What's for dinner?
a delicious writing prompt for you to use + March Writing Hour
What’s for dinner?
Tonight, yes, but also in general—what are you cooking these days?
I love to cook, but don’t like grocery shopping. Thus, many evenings I can be found scrounging in the pantry and fridge for random ingredients to see what I can create from them. Think Stump the Cook from NPR’s The Splendid Table1 or the TV show Chopped. Give me a half-opened bag of something, some about-to-go bad vegetables, and a random jar of a leftover spread and my inner chef starts chopping and stirring with enthusiasm. Ask me to menu plan and shop a week or two ahead however—I can’t figure out what to make.
What even do we eat anymore?
Are we low-carb or keto? Vegetarian or pescatarian? Heart-healthy, Mediterranean, South Beach? We’ve been all those varieties. We were vegan for a while, but now….not. Because of cheese. Plus, since I had COVID I’ve wanted meat—what’s that about?
In our last move, I downsized recipes in cookbooks, notebooks, and recipe files—my cooking inspiration these days comes more from Pinterest and the few free recipes from the New York Times. I’ve got just half a shelf of cookbooks now2 and one small drawer of sentimental family favorites—like my sister’s crepe recipe, our neighbor Taffy’s Christmas cookies, my grandmother’s handwritten bread and butter pickles, and my mother’s written instructions to a younger me for how to marinate a chicken, bake a potato and boil broccoli.
If you ask me what I like to cook, I can’t name many dishes. This might be a memory problem, or perhaps it’s just the way I operate in the kitchen. I cook salmon but in different ways. I roast vegetables. I make risotto with whatever I have on hand. I put things on rice and in tortillas, and make sauces for pasta. I experiment.
Since I don’t have a big repertoire of dishes I cook again, it’s instructive to remember the ones I do recall from different time periods in my life.
a short retrospective of repeat dishes
a single chicken breast baked with cream of mushroom soup on top, in my first solo apartment, on my hotel front desk clerk salary. I had one pie pan and no money. Sometimes I drank beef bouillon for dinner before payday, but when I had the cash I bought a chicken breast and Campbell’s soup.
the chicken, rice, and curry recipe I cooked as a young newlywed when I thought green curry paste was the most exotic thing I’d ever heard of. Followed up shortly with the shrimp and grits recipe from Crook’s Corner restaurant.3
the ham steak with diced apples and dried cranberries (okay, I used Craisins), a dinner I made for my children, along with a side dish called “Not Your Mother’s Green Beans.” Now I wonder why I didn’t just cook my mother’s green beans. They were delicious!
the dips that are the only recipes my grown children want from me—the hot spinach artichoke dip and the cold avocado dip. Do I wish my children would remember me for other dishes? I suppose I’d have to cook repeats for that to happen, and dips are what I repeat and don’t need the recipes for.
We do have some family favorites of the baking variety—the biscotti my spouse makes; the chocolate pie from Myers Park Presbyterian Church; and soon-to-be favorites like Claire Saffitz’s Banoffee Pudding my talented eldest child baked over Christmas. Warning: this one is not for last-minute hungry scroungers—Total Time: 9 hours (includes 8 hours for chilling).
Any one of these recipe memories would make a good writing prompt. Even just listing them, they begin to evoke the kitchens I cooked them in, the people I cooked them for, and the sensations of what I cooked them with—all of which help me recall who I was when I cooked them, and the holy gatherings I was a part of around the table. Also, food prompts are almost bottomless—you can dip back into them again and again and keep bringing up a spoonful of something worth tasting.
What recipes will you write about this week? And seriously—what’s for dinner? I’d love to know. Me? I'm making spinach artichoke dip.4
a writing prompt
List some recipes that have been important to you at different periods of time. Maybe you cooked them yourself. Maybe someone else cooked them for you.
Pick one and write more about it.
Come back and share what you are cooking up on the stove—or on the page—in the comments.
March Writing Hour - Sunday, March 26 at 4 pm Eastern
Our next live writing hour on Zoom for paid subscribers is coming up on Sunday March 26th at 4 pm Eastern. If you want to write in company with others, you are welcome to join us. You can upgrade your subscription for a month ($7) just to try it. A separate email to paid subscribers will go out with the link closer to the date, but mark your calendar now, and let’s write together.
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There should be little icons below where you can like, comment or share this post. Let me know what you think about the prompt, or come back and add some of what you write in the comments. Know someone who might enjoy this prompt or others? Please share!
Here’s a good Stump the Cook segment with Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi, and Steve from Omaha’s ingredients of Fuji apples, raspberry-chipotle barbecue sauce, salami, pannetone bread and Kraft Singles.
Mix together: 1 can chopped artichoke hearts | 1/2 cup Greek yogurt | 1/2 cup mayo (can be vegan) | 1 cup Parmesan cheese (can’t be vegan) | squeeze of lemon juice | 1/2 t garlic powder | as much chopped cooked spinach (drained) as you want. Spread in shallow baking dish. Cook 25 - 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve with crackers. (Gets green veggies in your kids when they are little, and they still ask for it when they are grown.)