I have been accused of cooking fancy. Let me set the record straight: the only difference between a bachelor's "What have I got in the fridge?" for dinner and my cooking is a longer lead time between "What have I got in the fridge?" and dinner itself, a bigger food storage, and a wider range of recipe searching.
Specifically, sometime before cooking for a dinner for 6 (often the morning of), I look in the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and think "What in this do I need to use up / want to get rid of?" Then I start searching the mental database and the internet for combinations of those ingredients.
Last Tuesday, I wanted to get rid of two skirt steaks that were getting buried in the back of the deep freezer, before they were freezerburned. I also wanted to get rid of a partial jar of green salsa (instead of made with just tomatillos, it was made with hatch chilis too.) Having plugged "low carb mexican food" into a search engine, low carb slow cooker barbacoa came up. While it didn't use the green chili salsa, it called for green chilis, onions, lime juice, and chipotles in adobo sauce (which contains vinegar.) So that's all the same ingredients as the salsa - I just have to adjust the other ingredients a bit, and other than the chipotles that I could sub another smoked ground dried red pepper (hot smoked paprika), I had everything on hand. And I could use up the bottled lime juice that was getting old, too!
One of the other sites linked to non-low-carb mexican food, including borracho beans. And lo and behold, I have three bottles of Modelo that have been sitting in the fridge for at least a month, several cans of pintos and rotel that need to be used up so I can rotate canned stock, and all I'll have to pick up is the cilantro.
I did a test run on the beef, found it excellent but very dense, and decided it'd be better as a chiles rellenos - stuffed in peppers with cheese. My husband made doubtful noises about adding more peppery heat to the beef. Well, when I went to the grocery store to pick up the cilantro, I found green bell peppers on deep discount sale, so they and a block of munster cheese came home with me to be the stuffed pepper main course.
I also made a salad, because that's a dense enough meal it needs a salad. And because I always have salad fixings on hand. (Also, those tomatoes needed using. If I wasn't using 'em in a dish, then salad.)
And when I taste-tested the beans and went "Picante! Muy Picante!" I dug out the rice cooker and made a side of rice, too.
For dessert, I failed to remember to pick something up. So a quick check of the freezer produced a sad-looking bag of frozen strawberries, and two partial tubs of different kinds of vanilla ice cream with less than half a tub left each. No whipping cream in the fridge, so I had to improvise - I thawed the strawberries, reduced the juice into a thicker sauce, and poured it back over the strawberries along with a shot of Van Der Hum (spiced tangerine brandy), and let it soak together. No extra sugar, because ice cream has plenty! I served bowls with strawberries on the bottom, ice cream scooped on top, and topped with some chocolate sangiovese sauce I had in the fridge. (It used up the strawberries and one tub of ice cream, making more freezer space.)
It only looks fancy!
Next week, I'm eyeing about two pounds of ground beef that someone stuck in the freezer in a "I'll just put this aside and use in a couple days, so no need to get out the vacuum sealer and do it right" kind of way, that are looking icy and ragged. Given a long, slow cooking to make them tender in a very flavourful gravy, I'm sure I can rescue them into something very tasty... likely a shepherd's pie or a Guinness stew.
Which lends itself to an inevitable veggies on the side. Maybe I can roast the carrots that have been in the salad drawer long enough to get hairy roots... I can pick up some turnips & roast 'em with that. Or if they all go in the stew, there was the roast summer squash & cabbage dish a pub did... guess I better check what's on sale next week, and that'll tell me what my side dish is. Unless there's something else in the fridge to get rid of by then.
And hopefully this time I'll remember to pick up dessert. If not, there was that bag of "I have frozen blackberries? Since when?" I found when pulling out the strawberries. That can be a cobbler. Or an ice cream topping... if I pick up more ice cream... Ah! I could make custard instead, using up the eggs that are getting old, and hide any cracked tops under a blackberry sauce!
If it manages to look fancy, that's just a bonus. Being an adult isn't about perfect plans executed perfectly, it's about having well-developed contingency habits to deal with whatever life throws at you... and whatever needs to be used up first.