Zero Waste, More Fun.

As a commercial copywriter by trade, I’m not motivated to write much after hours. It’s a shame because I have a lot of writing ideas that fly through my mind—and often while cooking. But damn, these thoughts are fleeting. By the time I find my way here, whatever bubbled up while I was stirring the pot evaporates like steam into thin air.

Maybe it will come to me as a roll along writing tonight. This Sunday I’ve been very much in the flow. I’ll credit the jazz, and a margarita. More days like these, please. It’s great to just putter without any stress or real agenda.

Since committing to The Civilized Lunch Project despite a hectic, meeting-packed commercial copywriting workday, I’ve found that preparation is key to my success. There’s certainly no time to cook from scratch between Zoom calls. Making something from pre-prepped food is the only way to go.

Beyond the sheer pragmatism though, I’ve made some really great discoveries from preparing a few key recipes from core food groups in advance. Chiefly an impromptu flavorful sauce—because making a sauce is something that I can do in just a few minutes between Zoom calls.

Often this sauce or garnish is the result of having had time to meditate on the right flavors to create an inspiring culinary creation. (They spring involuntarily to mind between the making of the food and my lunch hours.) My love and gratitude for a good sauce is late-breaking in life. I only discovered this last year! How crazy is that? Perhaps no crazier than the fact that I also used to be terribly guilty of letting produce go bad in my vegetable drawer.

Now, thanks to my new habit of pre-cooking meals for the week on Sunday, I’m happy to say this produce-wasting is a thing of the past. I typically start cooking in the early afternoon and let the things that I have on hand inspire my menu. It’s a very fun, low-stress event (especially with jazz and a nice cocktail). Zero waste, more fun.

When I looked in my fridge today I discovered:

a cauliflower

half a watermelon

a small bag of shredded carrots

a package of ground lamb

a chunk of parmesan cheese

some gala apples that were starting to get a little soft (but it’s not too late)

a few oranges

a bowl of sweet potatoes

a handful of Yukon golds that are starting to spout eyes (I’ll boil them and have them ready for a quick mash)

a Tupperware container of rhubarb that I stewed earlier in the week

a small paper bag’s worth of crimini mushrooms

I began by sauteing a yellow onion with a healthy dose of fresh garlic. As the onions start to brown and stick to the edges of my favorite little cast iron skillet, I add small splashes of vegetable broth. I don’t know what it is about cooking onions, but it’s a magical act. Onions are such humble vegetables, but when caramelized, they’re pure culinary gold! As the onions cook down I make myself a delicious hibiscus margarita. I love this drink so much, I’ve made it a habit to keep a jar of hibiscus simple syrup on hand in the refrigerator. (Just add a handful of dried hibiscus flowers to a freshly made batch of simple syrup, brew for a few minutes and strain.)

To make the margarita: fill a shaker with ice. Add an ounce or two of silver tequila as desired, with equal parts of the hibiscus simple syrup and lime juice. Pour it straight up into a martini glass with a salt and hot-pepper rim. It’s the perfect drink to sip slowly while dancing around to your jazz and stirring whatever’s on the stovetop.

Once the onions are cooked to perfection, I add my paper bag’s worth of crimini mushrooms and cook them for a minute or two before adding in my packet of ground lamb. I turn up the flame and occasionally stir the meat while finely dicing a small apple to add to the skillet. Next comes a tablespoon of cumin, a shake of Allspice, a pinch of salt and some pepper. With the exception of the red skin on the apple, the ingredients in my skillet look rather monochromatic so I head out to my garden to fill my apron pocket with a couple handfuls of kale. I remove the stems, chop the kale into small pieces and toss it into the skillet. The bright green color of the leaves proves a great addition and I’m very excited to make a taco salad or a burrito tomorrow for lunch, perhaps with a fiery mole sauce or a dollop of sour cream.

With thoughts of Mexican cuisine on the brain, my mind drifts to the half watermelon in my fridge. I picture vendors on the streets of Mexico City selling ice-cold slices of watermelon in paper cones. (Disclaimer: I’ve never been to Mexico City, and I don’t know if they sell sliced watermelon in paper cones there. Nevertheless, it’s what I think about.) Inspired by the little movie in my mind, I cut the red fruit into chunky strips and toss it into my favorite ceramic dish with a few spoons full of granulated sugar, a sprinkle of herbed sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Lastly, a few leaves of chiffonade-cut bitter greens (plucked from a nice big dandelion in my yard) and a few dried tiny rose blossoms from the Mexican grocer in Skagit Valley. As the watermelon sits in the dish, it gives off a lot of juice which I periodically strain off into a jar for future use (most likely in a future cocktail).

Next up: the cauliflower. Awhile back I discovered a really easy and tasty way to roast it. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. In a small bowl mix 4 tablespoons of yellow miso paste with a quarter cup of white vinegar, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of fish sauce and the juice of half a lime. Whisk together, add your chopped up cauliflower and toss with your hands to coat all of the pieces. Arrange on your lined baking sheet and cook at 425 until nicely browned. If you like a bit of heat, you can sprinkle with red pepper flakes. So easy! So good!

I always love to have two or three vegetables sides ready to go for a civilized lunch. I decide that the shredded carrots would be tasty tossed in a simple balsamic dressing. I don’t measure my ingredients, I sorta eyeball my olive oil, vinegar, honey and stoneground mustard to taste. I toss the carrots in the dressing along with a handful of roasted pumpkin seeds and some dried cranberries. This salad will be delicious all on its own, or mixed together with some more kale from the garden and the other little apple in my fridge.

Roasting the sweet potatoes is the next thing on my list. There’s a fantastic gluten-free sweet potato muffin recipe that I love, and it’s very handy to have your sweet potatoes pre-roasted so you can quickly whip up a fresh batch. (I do make mine with eggs, though. Just saying.)

Since I have muffins on the brain (and they are something that freezes really well, so I can have them on hand when friends stop by), I also decide to make a batch of stewed rhubarb muffins with my container of previously stewed rhubarb. The muffin recipe calls for pieces of uncooked rhubarb, but I’ll just pour some of the stewed rhubarb into batter in my muffin cups, and it will be fine. (I’ve done it before!)

Lastly I finished my Sunday cooking session with a quick pesto made of dandelion greens (used earlier in the watermelon salad). Yes, that’s right: dandelion greens from my very own yard. Just pour half a cup of olive oil in your blender, add some thoroughly cleaned greens, a handful of grated parmesan cheese, a splash of lemon juice, and a handful of walnuts or pecans. The dandelion greens are a little bit bitter, so I sweeten with a small amount of honey. This pesto is delicious with scrambled eggs, on white fish or over penne pasta or linguine. I often make the pasta and toss it in the pesto ahead of time. It’s a delicious civilized lunch with a bit of lemon juice, lemon zest and black pepper.

What a satisfying afternoon of cooking. I truly savor days like this. And if you’re wondering if I used up everything that was on hand today—almost. I still have to squeeze some fresh orange juice. But I’ll do that in the morning.