I’m a big fan of holistic thinking – in food as well as medicine. To me, dishes that you’ll eat and look at together, should be planned together. A one-dish meal avoids planning multiple dishes, but woman (or man) can’t live on chili or stew alone. Besides, even they go better with bread and a side dish or salad.
What does it take to put a bunch of dishes together into a satisfying meal?
- Realistic choice of dishes – I can’t stir fry veggies and make a soufflé at the same time.
- Nutritional balance – What! No leafy greens?
- The taste and texture “pairings” – Do they go together like “love and marriage?” (Not trying to make a political or relationship point – it’s just a song, made famous by Frank Sinatra. Do you know what play it is from?)
- The look – How would you rate the plate artistically?
Too many tasks at the same time are a recipe for confusion. So I’ve given up expecting to juggle lots of recipes with last minute preparation.
Other hard lessons I’ve learned about realistic meal planning:
Do you have 1 oven and 2 dishes that require cooking at the same time at vastly different temperatures? Something has got to give.
If you’re doing a main course that takes major effort –maybe chopping a bunch of vegetables, or lots of steps, or standing over it to stir frequently (or all 3), don’t go wild with complicated side dishes. That is, unless you already are an expert cook (in which case you probably stopped reading this already) or want to be dragged screaming from the kitchen while everything burns.
According to my husband, the major food groups are potatoes, bread, pasta and rice. He believes every dinner should contain all of those food groups. Luckily he rarely plans the meals in our house. I won’t give you a nutrition lecture and will stop laying out our dietary dirty linen right here. Suffice it to say, figure out what the “real” food groups are, and give healthy ingredients and dishes their due at your table.
Tastes and textures can blend, sit nicely side-by-side, or clash. I try to avoid clashes and I’m willing to experiment with side-by-side even if the pairing isn’t one that you would find in a recipe or a food magazine. For example, I served curried spinach soup with a baked potato for a quick dinner the other night and they went together nicely. The soup was light but spicy and smooth, while the potato was substantial and bland.
Of course, pairings are personal and vary by culture, so what goes well for one person may repel another. This is all about what works for you and those for whom you prepare meals. The idea is simply to think about whether the tastes go together for your own palate.
I’m not setting up Martha Stewart (or anyone else) as the arbiter of meal design. But I do believe you have to like what you see before you eat it. If you like an Asian pear-based soup and spaghetti carbonara together, but suddenly realize it will be an all-white dinner, add some color or change one of the dishes. You may have conventional views or eclectic ideas about what dishes look good together. No matter – as long as you thought about how the meal will look and like it, I say, “go for it!” Happy eating.