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Relishing five years of Stir Crazy, and 1,300 dinner ideas

Grilled Lemon-Pepper Wings make an easy and fun weekday meal.

Scott Keeler | Times (2009)

Grilled Lemon-Pepper Wings make an easy and fun weekday meal.

I have this theory about home cooks. Most of us have about 10 meals in our dinnertime repertoire, and they revolve with infuriating frequency.

You know: grilled chicken, something Mexican, big salad, something Italian, soup, pork chops, something grilled, etc. Repeat. Boredom sets in. Take-out beckons.

It's this theory, based mostly on my experience, that led me to start Stir Crazy, the column that has appeared on Page 2 of this section every Wednesday since May 21, 2008. This month marks the column's five-year anniversary, and I had no idea when I started how many ideas I'd have to come up with to get us to this point. I am grateful for all the generous readers and colleagues, cookbook authors, clever magazine editors and inventive bloggers who inspire me. Without them I wouldn't have been able to provide 1,300 dinner ideas, with a few repeats along the way.

It really does take a village to get dinner on the table.

My goal has been to provide simple meal plans for home cooks whom I believe need some inspiration. Along the way, my own family served as testers, sometimes happy to oblige and other times yearning for one of those 10 "regulars." Thumbs up on grilled beef sliders over Caesar salad but not so enthusiastic about my eggplant-standing-in-for-beef pasta sauce.

The column includes only one recipe, and an uncomplicated one at that, because I know most of us aren't hauling out cookbooks every night of the week. We "eyeball" our concoctions more than we measure. So each night's entry is meant to spark a starting point, not necessarily to provide a detailed blueprint. For instance, rice can be brown or white; pasta can be whole-wheat or not and whatever dressing your family likes will work for a green salad. Some decisions I leave up to the cook.

For every Wednesday, I suggest something to make with or serve alongside a rotisserie chicken. Though I lament that many home cooks no longer know how to roast a chicken, I rejoice that the grocery stores have mastered the art. The birds go round and round until they are golden brown and all we have to do is plop down our money and start shredding.

So, for 260 consecutive weeks I've told you how to take that bird and make tacos, salads, soups, casseroles, pasta dishes, sandwiches and more. There was Middle Eastern Chicken Flatbread on Oct. 28, 2009, and Rotisserie Chicken Pot Pie on March 16, 2011. On July 23, 2008, we served the chicken with broiled tomatoes and on Dec. 14, 2011, shredded meat topped a Chicken Cobb Salad.

Sometimes I've suggested that you simply carve the bird and serve it with local produce, such as in-season Florida corn, an attempt to remind us all when local produce is in season.

About a month ago, I asked readers to give me feedback on the column, specifically wondering if they were over rotisserie chicken. Should I come up with something else on Wednesdays to get us over hump day? A few of you said it was time to put the bird to rest (roost?) but more said keep 'em coming. So I will, at least for a while.

A number of readers, including Bea Dreier of Tampa, want more meatless suggestions, and I will admit that I've struggled with vegetarian meals. I've suggested a veggie — not vegan — entree once a week since late 2010, shortly after I wrote a story about the national Meatless Monday campaign. (Read more at meatlessmonday.com.)

Bea and I had a few email exchanges, and I told her that many of the vegetarian recipes I see call for lots of ingredients and involved directions so don't fit Stir Crazy's mission of easy preparation. Bea took the time to school me and then provided at least 10 ideas that I will share in coming weeks. Her Kale and Chickpea Soup was published on April 24.

I am always happy when I hear from readers with either feedback or dinner ideas from their own files. I feel bad when I repeat a column because I am on vacation or on assignment, but readers Anne and Bob Wiley of St. Petersburg tell me not to fret. They like to be reminded of ideas that they'd seen in the past but forgot to use. Also, Anne writes, she files away the rotisserie chicken ideas for when she vacations, obviously staying in places with kitchens.

"I love that you are helping people get away from packaged and processed dinners — yuck & so unhealthy," writes Margie Sigman of Dunedin. That's not to say we don't use some convenience items, but I shy away from suggesting that you heat up premade dinners.

Over the years, people have asked me how I come up with all these ideas. I'd like to take full credit but, like you, I am always on the hunt for something quick and easy to make. Cooking Light and Food Network magazine offer interesting tweaks on standards. I even find the recipes in food advertisements helpful. I have stacks of Martha Stewart's now-defunct Everyday Food. Epicurious.com and Food52.com are good sources, as are the many cookbooks that cross my desk as food editor. I troll the Internet for interesting blogs and have found plenty to keep me busy.

I try to write the column in the morning, because by late afternoon when all the day's frustrations have piled up, the only thing that sounds good is nachos. Come to think of it, the first column, which is republished today on 2E, included a recipe for Beef, Black Bean and Corn Nachos. Sense a pattern here?

Even with 1,300 dinner suggestions, some habits are too stubborn to die.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

5 Janet favorites

,May 23, 2012: Make a mess of Grilled Lemon-Pepper Wings and serve with fresh green beans tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette and scattered with almonds. To make two dozen wings (flats and drumettes), combine ¼ cup lemon pepper seasoning and 2 tablespoons fresh chives in a small bowl. Coat the wings lightly in olive oil and dredge through seasoning mixture to coat. Grill over direct heat for 15 to 20 minutes, turning frequently.

Aug. 3, 2011: Tortellini and Greens Soup will get dinner on the table quickly. Cook 1 bag of cheese tortellini in 8 cups of broth (chicken or veggie). In the last few minutes of cooking, add chopped baby spinach. To serve, garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Bread sticks are a nice accompaniment, along with a vinegary three-bean salad. (A can of drained, rinsed Northern beans adds more protein and fiber.)

June 30, 2010: Turn the corned beef-sauerkraut sandwich into Reuben Salad, complete with pumpernickel croutons and Thousand Island dressing. First, toast cubes of pumpernickel cut from an unsliced loaf. In a large bowl, mix torn romaine with small cubes of corned beef and Swiss cheese. Add well-drained sauerkraut and dress it all with Thousand Island. Top with pumpernickel croutons.

Oct. 28, 2009: Prepare Middle Eastern Chicken Flatbread by spreading garlic hummus on toasted pita or flatbread. In a mixing bowl, combine chopped shredded chicken, Romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, diced cucumber and crumbled feta cheese. Dress with red wine vinegar. Pile on prepared flatbread. Serve with a side of couscous studded with raisins.

July 23, 2008: No time to cook meatloaf? Instead of baking for an hour in a loaf pan, make mini meat loaves in muffin tins. A serving is two or three, depending on the size. They'll cook in about 30 minutes, and you can boil some red potatoes and mash them, skins and all, with milk and butter. Steam broccoli.

Janet K. Keeler

Relishing five years of Stir Crazy, and 1,300 dinner ideas 05/14/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 5:52pm]

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