An Interview with New England Author Leigh Belanger
Food writer and recipe developer Leigh Belanger was inspired to write her first cookbook, My Kitchen Chalkboard, to share with busy home cooks the many ways that meal planning can make cooking for a family much easier. Leigh shares how meal prepping saves her family time and money, inspires creativity, and eliminates food waste.
My Kitchen Chalkboard features a series of weekly dinner menus based on seasonal ingredients, alongside valuable meal planning tips. (Not to mention, all of Leigh’s recipes are family approved!) Leigh shares with us ways to involve kids in meal planning, why a chalkboard is a worthwhile kitchen tool, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes when you’re cooking.
Your cookbook, My Kitchen Chalkboard, is a delicious, diverse compilation of weekly menus highlighting seasonal ingredients. What is the significance of your cookbook’s title, My Kitchen Chalkboard? How has the chalkboard helped you in your meal planning?
When my younger son, Ellis (now five) was a baby, I realized I needed to start planning our dinners or we’d end up eating takeout, leftovers, and grilled cheese sandwiches every night of the week! We were doing a kitchen renovation and when we finished up, we painted the doors with chalkboard paint. That’s where I started writing out our weekly menus. The chalkboard is a fixture in our household – the kids know where to look when they’re wondering what’s for dinner – it’s one of the things that helps structure our weeks, and it helps manage their expectations.
What first sparked your interest in cooking?
I’ve been reading cookbooks voraciously since I was a teenager – I remember reading the Silver Palate cookbooks in the 80’s and being so fascinated by the ingredient combinations and the fanciful illustrations and menus. My mother always encouraged me to cook (maybe so she didn’t have to, ha!), and unlike many other endeavors, it came naturally to me, so I kept at it.
What are you hoping people gain from reading and cooking from your cookbook?
I’m basically an evangelist for home cooking. In the book, I try to convey to readers that home cooking has a place in our lives, and it doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult or expensive to be good. Some of the themes that run through the book are about making informed choices about the food we buy, along with ways to stretch ingredients and waste less food. And if I get people into the kitchen more, then I’m also helping them become more confident cooks – like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get.
How has meal planning made a difference in your family’s life?
When we have a good plan, we have that one piece of family life under control. We spend less on groceries, cook more at home, and waste less food over the course of the week. Busy schedules means the four of us can’t sit down together every night, but putting family dinner into the weekly plan – even if it’s just one or two nights a week – ensures it happens. And especially now that the kids are a little older, it can be really high-quality family time.
What are some tips for involving your family (and kids!) in the meal planning/meal prep process?
I think it’s a great thing to enlist the kids’ ideas for meals throughout the week, same with the spouse. If people have time and/or bandwidth, I think it’s also great to take the kids to the store to pick out ingredients for the meals they suggested. As for prep, I involve the kids in small ways – chopping an ingredient here or there – but we haven’t yet graduated to any actual cooking. I look forward to when I can delegate more of the process to the boys! I think the more you get the whole family involved, the better. Then it becomes part of family life, not just something one person has to do every night.
You mention in your cookbook that you’re happiest when you’re learning about cooking. What is one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about cooking?
The thing I love most about cooking is that there’s always something new to learn – whether it’s an ingredient or a technique or a story behind a recipe. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to just do it. Don’t be afraid of messing up. Pick a recipe that appeals to you, read it before you start cooking, then go for it. Take note of what you liked and didn’t like, what worked and didn’t work. The other thing is to work as neatly as possible and stay organized – I’m convinced I’m a better cook when I work this way – probably because a neat workspace helps me focus.
Let’s say your husband invites a few friends over for dinner at the last minute. What are your favorite crowd-pleasing, easy-to-throw together dishes?
In the summer I love a mixed grill situation – maybe throw some sausages, steak, good bread, and unexpected veggies, like broccoli rabe or fennel, on the grill and make a big platter with everything piled up – served with a salsa verde or romesco sauce on the side. A big salad with beautiful lettuce and homemade vinaigrette is a good example of something that makes a big impact without a ton of effort. Dessert might just be fruit or store-bought popsicles. Keeping things simple lets you focus on the people, not fuss over the food.
We are very fortunate to be surrounded by delicious local produce in New England, especially during the warmer months. What is a local ingredient you enjoy cooking with that can be used in a variety of ways?
Right now we’re at the tail end of the season for asparagus, which is an ingredient I relish. Early season asparagus can be sliced thin and dressed and eaten raw; I like to steam it and drizzle with a little vinaigrette, roast it, grill it – I always make more than we’ll need for any given meal and then chop up the leftovers and fold into an omelet or put over toast with goat cheese. Later in the summer I am a serious sucker for corn – and the native corn, like asparagus, is worth waiting for – and we eat it constantly: on the cob with herby butter, the kernels shaved into salads; pickled into relish or made into salsa. I love to save the corncobs and use them to make a sweet, grassy stock for corn soup or chowder.
What is one of your family’s favorite recipes to enjoy together?
There are a few – they both really like fish, so a simple weeknight dinner that is a guaranteed hit is fish cooked under the broiler and finished with a little butter (herbed for the grownups, plain for the kids), sliced raw veggies with hummus, and a veggie they like, like roasted cauliflower, or asparagus or corn in season. We also like to make pizza together, when they are in the mood!
What is your advice for learning new skills in the kitchen, especially for people who may be intimidated by cooking?
Just dive in. Invest in a good knife you’re comfortable holding and keep it sharp. Cook the things you want to eat, and use recipes that are well vetted. And to my point above about lessons I’ve learned – when you’re following a new recipe, read it all the way through first. Try to stay neat and organized, and just keep trying. Rely on your senses while you’re cooking – do things smell, taste, look, even sound on point? Sometimes it takes cooking a dish a few times and learning those cues before it really feels like “yours.”
Thank you Leigh! You can follow Leigh’s adventures in the kitchen at http://www.leighbelanger.com and on Instagram @missleighb.