Farm-to-Table Restauranteur Helene Henderson Shares Her Simple Approach to Preparing Weeknight Meals
She streamlines shopping, preps ahead, and aims to use as few pans as possible.
Helene Henderson is immersed in the world of food. She's a chef, the founder of Malibu Farm—a farm-to-table restaurant with locations around the world—and also a cookbook author, with a new book out this month, Malibu Farm Sunrise to Sunset, Simple Recipes All Day ($35.99, amazon.com). She's a busy woman, which is why her approach to home cooking is streamlined—and it's all thanks to a broken pepper mill. "When I was [working] in catering, I was stacking, slicing, foaming, [and] squeezing dollops of sauces, sprinkling this and adding that," explains Henderson. Then one day, her favorite (and only) black pepper mill broke, sparking a flood of panic. But after asking herself if she really needed all those spices and sauces, the problem became a blessing. "The less I seasoned, the more [I] allowed the ingredients to shine on their own, [and] the better the food became," she says. "This realization started a path of simplification."
How She Gets Ahead
Her minimalist approach has extended to other aspects of home cooking. When it comes to weeknight meals, she's all about repurposing leftovers to make something new out of yesterday's dinner. As for food shopping and prep? Henderson goes to the market just once a week, she says, and "I usually cook grains and legumes, twice per week, to use over several days." When it's time to cook, she prefers pulling out as few tools and pieces of equipment as possible, noting that "the less items you use, the less dishes you have to clean." And though she often cooks multiple dishes, she likes to cook them one by one, all while using a single pan. For example, "I may cook quinoa first, [and] while it's cooking, I make a dressing," shares Henderson. "When the quinoa is cooked, I drain and add [it] to a bowl, then I use the same pot to cook lentils while I prepare a vegetable, and so on."
What's in Her Pantry?
In her pantry, Henderson stores simple dinner-friendly provisions. This includes dry goods (lentils, quinoa, farro, beans, rice, and pasta), along with olive oil, honey, agave, soy sauce, and various vinegars. Her refrigerator features plenty of vegetables and greens, with more growing in her yard. And though she rarely eats animal protein, she'll often keep roasted chicken in the fridge in case anyone in her family wants it. Meanwhile, her freezer is never without whole ginger, which she grates with a box grater when needed. Not only is the skin totally edible, but the method extends the ginger's lifespan, ensuring there's always a flavorful ingredient on hand.
As for her go-to weeknight meals? Henderson often pairs grains, beans, lentils, and vegetables to make something delicious. Think: farro with quinoa and butternut squash or lentils with rice and asparagus. "I season my vegetable grain mixes lightly with different dressings and lots of herbs," notes Henderson. "It's delicious."
Another top weeknight pick is a riff on spaghetti with oil and garlic (aglio e olio), the favorite meal of her youngest son, Caden, who's a vegetarian. To the dish, Henderson adds lentils or beans and plenty of vegetables. "When I'm in a rush, I'll expand on his dinner to make more of a pasta salad for everyone else," she notes. "I add cherry tomatoes, serrano chiles, a splash of balsamic, and a small mountain of arugula. His meal becomes mine in a flash of time."
Don't Get Overwhelmed
Like most people, Henderson still experiences the occasional stress that comes along with making weeknight dinner. "From time to time, I get overwhelmed by food, because my entire existence is consumed by thinking about food, talking about food, [and] cooking food. And then all I want is coffee, tea, and bread, or the most basic old-school meals." But other times, when the inspiration hits, she'll randomly make enough dishes for many guests, despite only serving two.
If you're in the "overwhelmed" camp more often than not, Henderson offers this tip: Approach cooking from a practical standpoint, thereby eliminating the stress of "what's for dinner?" For example, "If I have asparagus, cauliflower, and butternut squash, then I'm cooking the asparagus first, because that's the most perishable. The next day we'll have the cauliflower and butternut squash, which will last a long time." And if it's a choice between fish and chicken sausage? She'll go with the fish, as the sausage will last. To make it even easier, Henderson recommends asking yourself, "What do I have to make dinner?" The answer is in your fridge, pantry, and leftovers, she says. For instance, do you have couscous, dried fruits, and nuts sitting in your pantry? Use them together, today. "Let what you have be your guide and inspiration," she encourages. "It also makes you feel better when you utilize all the random things that are taking up space."
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