the queens of Italian (and all other) cooking really likes Batali's Molto Italiano. I've certainly never found a loser. Also Hazan's Essentials of It. Cooking. Also a Chow-buddy of mine, who's an extraordinary cook, taught herself to cook with Julia Child's How to Cook. I love all three.

                                                  2. I had a similar period over the late summer and early fall---it corresponded to a particularly picky time in my son's diet and a visit from my strictly-vegetarian and no-onion/garlic-eating mother. Then, a friend of mine pointed me to the Dinner: A Love Story website sometime in mid-October and I fell in love! It really did inspire me. I bought the cookbook and have found a lot of inspiration, both for cooking and for parenting. I recommend both very highly for parents who love food who want to raise kids who love food without causing a lot of stress for anyone.


                                                    1. Hi Amanda,
                                                      I have no tips or recipes for you. Rather, a simple thought: hit the road. Perhaps you and your young son should take a few modest day trips (under an hour), try some new stuff, tune up the taste buds a bit and figure things out from there.
                                                      ...just my $0.02.

                                                      1. Sounds to me like you made a few recipes that weren't worth a crap and it shook your confidence.

                                                        There are plenty of recipes in books that absolutely suck, including ones from big name TV chefs. You could follow that recipe perfectly and it would suck. Which isn't so much a reflection of your ability, but an indication that you have blindy placed faith in something you shouldn't have. When you were cooking them did you feel like something wasn't right? Like the recipe wasn't going how you thought it would? If so, your intuition was probably right...

                                                        1. There is lots of good advice here. I want to suggest visiting a bookstore and picking up a copy of The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters. Whenever I go to this book, I learn something about technique or I see a pretty simple recipe for something good.

                                                          Writing this post has reminded to me to pick up my copy more often!

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: sueatmo

                                                            Tassajara Cooking by Edward Espe Brown (vegetarian) is a simple cookbook with a nice perspective about how to find your own way in working with recipes.