Friday, July 25, 2008

My Meal Planning Setup

A friend was discussing being in a cooking rut and believe me, I feel the pain. Not at this particular moment *knock on wood*, but I know how it feels when nothing sounds good to eat but you still want to put something healthy on the table but because you're uninspired its hard to get into the kitchen. So I don't know if this will help her with her particular variety of uninspiredness, but its a system that I've come up with that makes it easier for me to get healthy food on the table regardless of whether or not I'm excited about it. For me, the hardest part of cooking is the meal planning. If I can come up with some idea, once its on the table I usually enjoy it. And, of course, with a toddler the shopping that supports it is the second hardest part. So here's my meal planning system.

I have several go to cookbooks that are seasonally arranged and the recipes I know in general take less than an hour to prepare. In my case they are also vegetarian. One is Fresh Food Fast, which I love, love, love and have made close to everything in it at least once. Its organized around meals of two, sometimes three dishes, and is complete with a shopping list. The other is A Year In a Vegetarian Kitchen, which is single dish based but is pretty consistent in the time it takes to pull together. I've made perhaps half the recipes in this book (again way more than most cookbooks I own). The cookbooks aren't really necessary for my meal planning, but having an easy goto source of recipes is helpful for getting started.

So my system is to come up with a meals ahead of time, organized by the four-seasons and then list the ingredients it requires - all this information is on a 4x6 card (3x5 is too small for my sloppy handwriting). Sorta simple when I type it out. The meal usually consists of two dishes, sometimes one entree and a "Vegy Du Jour" entry (for something simple for whatever is in season - such as steamed brocoli or corn on the cob) or "salad". I think if you were an omnivore it could be even simpler since it seems like an easy fall back system is for meals tend to be organized around a meat dish in the vein of start with a meat, modify it (lemon chicken? roasted rack of lamb?), then add some vegetables. Vegetarian meal planning tends towards ethnic cuisine which doesn't lend itself to such straightforward thinking (more like what kind of stir fry or what sort dish complements squash tamales). But I digress.

To get meal ideas, I usually peruse my cookbooks until I find one dish I want to try and then consider what would go good with a "baked goat cheese, tomato and pesto salad", for example, and making sure it fits within the season and that the two or three dishes I'm thinking about don't take forever to prepare. I'll put the dish names at the top and list which cookbook and page number I can find them at. Or sometimes just put HM for home made. The cards are color coded by the four season (or are on their way to getting color coded - this is a work in progress!). I'll then list the ingredients that it requires in shopping list format, usually lumped together by "produce", "dairy", and "pantry". Sometimes I list staples (soy sauce?) and sometimes I don't (come on, I always have salt around!). After I've made the meal, I like to put comments on the back although, honestly, I don't usually get around to it as much as I would like. From year to year, I usually remember that we like something but not how much we like it. Like the dishes where I wrote that they were "insanely good". Its always good to read that! Some meals are duds and I try to cull those from the stack. If something takes too long to whip up - kiss of death for this household.

I've been pulling together meal ideas for about the last 3 years, so my pile of meal ideas is finally getting substantial, although I still run out of menus before the season is up. Making the meal cards does take some work at first, but then I don't have to reinvent the wheel next year. Its so nice to sit down on Sunday afternoon grab my green summer index cards and pick out 4 or so meals to have for the week, look at the ingredients list, cross check it with what's coming in my produce basket for the week from my CSA and make up my shopping list for Monday morning. I then leave the cards in my kitchen (paper clipped and stuck to the fridge) ready for me to start cooking. The other 3 nights of the week I usually leave open to chance - either left overs, take out, or I'll pencil in something that doesn't require any thinking like tacos or pizza. The setup is a work in progress. Usually towards the middle or end of the season, I'm starting to run out of good menus but there is still plenty of that seasons' produce still in the markets. So I keep adding new menus and culling the duds and it's working out pretty well for us.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Food & Cotton

Previously on this blog, I mentioned that I'm in love with my new cookbook - King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. I've made another item from it - Cherry & Chocolate Chip Scones. I know, what's with the fruit & chocolate chip kick? The whole grain in this one is barley flour, 2 to 1 with all-purpose white. They came out very wet - like wetter than cookie wet but drier than a cake. So I made them dropped scones even though they were supposed to be shaped into a circle than cut into wedges. I can't figure out what I did wrong. It called for either 2.5 cups of whole wheat or 2 cups of barley; I went barley and apparently that made all the difference. Perhaps my barley isn't whole grain and that makes it wetter? Or perhaps I fluffed up the barley too much before measuring it? One of the techniques the book recommends is weighing all ingredients. The next time I try these or any recipe from the book, I might do that instead of going by volume. The seemed to bake up fine. They taste awesome and I'm trying to hold myself back from polishing them off. The cherries just aren't doing it for me, however. They are pretty anemic. They are dried Bing and I think I was expecting the tart dried sour cherries. So I'll make a note to tried to find those next time.

Cherry Chocolate Chip Scones

Also check out the plate in the picture. Mr. Thystle has given the go ahead to get some salad plates like the one pictured above. So I'm gonna pick up a half a dozen in turquoise and half a dozen in red. Apparently, I'm still stuck on this color combo. Should look nice with our cobalt blue dinner plates we already have. But salad plates seem to be much more our speed for smaller meals (or making dinner seem bigger since it takes up more of the plate) or a sandwich or anything more than our 5 inch saucer plates hold.

Back of Sweater

Here's how the cotton sweater is coming along. This was the back about 75% of the way done. Currently, I'm actually done with the back and about 75% of the way done with one of the front panels, but just getting around to getting photos off the camera. I'm on a knitting high after taking 4 months to finish those darn socks and I'm scouring Ravelry, finding all sorts of things I want to try. My queue is about 20 projects long right now. Hrmm, interesting... I've also made 20 things in my knitting career as well. But what's so great about a sweater is that once you do a sweater you can do ANYTHING. I'm serious. Knit a cozy for the Golden Gate Bridge? No problem! But this - a Scaruffle - is the next item on my list. Got the needles. Got the yarn. Just gotta finish the sweater first.

On the gardening front - my final two potato seeds are sprouting. I thinned out my first round of radishes even though their roots are just barely starting to swell. They were shading out the carrots underneath. If you'll recall, I sowed them at the same time with the idea being that you harvest the quick producing radishes just when you should start thinning the slow sprouting carrots. But these are some seriously slow radishes and I don't really like radishes but I do like carrots. So I'm playing favorites with my veggies.