While few certainties exist in life, you can be assured that food is a necessity. Whether the day is a good one or a bad one and whether a meal is planned and prepared or not, stomachs will begin to growl at around 6 p.m.
Knowing how to build a delicious meal with what is available is important. Becoming a flexible cook takes some practice, while the confidence of cooking without a recipe is built over time.
After a hectic day when everyone is hungry is not the time for homemade gnocchi or the perfect feast. But with a creative mind and a gracious audience, you can provide a novel and delicious meal even if it is not well-planned or time-intensive. Sometimes working with the ingredients that are on hand results in a new family favorite.
The first step in the recipe for a successful impromptu meal requires a well-stocked pantry. Even without a recipe, an available and diversified set of ingredients provides the necessary building blocks. Always make sure to have on hand at least one item in each of the following categories.
Base: rice, pasta, quinoa, broth, or stock
In cooking, the base of a meal can be flexible. A broth for soup, pasta for a hearty meal, or a bed of fresh greens for a lighter dish all work to support other ingredients and bring them together. The South also has the joy of adding grits to the list of bases, as in a South Carolina favorite: shrimp and grits. Also a number of other grains that are inexpensive and long-lasting will help fill out your meal.
Sauce ingredients: vinegars, wine, and oils
Pre-made sauces and dressings are convenient, but if those run out know how to build one from scratch. A popular dressing style is vinaigrette. At the most basic level, vinaigrette is an oil plus an acid, like citrus juice or vinegar. From that foundation, add seasonings and other flavors that pair well with the rest of the ingredients. The types of oil and acid selected create different sauces. Shake balsamic vinegar with olive oil and a teaspoon of fruit jam for a flavorful dressing.
Alternately, after meat has been cooked on a stovetop, use the remaining fats and oils in the pan to build a delectable sauce. A splash of wine will deglaze the pan and create a rich, dynamic sauce that can be spooned over the rest of the meal. This technique helps tie the protein in with the wine.
Seasoning: salt, pepper, herbs, and spices
Even though these ingredients take up the least amount of space on the plate, they have the most impact. Pre-mixed seasonings work well, but buying seasonings individually gives a home chef more control over flavor. There is no need to purchase every spice available, but get to know favorite flavors, try new combinations, and do not be afraid to get flexible. If building a spicy dish, for example, paprika can be substituted for chili powder. Also the rich, earthy flavor of sage is commonly used when preparing meat. However, if sage is not available, rosemary and thyme offer a similar flavor. The right seasonings will keep diners reaching for one more bite.
Produce: vegetables and fruits
Fresh, local produce not only tastes the best, but also provides the ideal source of nutrients. If possible, plan ahead and freeze fresh produce so it is available when needed for an impromptu meal. If fresh is unavailable, a stash of frozen produce can save the day.
Meat can provide a great way to add rich flavor to a dish, but a meal is still satisfying without it. If meat is not on hand — or defrosted — other hearty ingredients add texture and flavor. Mushrooms, for instance, provide a meaty texture, while beans are filling and packed with protein. While low in protein, new potatoes thinly sliced and roasted with olive oil and seasoning also offer a delicious and filling side option.
A little something extra: the cherry on top
Whether you use freshly grated parmesan cheese over a serving of roasted Brussels sprouts, a sprig of mint aside a rich pork chop, or toasted almonds or pine nuts tossed in a green salad, the finishing touches disguise an impromptu meal as an intentional recipe.
Building the dish
Though a strong foundation is usually the best place to begin, you should start an impromptu meal from the top. Instead of beginning with the base ingredient, survey the available seasonings to guide the direction of the whole dish. Imagine beginning to build a burrito bowl with leftover shredded chicken, a can of seasoned black beans, and a can of diced tomatoes only to realize in the end that no chili powder or cilantro is available. Once the seasonings have been chosen, bring in other ingredients and consider how to incorporate additional herbs and spices.
Whether emulsified into a salad dressing or marinated with a pork chop, seasonings should be layered and added in throughout the cooking process. Each part of the dish does not need the exact same spices. Consider a lemon and olive oil roasted salmon fillet alongside pasta with a garlic sauce. These seasonings complement each other with contrasting acidic and earthy flavors.
When the seasonings are in order, decide the focus of the meal. A soup, salad, sandwich, hearty grain bowl, or traditional meat-and-three all use the building blocks of an impromptu meal and are flexible enough meal constructs that they work with a variety of ingredient options. Do not be limited to these ideas, however. When working with what is on hand, think outside of the box.
Next, choose produce and meat, and figure out how to incorporate them into the style of the dish. If working with fresh vegetables, clean and dry well. Remember that frozen vegetables will have more water and may be soggy if they are not well drained.
Types of Meals
Stovetop cooking is a flexible and quick method that allows a home chef to adjust flavors throughout the process. Sauteing either fresh or frozen vegetables works well for an impromptu meal. Warm oil in a skillet with the desired seasonings. When the pan is heated, add vegetables and toss, warming them and incorporating the seasonings. Taste, adjust, and taste again. The same process works for cooking meat in a skillet. The size and type of meat will determine cook time, but you can more easily keep an eye on it if it is cooking on the stovetop.
Soup provides a different but equally simple meal both comforting and forgiving. Store bought broth has a long shelf life and can be used as a base. Alternately, make a homemade broth and freeze it for the next impromptu meal. In a large stockpot, begin by browning meat, if desired, and cook diced onion and garlic for the soup foundation. Season these ingredients for a strong flavor profile in the soup. If the meat is especially fatty, like ground beef, drain most of the excess fast before adding the other ingredients. Break the meat into bite-sized pieces. After the meat is cooked through, add a splash of wine or other acid to deglaze the pot. Add broth and vegetables. Because the soup is warm, vegetables will continue to cook even after the pot is removed from the stove. Avoid overcooked produce by pulling the soup from the stove just before the vegetables are tender.
For a brothy soup, heat until the soup is warm and vegetables are tender. For a creamy soup, add a bit of dairy. This can be done with milk, sour cream, or cream cheese. Coconut milk is a good dairy-free option. Simply spoon a bit of the broth into the dairy first and mix well before adding the dairy to the rest of the soup. This technique will help the dairy mix in with the soup and prevent it from separating. For a bisque, skip the meat and combine cooked vegetables with broth and dairy in a blender. Blend the mixture until smooth and then warm over the stove. Alternately, an immersion blender can produce the same result. Bisques are a good way to reuse leftover vegetables.
For an option with less mess, consider sheet pan meals. This popular method is convenient for preparing a large amount of food using limited dishes and cooking techniques. Typically, these meals feature a meat and a vegetable cooked together on a sheet pan. No recipe is needed. Use hearty vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, or potatoes that withstand the same amount of heat needed to cook the meat. Avoid using pre-cooked vegetables as they will become overcooked in the oven. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Season the raw ingredients and spread the vegetables on one side of the cookie sheet and the meat on the other side. Cook until the meat is cooked through. The cooking time will depend on the type of meat and the size. Cut meat into bite-sized pieces for a faster cook time. You could also bake a food like a rotisserie chicken for an hour. Add the vegetables on a separate sheet pan on the lower rack for the last 15 minutes.
For perhaps the easiest preparation, salads made from handy pantry and refrigerator ingredients are a great option that requires no cooking — just a quick toss of complementary ingredients that may be fresh or leftover. Fruits, nuts, cheeses, leftover meat, and more can all be incorporated into a salad. If serving an audience with different tastes, create an at-home salad bar so that each person can build their own impromptu meal. Providing diners with that sense of ownership over their plate can ensure culinary satisfaction from the pickiest eater.
Instead of thinking of impromptu meals as a scramble of scraps, use the opportunity to create a new and tasty dish that stretches the distinct bounds of the kitchen. An uncertain cook can even work from an old favorite recipe and substitute available ingredients. Over time, you will build confidence so that off-the-cuff culinary ideas are proudly shared with those gathered around the table.