Answering the Age Old Question: What’s for Dinner?

by Cate on August 10, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken Stir Fry

I saw Meryl Streep’s newest movie this weekend, Julie & Julia.  It’s a movie that tells the tale of Julia Child’s life and Julie Powell’s, a then-food blogger who cooked her way through Julia’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vowing to make all 524 recipes in one year from her little NYC kitchen.

I loved the opportunity to get to know more about Julia Child and how she got her start.  Meryl Streep did an amazing job with the character, and although there is no vow to work my way through the whole book, I did come away ordering it from Amazon when I got home.

There is a scene in the movie where Julia is in the kitchen and her husband comes in and asks “what’s for dinner?”  She lets out a deep sigh, looks to the heavens and said, “I have no idea!” in her distinctive shrill tone.  It was a sentiment that I can relate to all too well. Even though I have recipe clippings stacked on my nighttable and desk, a stack of cookbooks I’m reading through and my Tivo list is consistently filled with taped food and cooking shows, that doesn’t mean I always know what’s for dinner.  Sometimes I’ll have Saturday’s dinner planned, but not the current day.  Just like this week.  I know what I’m making for dinner on Wednesday, and have since this past weekend, but didn’t know what was hitting the table tonight.  It’s like … food occupies my mind on so many different levels (I’m currently on a hunt for to-die-for bleu cheese stuffed olives), that the most simplest aspect of food, as in what’s for dinner, is often the one that escapes me, or just gives me momentary pause.

A co-worker and I were just talking about this very topic this morning.  Deciding on dinner, to me, is like getting dressed in the morning.  If I don’t know what I’m going to wear before I get out of bed in the morning, I guarantee it will take me a good 30 minutes standing and staring at the clothes in my clothes before I can figure out what to wear.  Thirty minutes I don’t have.  The same goes with dinner.  If I don’t have a plan before I step in the kitchen, all bets are off, and who knows what’s going to happen.  Although I know menu planning would probably help me in ways I can’t possibly imagine, I find it hard to commit to.  At least right now.  I’m just not in the right mind-set to do it.  Between an upcoming move (T minus four days!), two very active kids, and a full-time job plus, I don’t have the time, at least right now, to be quite that organized.  I can tell you what I’m making for a dinner Wednesday and the kids and I have planned a foodie outing this week, but dinner?  I’m with Julia … a deep sigh, eyes towards the heavens and a big “I don’t know.”  Sometimes that’s part of the fun though.

So what to make when you don’t know what to make?  Stir-fry is always a good bet.  Whether it’s with new ingredients that you picked up from the grocery store, or it’s your way of either cleaning out the fridge or eating more healthily, it fits so many different needs.  It’s so very forgiving, you just can’t screw it up.  When we have company over usually for the first time, my go-to dish is usually a Penne with Vodka Sauce.  The recipe comes from A Slob in the Kitchen, a cookbook from former MTV VJ Karen Duffy.  Without exception, I am always asked for the recipe.  But believe it or not, I have never made anything else from that cookbook … until last week.

I spied her recipe for “Tastes Like Chicken” Stir Fry and it immediately began the plan for dinner.  With a chance to clean out a few more ingredients from the freezer and make something that was kid-friendly, it was a win-win.  Stir Fries are a great dinner because they’re quick to make on the fly and easy to change out ingredients based on what your family likes and doesn’t.  I’ll often pull out ingredients as they’re cooked, sort of deconstructing the finished dish, to set aside for Madeline, just to make it a bit easier for her to manipulate with her fork and spoon.  This dish was no exception.

While making the recipe, I honestly didn’t think there was any way the completed dish could serve four.   I ended up adding a bunch of steamed broccoli and mixing the end product with rice.  It amped up the veggie quota (and Madeline loves broccoli so much she actually shrieks for it when she sees it on the table, I kid you not) and it was more filling.  It was enough for two adults and two kids for dinner, and lunch the next day.  Stir fry … it’s what’s for dinner.

“Tastes Like Chicken” Stir Fry
Recipe courtesy of Karen Duffy’s A Slob in the Kitchen

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 red onion, diced
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch strips
1 cup cashews
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet or wok for about a minute over high heat.  Add the bell pepper and onion, cook for about a minute, then stir.  Cook for another minute.  Add the chicken, and let the pieces cook on one side for a minute, then stir.  Cook for another minute or so.  By now, the vegetables and chicken should be just cooked through.  Lower the heat to medium and stir in the cashews and hoisin sauce.  Cook for about 30 seconds, and add a few tablespoons of water to create a thin sauce that covers the chicken and vegetables.

Serves 4

Cate’s Notes:  I added about 1-1/2 cups of steamed broccoli and about a cup of cooked rice to stretch the recipe out a bit.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie at August 11, 2009 at 4:40 am

I agree. I get this question “what’s for dinner” far too often!!!

I’ve never head of Karen Duffy before. I’ll get her book tomorrow at Borders. Love the name of her cookbook :)


Julia @ Mélanger August 11, 2009 at 5:22 am

Oh, yes. I hear the ‘what’s for dinner’ pain. Fortunately, my partner is the cooking half of the equation so he has the task of deciding this most nights. I’ll just stick to baking! :)


Joanne August 11, 2009 at 8:13 am

I rarely have this problem because I plan my menus for the week ahead of time and only grocery shop for what I will need. Sometimes, though, life does get in the way (someone comes over for dinner, I don’t go out to eat when I thought I was going to, etc) and I find myself with no food. My go-to is usually an omelet of sometimes. I always have eggs on hand!

I love this stir fry. Hoisin sauce is delicious!


Sarah Caron August 11, 2009 at 9:35 am

I know the feeling all too well. But I am trying very hard to commit to meal planning because when I do it, the plan makes life so much easier. I am happy to cook and create, but at dinnertime, I don’t want to have to figure out what I am making — I just want to cut to the chase.

Mmm. Stir fry!


Ramona August 11, 2009 at 9:46 am

My husband starves himself all day long. Then he would call and ask the same question every day. I finally told him if he asked me one more time “what’s for dinner” I was going to go to jail for murder.



Cathy August 11, 2009 at 10:26 am

I make a meal plan every week……and then ignore it ;)


Patsy August 11, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I’m the same way if I don’t have a plan for dinner. I’ve been trying to make a plan for the upcoming week lately and it works – most of the time. I love stir-fry dishes, but often forget about them when I’m in the ‘what’s for dinner’ delimma. Will have to make a note on my fridge so I remember it next time!


leslie August 11, 2009 at 7:03 pm

ahhh yes, the age old question, “what’s for dinner”
Looks great and simple!


Janet August 12, 2009 at 1:12 am

You can’t go wrong with Hoisin and cashews… Mmmm!

Other than holidays, I don’t think I’ve ever had a plan for dinner in advance. That’s just how I fly. I love life on the edge ;-)


Magda August 12, 2009 at 10:05 am

I was thinking about you this weekend and wished I could be there to go see Julie & Julia with you!


Susan August 12, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Sounds just like me. If I don’t plan the week’s dinner ahead of time, not only does it take me forever to figure out what to make, but it usually ends up being something not very good for us. I’m always asking hubby for ideas, but I can only squeeze about one or two out of him a month. :-P


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