Thursday, January 27, 2011

Planning a menu, part 1

Why make a menu plan? Well, if you're anything like me and you head over to the grocery store without any specific ideas (aka, a list), you end up coming home with snacks, some veggies, maybe some meat and a gallon of milk. And then they sit in the refrigerator while we go out to dinner because I have no idea what to make.

I've been cooking for myself for close to 20 years now and think the only recipe I have completely memorized is Broccoli and Garlic Penne. And that's because the ingredients are broccoli, garlic and penne pasta. OK, plus salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. But I always have those on hand so they don't really count.

So unless you're some mastermind with a treasure trove of recipes memorized, I think you can agree with me that making a plan is a very good thing. Now we just have to figure out how to do it. There are as many ways to make a menu as there are cooks. I'm not going to tell you my way is the only way; it's just what works for me. Here's what I do.

  1. I start by looking at my/our schedule for the upcoming week and figure out how many meals I will need. Typically, I shoot for 5 meals, knowing that my fresh veggie supply will have to be replenished after that many days. And also realizing that despite my best attempts, there will possibly be a restaurant or take-out dinner somewhere in there.
  2. Decide the different types of meals I want to make. For me, this means one soup/salad dinner, one or two chicken meals, a beef night, pork and hopefully something vegetarian. The last one's an ongoing struggle for me as my husband's tastes run to more meat and potatoes fare, but I'm working on it.
  3. And speaking of my husband (let's call him Bob - because that's his name), if he's going to be out of town for work, I'll be sure to plan dinners that I wouldn't normally make and will look forward to cooking. It's hard enough to motivate myself to cook for two and in the past, going solo usually meant I treated myself to some take-out. But to be honest, I tended to find myself catching up on some trash TV and before I knew it, it was 7pm, if not later. And my local take-out options? Not so great.

  4. Next up? This part varies week to week, depending on my mood and energy level. I have a growing collection of cookbooks, I subscribe to a few cooking magazines and I read far too many cooking blogs. I also have recipe software (MasterCook Deluxe, to be exact) and although it came with its own collection of recipes, I've never used any of them. Instead, I use the program to import recipes from the web or wherever else I find them. It's not the best software, but it keeps everything in one place and it saves me from printing recipes. So, to make this long story short, depending on what I feel like, I go through my cookbooks, search online and/or sometimes just scroll through my handy-dandy MasterCook for ideas.
  5. Once I've found recipes that sound appealing, I do a double-check to make sure they're something I can pull off within my time constraints. If I want to make something more time consuming (like 2 1/2 hour Carbonnade a la Flamande), I'll plan to make it over the weekend, when I have more flexibility.

  6. Ooh, and don't forget side dishes! This is where I typically fall short. It's great when I can combine them in the same pan as the main course, like a roasted chicken. But that doesn't work for everything so I usually end up with something simple on the side. Steamed or roasted vegetables, basic green salad and sometimes a rice or grain.
  7. Finally, after a quick check of my cupboards, freezer and refrigerator to check on ingredients, I put everything on a list to take to the grocery store. And that's it!

OK, so I might have lost a few of you back there on number 4. I realize not everyone's as crazy as I am about hunting down recipes. I promise Part 2 will offer a more stream-lined solution. And in the meantime, see if you can guess what I'm making in that picture at the top. I know no one's coming here to see more pictures of empty pots and pans!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Already have the basics?

If you read through my list and thought, I have that stuff, it might be a good idea to look around and see if you have (or need) a few more essentials. I know, this list is getting long, but like I said before, many of these things will be with you pretty close to forever. And you're here because you want to start cooking or start cooking more regularly, right? So here are some more basics, plus a few really nice to have(s)...

  • Whisk - not sure how I missed this the first time, but you'll need one or more of these to make salad dressings, gravy, maybe even make polenta.
  • Tongs - plural, as in, get more than one pair. I use these to grab pieces of meat to flip, to pull them out of a pan. Basically to do everything my fingers would do if they were coated in Teflon. The second pair is when you use the first ones to grab raw meat and don't want to use them to contaminate cooked meat.
  • Sheet pans - these are the workhorses of the kitchen and another essential. I use them for cookies, of course, but also to roast vegetables, cook smaller cuts of meat or fish, as a place to set up a bunch of prepped ingredients...the list goes on and on. I recommend the traditional kind with the rolled lip - often called a jelly-roll pan - and I get them at restaurant supply stores like Gordon Food Service. They typically cost around $9 for the standard/half-sheet size and $6 for the quarter-sheet size. Get them both - better yet, get 2 of each!

  • Colander - a must have for straining pasta, stock and even rice, if you get one with small enough holes.

  • Strainer - similar to a colander, a strainer typically has a handle instead of legs. But because of its finer mesh (aka, smaller holes), it can be used to strain liquid from many, many more things. Like what, you ask? Um, rice, pasta and lots of other things I can't remember. It's also great for sifting flour and other dry ingredients in baking - but that's another list.
  • Vegetable steamer basket - super cheap and indispensable for quickly steaming veggies on the stove top.

  • Food mill - similar in abilities to a food processor, a food mill is old school technology. It comes with 3 discs to control the coarseness and has feet to be placed on top of a bowl. I use mine to puree vegetables when I want to strain the final product at the same time.

  • Food processor - first up in the nice to have category, a food processor can do everything from mixing pesto, shredding cheese and slicing vegetables to whipping up dough for pie crust. I don't use mine every day, but it's wonderful to have it when I need it. And at 15 years old, it's still going strong.
  • Immersion blender (or regular blender) - I mostly use my immersion blender for pureeing soups. It can be done right in the stockpot, as opposed to pouring the soup into a regular blender. Goodbye hot soup burns! Of course a regular blender is great, too. You can use it to make all sorts of frozen drinks, some soups, pesto, etc. I'm just bitter because my last one broke a year ago and it doesn't look like it's getting replaced anytime soon.

  • Dutch Oven - if you're going to be making soups or stews on a weekly basis, this is a great investment to make. There are many brands available, but the king is definitely Le Creuset. I bought mine at an outlet for over half off and not a week goes by that I don't use it. I make soups, braises, curries, even the now infamous no-knead bread. Plus it looks so darn pretty and it will seriously last a lifetime.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Where to start

To start cooking, we need some basic equipment.

  • A stove/oven - gas or electric as long as it works

  • Some pots and pans - preferably at least one nonstick pan or skillet (10 inch or 12 inch depending on the number of your eaters) and one traditional skillet (same sizes). A stockpot (8 quart or bigger), a medium saucepan (3 1/2 quart or so) and a small saucepan (1 1/2 - 2 quart)
  • Knives - chef, bread and paring

  • A few spoons and spatulas, preferably one heat-resistant
  • A cutting board, preferably two (one for chicken only)

  • Mixing bowls in different sizes

  • Measuring cups and spoons

None of this has to be fancy or expensive. But everything needs to be sturdy and capable of doing the job. It's all too easy to get frustrated while cooking if your equipment isn't doing what it's supposed to do (aka, cooking instead of burning). It may not be the most appealing idea to spend your money on kitchen tools (altho it's one of my favorite ways!), but much of it will last decades, if not a lifetime. And if you're going to be using these things to prepare potentially three meals a day for the rest of your life, isn't it worth it?

If you're just starting out, you can buy basic things like cutting boards, spoons and bowls at places like Target , IKEA or even dollar stores. Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond and major department stores all carry a variety of cookware brands in a range of prices.

The one tool I'm a stickler about, however, is knives. I'm pretty certain that before I started culinary school, I'd been using dull knives for about my whole life. Again, like everything else, they don't have to cost an arm and a leg.

Thankfully, if you can't afford or don't want to spend much, there is a highly rated and recommended brand of reasonably priced knives called Victorinox/Forschner. They can be found online and at local restaurant supply stores and the Fibrox-handled (non-slip!) 8 inch chef's knife typically costs around $25.

I'll start working on a list of the cookware I own in case you want specific recommendations.

Alright, I think that's enough for today. Now go shopping or better yet, go cook some dinner - I expect to some dirty pots when you're done!

Friday, January 7, 2011

No more excuses

It's a new year. Time for making resolutions to work out more (or to start), to eat better, to cook more often, to fit into that bathing suit (er, that was last year), to fill-in-the-blank. And I'm no different. The start of a new calendar year makes it all seem more appealing and it feels like a fresh start. A clean slate.

So that's why we're here. As of today, you and I are going to start making grocery lists, planning menus and cooking dinner. And on a consistent basis, no less! Sound ambitious? It is, but it's also very do-able. Generations of men and women have been doing it for centuries, without even things like the internet to help them out. And they were just as busy, if not busier than some of us are today.

If that mini-pep talk wasn't enough, I'm here to help. I've got oodles of suggestions for how to plan a menu, find the right recipes, pick the right name it. In fact, if you have a question about anything cooking (or baking), let me know. We're in this together.

Now let's get started.