It’s a storytelling strategy. Whenever dire shit goes down, stop to ask, “What’s the gift in this?” We’re sheltering in place during a pandemic, and for many of us there has been profound loss. Jobs lost, the death of plans, routines, relationships, and people. Our purpose. What happens to us, happens for us. See the challenges as gifts that propel you forward.
Fast forward to dinner. The gift of this pandemic is that I have nothing but time to get my dinner game automated. I’m dead sick of talking about dinner, thinking about it, and hoping I have the energy to execute it. I’m guessing the beauty of batch cooking–making several meals all at once–means that most nights when I have zero energy, there’s a plan in place.
Day One. Devise the plan. I call this stage PRE-CONTEMPLATION. This is where I give myself full license to stay in my pajamas with a laptop and just read recipes and make decisions and lists. I’m guessing that after a few successful rounds of this Chalkboard Dinner Plan, I’ll need less time in the future. But given this is the first time in my entire life where I’ve ever attempted to plan out what we’ll all be eating for five consecutive days, I’m giving myself a day pass to the adventure that is batch cooking.
Step 1, according to The Batch Lady: pick your proteins. I’ve already decided that tomorrow night I’m making Harissa Chicken with Leeks, Potatoes, and Yogurt from Dinner by Melissa Clark because I have all the ingredients. I announced as much to Phil, who said nothing. Offering only that the thighs are in the fridge, not the freezer, so no defrosting required.
Phil is right now roasting a lamb shoulder and has asked that I “figure out what to do with it.” You can guess my first thought of where to put it. My secondary thoughts sprung to mind in Spanish: I considered quesadillas, tacos, empanadas, despite the fact that lamb reads Greek to me. I’m about to research more options when Phil asks, “Have you tested Abigail on the chambers of the heart yet?”
“I’m doing something,” I say.
“You’re always doing something,” he says. I roll my eyes so far back that the upper right side of my brain feels like it’s grey wrinkles are being held taught, a stretched accordion. “Well, can you test her on it when you’re not doing something?” he says, “So it doesn’t always fall on me?” If I weren’t sitting in the living room right now, I wouldn’t be in the line of fire. Next time I decide to do the pre-contemplation stage of batch cooking, I’ll have to do it in the car. All I can think to do is stand up and defrost some banana bread.
Mostly, what I’m tired of hearing is how I never cook, when I feel like it’s all I do. But Phil says things like, “For you.” He tacks it onto my sentences. Play along.
I say: All I do is cook.
Phil adds: for you.
Right now, all I want is to go eat the Flour’s Famous banana bread I’ve baked for
our house you. But Phil and Lucas won’t touch it because it is believed that a banana might have been used to make it. Who cares if it’s still frozen? Procrastination eating: it’s a thing.
I’m now stowed away in my bedroom thinking of all the things I’ve cooked in the past week. Phil walks in. If I don’t make eye contact, maybe he won’t speak to me. He reclines on the bed, feet flat, knees up, resting his laptop on his thighs. What’s the gift in this? “Give me your hand,” I say. We hold hands, and I say, “I love you.” He squeezes my hand and won’t give it back. “I need my hand now,” I say. I need to figure out what to do with his pulled lamb. Phil leaves the room.
The real Step 1: Before opening a single cookbook, and aside from my pantry, I begin by making a list of ingredients I already have:
Eggplant, zucchini, tomato, baby bok choy, leeks, yukon gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, cilantro, basil, rosemary, mint, lemons, limes, bananas, peaches, plums, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, a watermelon, ground pork, chicken thighs & drumsticks, ground chicken, ground turkey, turkey breast, grass-fed steaks, frozen tofu.
Phil enters the room with a fork. He wants me to taste the shredded lamb. It tastes like lamb. “It’s good,” I say. But if it were a topping on my pizza or baked potato, I’d eat around it. If it were in a soup, I’d hunt for the barley and mushrooms and leave the lamb fragments in the bowl. It does nothing for me. “It’s not a lamb chop,” he says. Nothing will ever taste as good as a lamb chop, except maybe for a lamb chop. “I know,” I say.
I search my electronic edition of The Batch Lady for “Pulled” expecting to see recipes for pulled pork. And then, light of all lights, Lamb shines upon me.
Pulled Lamb & Pomegranate Salad Flatbreads
Pulled Lamb with Green Beans & Dauphinoise Potatoes
Pulled Lamb with Couscous Salad
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Pulled Pork
Pulled Pork & Apple Buns
Pulled Pork Quesadillas
I can use pulled lamb in place of pulled pork.
He’s back with the fork. This time he wants me to taste the lamb with the yogurt sauce he’s made. Yogurt, garlic, “But too much lemon, I think,” he says.
“No, the real problem,” I say after wincing, “is the tang of the yogurt. You need to cut it with fat.”
“How do I do that?” he says.
“Add sour cream,” I say. It sounds odd to add something sour to something already sour, but I believe it will work. It’s that or adding powdered non-fat milk, but I know he’ll wince at the suggestion. Or whisking in olive oil, I think. Or a touch of honey, maybe. But it’s too late. He’s back, this time without the fork, feeding me from his hand to assess his yogurt sauce atop the lamb. It needs something else. “Add some herbs,” I say.
“It already has dill,” he says. I taste no dill. He better not have used all my fresh dill. I need it for the list I’ve just assembled and for the Green Eggs and No Ham dish I’ve been contemplating. I share as much, and he says, “I used the frozen dill pods no one knows how to use but bought because we had to have it in case a recipe should call for dill and we have none on hand.” Accordion brain. Phil leaves the room.
Lucas enters the room. “Mama, you know how you said Abigail and I can finish watching Supergirl maybe today? Like, what time exactly?” I have a no electronics or TV rule in our house during the school week, but yesterday they were off from virtual classes and the new season of Supergirl dropped.
“After I’ve tested you both on the chambers of the heart and feel satisfied that you can answer without relying on any notes, then you guys can watch.” He leaves scratching his head. I hear him say, “Okaaaay,” as he walks downstairs. I will get nothing done today, save for a scheduled WW meeting on my mandatory day off.
Phil walks in, this time with a potato wedge for the tasting. I now realize what he’s made for dinner. Lamb shoulder with potatoes and yogurt sauce. Remember what I was planning for dinner tomorrow night? Reminder: Harissa Chicken with Leeks, Potatoes, and Yogurt. Basically the same exact dish as he’s just assembled, except for the shredded lamb, which, like most proteins in the world, tastes like chicken.
Step 2, ask yourself, “What, oh what, is the gift in this?”