Friday, December 4, 2009

Blushing Letters: Meal planning

A recent dinner at our place: Braised chicken in sage, lemon, and white wine reduction, potato and spinach gratin, baby greens, artisan rolls.

I show you this because have this letter from Amy, a long time friend of this site who has been very gracious in waiting for a response:

Dear Catherine,

I can't tell you how much I admire your ability to cook beautiful meals! My mom was a busy teacher with four children to care for, so we always had the same five dishes on rotation. I've learned to be more varied, but I run into trouble when it comes to menu planning. How do you do it--in terms of planning for the week? Sometimes I am motivated, and buy the ingredients for the different recipes, but end up spending much more than usual, and end up with many left-over fresh ingredients that don't keep. For example, some recipes call for one stalk of celery, but one stalk can only be obtained in a bunch. Am I making sense? I apologize...I want to provide well for my family, it's hard figuring this out (and my husband is a vegetarian who will occasionally eat fish). Thank you, and of course I understand if you are too busy to respond.



You have greater challenges than I in this regard, still, I am hoping some of these suggestions help.

1. Develop a skill set

a. Truly understanding the principles of roasting, sauteeing, and grilling will help you to vary your meals according to seasonal produce availablity and offer you a wider range of dishes. A couple of reference texts I could not do without include Cooking, by James Peterson and Roasting, by Barbara Kafa. But there are myriad resources, truly.

Once you have a solid basic command of these principles, things become clearer in the market and in the kitchen.

b. One of the most critical skills to varying your meals, especially with regard to vegetarian food, is to master the art of sauces (including marinades and dressings) to broaden flavor components without necessarily adding time. Sauces by James Peterson is the best text I have found on this subject.

2. Keep a well-stocked pantry, fridge door, and kitchen garden

a. The availability of a variety of ingredients from a number of different regional styles you enjoy widens your offerings. If you shop for these in Asian and Latin markets, the price will be markedly less than supermarket chains.

b. If there are only a few ingredients which make a huge difference and I have on hand at all times, they are: red and white wine, lemon, olive oil, cream, parmigianno-regianno.On a desert island, they would change everything.

c. Keep a small kitchen garden year round of herbs, at least. Keeping pots small allows you to bring herb plants in and elongate their life. Keeping a little garden on the whole is essential to freshness but also more economical than stores: Have your own fresh ingredients on hand, dry your own, and always have herb staples available.

3. Shop smart for your health

a. Shop the outside isles. Take a really good look at your market. The healthiest items are around the outside: Produce, protein, dairy. The isles full of pre-packaged food in between are next to worthless for me but for canned tomatoes and dried pasta. When you truly shop for ingredients you work more to get good food on the table but you control the sodium and fats now, not Oscar Meyer - to your point on providing well.

b. In those outside isles buy seasonally heaviest: The quality of in-season is better and the prices more manageable. Once you have those basic cooking skills in hand you will love roasted marinaded veg which will be a great soup or pilaf combination as a leftover. Half a squash is ravioli a few nights later. Left over salmon becomes a brilliant croquette under dill sauce (because you totally know your way around a saucier now, right, girl?).

4. Work ahead.

a. You can absolutely cut and freeze produce staples: Celery, onions, carrots. You do not have to defrost them to throw them in a recipe but you do have to account for this by lengthening the cooking time to be sure they are cooked and to reduce the additional water which will accompany them from the freezer.

This is not ideal for me, frankly, I am more likely to use Green Bags to hold off decay as long as I can or buy smaller onions loose rather than bags. I am really attentive to correct storing enviornments and can generally use most things I bring into the house in time. Although I cannot say the same for the stuff on the fridge door.

b. Robin Miller's work: I know people who, purely on the basis of how thin she is, will not read her book. But she is a nutritionist and a creative cook. If I could get the whole world to trade in Sandra Lee for Robin Miller's work and her organized work-ahead balanced meals, I would save a lot of lives from heart disease. Her strategies make perfect sense and are economically sound. Her food is so much healthier than anything pre-made. Her book, Quick Fix Meals is my gift to all new working Mother's. Sound advice, seriously. Vegetarians will see many places where you can swap in portobello, tofu, or fish.

In the category of good, clean minimal cooking instruction is virtually any of Donna Hay's books. For the most part, the ingredients are easy to find and the dishes easy to plan for and execute on a weeknight.

Foresight is key in minimizing waste and creating economies: If you can stand to buy in bulk and freeze some proteins that is best. If not, cook twice as much protein or veg initially and use the remainder in pasta dishes, casseroles, stuffed vegetables, and soups.

c. Minimize the baking: If you need to have a dessert in the house, do one on Sunday morning with the kids and be done until next week. And/or do what I do; Make and freeze a dozen vanilla-buttermilk mini-cakes which can be sliced under and over fruit with sauce (!), layered into trifles, toasted with Nutella for breakfast, and allowed to become stale and used with mortar for repairing the stone wall. That one recipe will save you a world of trouble.

d. Take some time to do your own prep: Making good stocks is painless. I do it every three months and freeze veal or beef and chicken stock.

5. Skill keeps you out of ruts (and McDonald's)

Have a few fail-safes but stay out of a rut by understanding how small changes to the dishes you are comfortable with can become new dishes.


Pan roasted wild salmon: Salmon in honey thyme sauce, salmon with ancho chili rub, salmon in dill sauce, salmon almondine under citrus white wine sauce.

Vegetables roasted in olive oil: In lemon herb d'provence marinade, with onions and sweet and hot peppers, dressed in balsamic glaze.

Potato gratin (because you now know bechemel from Adam): Layered with veg, cooked spinach, Mangchengo, Emmanthaler. Apples and squash. You name it, the concept has a million applications.

Meatloaf: My Mom's is curry and mustard encrusted and it is a world beater, but I will throw the whole produce isle into it in small chop as well as tofu to vary it. Other variations: Portobello's chopped with gorganzola. Chili encrusted, jalapenos, and sweet corn. Pancetta wrapped with chopped tomatoes. Really, anything goes.

As you can see, it is a question of changing your sauces and marinades, feeling comfortable with inclusions, and not thinking strictly within a recipe box. Takes a little research but there are tools: put your chief ingredients into the search engine at and it will pull recipes using similar chief's (but be sure you look at the user reviews and note their remarks, useful...)

6. Use a comprehensive shopping tool when you visit the store

Even if I were not ten miles from a store, for economic as well as sanity purposes, I do not want to be in a store each day. This is my grocery list, it is a good idea to keep a few copies or have it printed and bound on a pad to keep in the kitchen.

7. Use Google Calendar as an online tool for menu planning

Not that I do, but people swear by it.

I am not the best example with regard to a menu schedule on the whole. I have it in my head how many things I am testing and I fill meals in around these obligations. However, before that was my purview, I kept things pretty simple; an easy weekly rotation of two dinners of fish, two of meat, two of poultry, on the seventh day I rested and went somewhere fabulous. Now I have children and consequently, on the seventh day I inevitably have to make mac n' cheese or chicken fingers.

I stock three seasonal vegetables to be cooked and a two pounds of baby greens for salad or sauteeing to run along side the proteins. There is always a starch (I have 703 uses for potatoes - mostly sweet - seriously, my Dad was Irish) or bread (there is always brown rice I have cooked off and artisan sourdough rolls in the freezer).

There are few total restrictions in my house because I control the types and amounts of fats and sodium in the food. I rely heavily on olive oil for it's benefits over other fats. Butter, flour, and sugar are in use in measured amounts but if you are looking to avoid them, two of the greatest helps for the best flavor are the two Canyon Ranch books from which you can extract methods, recipes, and nutrition information, they, like Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters are also great books to have on hand for vegetarian options.

I hope this helps, Amy!


If you have helpful suggestions, do kindly leave your thoughts in the Comments area below.


Stephanie said...

Very well done! Two things I would add are to start slowly, and to look at your calendar before you plan. You don't want to schedule your most difficult meal on your busiest days.

Also, is Seasons out yet? I couldn't find it on Amazon yesterday ...

Great post!

Karena said...

Wonderful ideas, and you are such a help and so thorough!

Marsha said...

Excellent advice all around!

I would add, too, that one does well to make peace with a small number of shortcuts which conform (more or less) to one's ideals. I still insist on making my own pickles of all kinds but have come to terms with good-quality commercial chicken broth for both the basis of quicker soups but also as healthy additions to stir-fries and various sauces. I refuse factory-made jams and breads but was quick to adopt my grocery's frozen mirepoix. Giving a bit in some quarters allows me to hold fast in others.

In terms of planning, I don't make a list of days to fill in (Tuesday is Meatloaf, Wednesday is Spaghetti...) but rather I keep a running list of things I could possibly make with what's on hand. In this way I can respond to fast moving events without succumbing to a sub-optimal, rushed meal. The list might include a number of faster options and also several more intensive choices. Sometimes making a given selection means that other choices are eliminated, too (if I make channa masala, for example, I also cross off tagine, which uses many of those ingredients). Every 10 days or so the list is retooled to reflect our current situation.

It took me years (and years) to come to a method of kitchen management that allowed me to satisfy myself, my husband and my children - not to mention one that accommodates my professional life. It's important not to pressure oneself but rather be liberal with experimentation and feeling free to discard that which does not work no matter how much it works for others.