Chef Danielle Turner is a personal chef, cooking instructor, food writer, and adventurous eater. She lives and eats for sport in the wilds of suburban D.C. with her husband and daughter.

Fresh food inspiration

Jump-start your cooking

May 12, 2009

It happens to the best of us. Despite the stacks of dog-eared food magazines piled high on our coffee tables, the eclectic cookbook collections that fill our bookshelves, or even our best intentions of whipping up delicious fare for our families, dinnertime can turn into an uninspiring rotation of the same handful of reliable recipes, week after week, month after month.

As a personal chef, I make my living preparing meals for individuals and families alike. But professional experience aside, I’m still a busy working mom who’s often stymied by the age-old question: “What’s for dinner?”

When I get caught in a dinnertime dead zone, I look to these ways that never fail to help get my creative cooking juices flowing:

Forage — in your gear cabinet

Remember the electric pasta machine you absolutely had to have? The mandoline you picked up on a whim? Or the sorbet maker that was marked down so much it would’ve been a sin not to buy it?

If you’re like me, you’re lucky to have used most of these items once or twice before they assumed their position in the Cabinet of Forgotten Gadgetry, where — instead of inspiring your culinary endeavors — they now sit forgotten.

Take out that forgotten mandoline, and use it!

There’s no better way to dig yourself out of a rut and make the most of money already spent than to find the dustiest piece of equipment in your kitchen and put it to use. Odds are, the new gear will force you to pull out a new recipe or revisit an old, forgotten favorite.

Travel the globe

No passports or long airport security lines required! Choose a city or country that you love or that you’re curious about, and scour your cookbooks or the Internet for a recipe or dish that flavorfully represents that locale.

Take a stroll through your grocery store’s international-food aisle for further inspiration. You’ll be doing double duty as you savor new ingredients and learn about foods from faraway (or nearby) lands.

Buy something you’ve never seen before

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is simple. On your next visit to the produce section or farmers’ market, spend a few extra minutes taking in the scene, keeping your eye out for your next great ingredient. You’ll know it when you see it — because you won’t know what it is when you see it. Walk right up to that mystery vegetable or otherworldly-looking fruit, and pop it right into your reusable shopping bag.

Most produce sections have a kiosk or recipe rack featuring info and recipes on how to use various fruits and vegetables; at the farmers’ market, you can speak directly to the farmer. When you’re armed with a free recipe and mystery produce, plated adventure can’t be far behind.

Face your biggest food fear

Just the mere mention of the word “soufflé” can strike fear in the hearts of many home cooks. For others, it’s roasting a whole chicken, making pie crust from scratch, or deep-frying anything. I am deathly terrified at the prospect of making turducken — a deboned turkey stuffed with a deboned duck that’s stuffed with a deboned chicken. (Seriously.) However simple or complex, identify the one thing that makes you afraid to step into the kitchen, find a recipe for it, and make it. That’s it. Just make it. You’ll likely conquer your food fear and add a new recipe to your repertoire to boot.

Take a cooking class

One quick Internet search or browse through the phone book (remember those?) and, no matter where you live, you’re likely to find several places where you can learn to chop, braise, and sauté from a pro. Taking a recreational cooking class will give you an opportunity to learn a new skill or two, and you’ll go home with several new recipes in hand. Besides the recipes, you’ll also have a chance to bounce your cooking questions off a trained professional.

Most cooking schools offer a choice of classes that are hands-on, where you’ll actually get to cook, or demonstration, where you get to sit back and watch the instructor in action. Either way, you’ll leave with some level of familiarity with the recipes, making it more likely that you’ll give them a go at home.

Become a locavore

Jump-start your cooking and help save the environment by becoming a locavore for a day, a week, or a month. Try eating foods that are grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius of your hometown. This sounds challenging, but don’t worry; you’ll have plenty to choose from at your local farmers’ markets and at some higher-end grocery stores that make a point of offering locally grown foods.

These different, fresher selections may give you a new batch of foods to choose from, and fresher food can only breed fresh ideas for how to prepare them.

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