Acclaimed Chef Cal Peternell Shares His Best Tips for Making Dinner Using What You Have on Hand

He shares some of the ways he makes a delicious weeknight meal for his family using simple ingredients and tools that can adapt to any situation.

chef cal peternel in kitchen
Photo: Courtesy of Cal Peternel

Chef and author Cal Peternell is all about making the most of what's in front of you, which is just one of the many smart lessons about dinner that he shares in his latest book, Burnt Toast and Other Disasters, A Book of Heroic Hacks, Fabulous Fixes, and Secret Sauces ($19.78, Peternell counsels adapting your notions of perfect meals and turning your mistakes into something you are excited to eat instead of throwing them out and starting all over again. Everyone makes mistakes, and it's refreshing to hear a professional chef let us off the hook. Here, he tells us about how he makes family dinners happen, even at the worst of times.

Peternell emphasizes the importance of eating together as a family, even though that might seem difficult given differing schedules and the demands of work life. He notes, "As teens, my kids learned to help with meal prep and everyone pitched in to get dinner on the table. We often incorporated their friends and ours into family dinners, which made it more fun—and meant more mouths to feed." He also learned to give everyone a task whether that was "grating cheese, washing greens, or chopping herbs, these are all tasks that kids can easily take on."

His Go-To Ingredients—Plus, the Ones He Won't Rely On

Like many chefs, Peternell is not a fan of boneless, skinless chicken; after all, it's the skin that keeps the chicken from drying out, gives it flavor–and gives us crispy brown skin to nibble on—but Peternell understands "BS chicken" has appeal for weeknight meals, acknowledging the meat cooks really quickly. "And it also takes well to a coating, like crumbs or spiced sauce," Peternell adds.

He is a fan of "many canned items, they are a great start, and save lot of time," and has a lot of great ideas for how to make canned beans and chickpeas delicious. One of his favorites is "MUFU" or "mash up, fry up; they're like refried beans but they can be taken in many different directions." And he makes a version of arroz con gandules which his family calls "Can of beans, Cup of rice." The secret he says is "using a whole bunch of scallions and a lot of cilantro, including the stems. You sauté them briefly and add a cup of rice, the beans of your choice, and water. They cook together into something that is much more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes I like to add an egg or two while it's cooking, to make it a complete meal."

Use What You Have

Having cooked in both high-end professional kitchens and tiny, ill-equipped vacation rentals, Peternell knows the importance of having a well-stocked spice rack and says he always tries to have fresh herbs in the house, both things any home cook can try. "Otherwise," he advises, "be flexible and don't plan what you're going to cook until you see what you've got to work with." "Even though I live in California and have access to the best produce and meats, I sometimes end up in a place with a grocery store that has nothing fresh in the produce section (there are ways to make a bag of baby carrots tasty!). Another tip is to keep "sauces and seasoned butters in the freezer or fridge to dress up bland vegetables." And, he says, "don't throw away over cooked vegetables, burnt toast or mushy rice." The possibilities for redemption are endless, especially with a copy of Burnt Toast by your side.

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