I'm going to admit something to you: I am not typically a huge fan of meal prep. While I, and my wallet, do enjoy having a general sense of how I'm going to combine the groceries in my refrigerator into meals over the course of a week, I tend to also really value spontaneity as part of the cooking process.
I saw a recipe I liked while scrolling Instagram in the afternoon? Great, I'll mix-and-match what I have in my pantry to make my own version that night. One of my friends has something to celebrate? I'll be over with something sugary (what exactly that is TBD) in an hour. That flexibility is one of the great joys of being at least a little proficient in the kitchen.
But then summer hits, and my motivation to so much as turn on my stove seemingly plummets overnight.
There are things I'd rather be doing instead in the evenings, not least of which is eating ice cream and watching dogs frolic at the beach a couple blocks from my house. I have my own ways of dealing with this inertia— lots of smoothies, dips for dinner, etcetera — but by far the most fulfilling is designating one night a week as the time to turn on all the heat-making appliances to meal prep certain recipe elements.
I wait for the sun to set, blast my portable fan and a good playlist and just knock out cooking things like rice, grains, proteins and roasted vegetables. Is it the sexiest way to spend an evening? Not at all, but the relative freedom in my schedule that it affords for the rest of the week is priceless.
A big part of cooking at home is that push-pull tension between a desire for variety and not wanting to waste food. In recognition of both, I try to center my summer meals around seasonal produce. It's often affordable and, importantly, it doesn't require too much coaxing for good flavor. This week, I packed my cart with summer squash, corn, strawberries, spinach, scallions and sugar snap peas.
On weeks when I'm low on time (or the temperature is really up there), there's also something really nice about having a few adaptable proteins on-hand that don't require any cooking, like rotisserie chicken, smoked salmon and chickpeas. Quick-cooking grains are a must, as well. This week, I'm going with orzo and farro.
Finally, there are the extras — the things that aren't totally necessary to make your weekly meals, but by god, do they make them better. In this case, I'm making sweet biscuits for a lazy strawberry shortcake and pickled summer squash.
The recipes below are meant to serve as suggestions for how to structure your own week, using ingredients you like and are available to you. I'm currently only cooking for two people, so scale up or down depending on your family size.
Your meal prep checklist
- Wash and store your produce
- Grab a big pot and cook the farro according to package instructions. Drain the farro if needed, let it cool to room temperature and then store in an airtight container. Repeat with the orzo.
- Using boxed mix (I like Bisquick and their proposed recipe), prepare drop dough for shortcakes. They, blessedly, only take about ten minutes to cook. Once cooled, place them in an airtight container and store.
- Make the coconut-corn and chicken chowder (more details below) and, once cooled, store in an airtight container and refrigerate.
- Finally, thinly slice one or two of your summer squashes. Place them in a sealable container or jar, then cover them in a bath of apple cider vinegar, salt them and add any flavorings you might have on hand, ranging from black pepper pods to fresh dill. Refrigerate.
Meal 1: Coconut-corn and chicken chowder
This is one of my favorite throw-together meals that just inherently tastes like summer. Rough chop ¼ onion — or a couple shallots or the white portion of a leek — and toss them in a large pot with a glug of olive oil. Stir them occasionally over medium heat until they are just softened. Cut the kernels from 2 to 4 fresh corn cobs and add them to the pot. Salt generously, then season the mixture with 2 teaspoons each of: paprika, coriander and cayenne pepper.
Continue stirring the mixture over medium heat until the spices become fragrant. Then add one 13.5-ounce can of full-fat coconut milk to the mixture, followed by 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock.
Allow the chowder to simmer for 30 minutes, before adding a cup of chopped rotisserie chicken. Simmer for another ten minutes, then remove from the heat. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
When you are ready to serve, simply reheat the chowder and garnish. I like to use a lot of chopped scallion and a slice of lime, but go crazy: Corn nuts, tortilla chips, sliced avocado and a big handful of cilantro are all delicious.
Meal 2: Orzo pasta salad
Remember that orzo you made on prep day? It's time for it to step into the spotlight, alongside the very supportive pickled summer squash. Place 4 cups of orzo in a large mixing bowl, along with ½ cup of your pickled summer squash, ½ cup of sugar snap peas, ¼ cup of chopped scallions and ¼ cup of chopped herbs of your choice (this is a great opportunity to use leftover herbs that are just sitting in your refrigerator). Toss until combined.
Now, we're going to make a simple vinaigrette with ¼ cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and lots of ground black pepper. Use it to coat the pasta salad, then serve.
Meal 3: Smoked salmon grain bowl with herby yogurt
This is one of my favorite, simple meals that works for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Simply divide room temperature farro and a little fresh spinach among bowls. Top the mixture with flaked, smoked salmon. In a small bowl, mix whole-fat Greek yogurt with a little lemon zest, salt and pepper and chopped herbs. Whatever you have on hand that's fresh-ish will do.
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Spoon the yogurt sauce over the salmon, drizzle the entire bowl with a little good olive oil and enjoy.
Meal 4: Shaved summer squash salad and rotisserie chicken
The summer squash that you haven't pickled gets new life in Abra Berens' Shaved Summer Squash with Parmesan, Lots and Lots of Herbs, and Olive Oil — a recipe about which Maggie Hennessy wrote for Salon.
"The tender squash snaps softly with a delicate crunch that gives way to a creamy middle punctuated with tiny seeds," Hennessy wrote. "Its — ahem — mildness, makes it an ideal canvas for the bright lemon, salty shaved cheese and a punchy mix of chopped herbs. (I particularly love this with a mixture of mint, basil, parsley and chives or tarragon, dill and thyme. But, as Berens points out, you can even use all parsley leaves if that's all you have.)"
Serve it alongside your leftover rotisserie chicken.
Meal 5: Strawberry salad with feta and chickpeas
In a large bowl, combine a few generous handfuls of spinach, ½ pound of sliced strawberries, 8 ounces of feta cheese and one can of chickpeas (drained, rinsed and patted dry). This combination is delicious enough to work with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice, but it's also a good opportunity to break out the balsamic vinegar if you have it.
Meal 6: Smoked salmon sandwich with scallion cream cheese and pickled summer squash
I love a sandwich that is hearty enough to feel like a full meal, and this smoked salmon sandwich definitely does the trick. In a small bowl, combine cream cheese and some finely chopped scallions. Spread the mixture onto a few slices of crusty bread — sourdough is great — and top with smoked salmon and your leftover pickled summer squash.
The result is shockingly nuanced — creamy, onion-y, briny and fresh — for what is basically a four-ingredient sandwich.
Meal 7: Riffing on leftovers, plus strawberry shortcakes
There's at least one evening a week where my dinner is composed of bibs and bobs from other prior meals, plus a homemade dessert. The promise of dessert makes the "hunting and gathering" vibes of picking over the leftovers feel more whimsical and less scroungy.
This week, it'd probably end up being some combination of leftover orzo, chicken, vegetables and feta tossed together into a room-temperature pasta dish. At the end of it all, however, is strawberry shortcake.
Pull the premade shortcakes out and give them a little reheat if you like. Meanwhile, cover ½ pound of strawberries with about 3 tablespoons of sugar and allow that mixture to rest in the refrigerator for a half hour. The strawberries will release their juices which, when combined with the sugar, make a delicious syrup, perfect for spooning over the shortcakes and covering with store-bought whipped cream.
This guide originally appeared in Salon Food's weekly newsletter, The Bite. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss other dispatches, recipes, how-to's and essays.
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