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Article: Menu Planning

24 Feb

Every family plans their meal menus differently.  Some wing it every night, some shop a few times a week and plan for a few days at a time, some cook and freeze a stockpile.  I prefer to plan my menus a week at a time, shop once a week, and follow a fairly simple philosophy:

Don’t repeat the same dish in a month, but use the same ingredients weekly.

What I mean by this is to offer several “types” of dishes in a week, but vary their preparation and accompanyment.  For example, I will offer some combination of a chicken dish, a pasta dish, a seafood dish, a beef dish, a pork dish, a crocked dish, a casserole dish, an ethnic dish, an “easy” dish… each week.  Sometimes I plan for leftovers from one meal to be used in a different way later in the week.  I do this specifically for the purpose that I don’t want to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen during the week.  Much as I love to cook, once work is done for the day I really don’t want to spend a couple of hours putting dinner together.  So I save the more ambitious dishes for the weekend when I have more time (and interest, and inclination) to prepare them. On most Fridays I just plan to have a fast food or pizza night – I know myself and by Fridays my kitchen ambitions are usually non-existant. And I rely heavily, overall, on my well-stocked pantry for side dishes and supplements.

This is the routine that works for me. Every Sunday I will sit down with a notebook and list the days of the week, Sunday through Saturday, down the right hand side of the page. I leave room next to each day of the week to write that evening’s dinner menu. Once I’ve determined what I’m serving I list all of the items I need to get at the store on the left hand side of the page. Then I go through my coupons (handily nabbed from the Sunday paper) and find whatever is available for the items on my list.

Following are four weeks of sample menus – many of the recipes can be found on this site. Note that the lists are for dinner menus only. You might want to plan breakfast and lunch items – we usually only eat breakfast and lunch at home on the weekends, which is why I concentrate on dinner items myself.

Week One:
Sunday: Crock Pot Beef Roast with boiled potatoes and salad
Monday: Baked Enchiladas (using the roast left over from Sunday) with refried beans and spanish rice
Tuesday: Chili Chicken with potatoes au gratin and green beans
Wednesday: Soup and sandwiches
Thursday: Baked Ziti with salad
Friday: Stuffed Baked Potatoes (basically your “loaded” potato) with Pinwheels (tortillas spread with cream cheese and ham, rolled and sliced into medallions)
Saturday: Fried Pork Chops with rice pilaf and asparagus

Week Two:
Sunday: Crock Pot Beef Stew
Monday: Tuna Noodles with peas
Tuesday: Elegant Chicken with salad
Wednesday: Pork Loin Kabobs (recipe forthcoming) with rice pilaf
Thursday: Breakfast for dinner – eggs, bacon, homefries, toast, fruit
Friday: Chicken stir-fry (recipe forthcoming)
Saturday: Meatloaf with boiled potatoes and green beans

Week Three:
Sunday: Garlic Lime Salmon with black bean and corn relish, and rice
Monday: Tacos (recipe forthcoming) with refried beans and spanish rice
Tuesday: Steak (recipe forthcoming) with baked potatoes and asparagus
Wednesday: Fried chicken with rice and salad
Thursday: Breakfast for dinner – Breakfast Casserole
Friday: Flatbread pizzas (recipe forthcoming)
Saturday: Minestrone Stew with crusty bread

Week Four:
Sunday: Crocked whole chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn
Monday: Shrimp Scampi with rice pilaf and sauteed summer squash
Tuesday: Salsa Burgers and fries with salad
Wednesday: Crocked pork loin (recipe forthcoming) with stuffing and asparagus
Thursday: Chicken, Black Bean, and Potato Skillet
Friday: American Chop Suey with salad and crusty bread
Saturday: Italian Beef sandwiches with raw veggies and dip

Okay! So I owe you guys recipes for Baked Enchiladas (done), Fried Pork Chops, Fried Chicken (both done), Grilled Steak, Pork Loin Kabobs, Chicken Stir-Fry, Tacos, Flatbread Pizza, Sauteed Summer Squash (done), and Crocked Pork Loin. Stay tuned (or e-mail me if you need something right away, I’ll be more than happy to help).

Article: Stocking a Convenient Pantry

12 Feb

One of the most important factors in the life of a busy cook is having a well-stocked and convenient pantry.  When the pantry is well supplied with various meal “finishers” and essential staples, mid-week meal planning and emergency last-minute meals become a great deal less stressful.  The ultimate goal is to have enough variety available in the pantry that weekly grocery shopping becomes less of a task – and less of an expense.  Knowing that you have all the sides in the world that you need at home allows you to just shop for main dish items such as meats and seafood.

In a worst-case scenario (such as a couple of weeks ago when not one, not two, but ALL members of my family were down sick with the flu all at once), grocery shopping can be skipped altogether and a family can “live” off of “cupboard food”.  Such an event necessitates replenishment, of course, but when all you’re concerned about is sheer survival, NOT having to make a run to the store is a godsend.

To begin with, let’s discuss “instant” food.  Many die-hard cooks poo-pooh the use of such things as instant rice, instant stuffing, and instant potatoes.  However, the quality of such foods has increased dramatically from the generic, pasty, bland versions of our parents’ and grandparents’ day.  When preparing a fast meal, it is so much easier to boil up instant rice or potatoes in five minutes than spend a half-hour or more on preparing the “real” kind. 

Take, for example, that roast that you (efficient cook that you are!) threw in the crock pot this morning. The last thing you want to do when you get home at 6:00 at night is to spend the next 45 minutes peeling, quartering, boiling, and mashing a pot of potatoes. A couple of envelopes of instant potatoes are done in five minutes, and you will eat dinner and finish cleaning up in less time than it would have taken to prepare “real” potatoes.

How about the leftover chicken sitting in the fridge. Boiling a pot of “real” rice will take 30-40 minutes. Making instant rice takes five – you can heat up the chicken in the microwave, whip up a bunch of rice, and have dinner over and done with in no time at all.

So. I’m sure you get the idea. Now, nutritionally speaking instant foods tend to have a higher fat, calorie, and sodium content. So those with dietary concerns will want to keep this in mind and check labels accordingly. Many types of instant foods have lower fat-and-sodium preparation alternatives.

It is also important to have a lot of variety in canned, frozen, or jarred foods. Not only to canned vegetables provide for a quick and easy side dish or addition to a casserole, but they are also nearly as nutritionally sound as their fresh counterparts (again, choose low-sodium products, of which there are now a clearly-labeled variety). Having canned soups and “convenience” foods (such as Ravioli or Mac and Cheese) are also handy when only one or two people are eating or if “the cook” (and isn’t there usually just one in the house?) doesn’t feel like cooking. For example, sometimes I myself throw my hands up in the air and declare a “fend for yourselves!” night, in which I don’t feel like cooking AT ALL and everyone just kind of scavenges around the kitchen. My family members will generally grab a can of soup and make a grilled cheese or ham sandwich to go along with it.

It is a good idea to have meal solutions stocked in the pantry for those days when you are fresh out of ideas.  Dry noodles and jars of pasta sauce, cans of tuna and “cream of” soups (chicken, mushroom, celery), even frozen meats and seafood (Trader Joes has a GREAT variety of frozen fish) can be pulled out, whipped up, and prepared with ease.  I routinely make Shepherd’s Pie, Tuna and Noodles, or spaghetti and meatballs or meat sauce just based on what I have available in the pantry.

Most grocery stores and warehouse stores cater to those of us who wish to “stock up”. Soups, canned fruits and vegetables, convenience and frozen foods, and dried goods are routinely on sale or sold in bulk for ridiculously low unit/ounce cost. Even when I know I don’t “need” an item, if I see it on sale for a really good deal I’ll stock up anyway. It becomes a habit, perusing the isles for the things you need now but finding items that you will need, eventually. And in the end you’ll find that you spend less on groceries overall.

So, with all the “why” reasons out of the way, it now comes down to the “what”. Following is my recommended list for a well-stocked and convenient pantry.

  • Dried pasta
  • Jarred/canned pasta sauce (in different sizes)
  • Canned tomatoes (diced, stewed, whole)
  • Tomato paste
  • Several varieties of canned soup
  • Cream of chicken, cream of mushroom, cream of celery soup
  • Canned corn and green beans
  • Canned beans (kidney, pinto, garbanzo)
  • Refried beans
  • Boxed mac and cheese
  • Canned convenience foods (spaghettios, ravioli, beefaroni, etc.)
  • Canned fruit
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned chicken
  • Ramen noodles
  • Instant rice
  • Instant potatoes
  • Instant stuffing
  • Rice and pasta “mixes” (Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni)

Stock your freezer, too – burger meat, chicken breasts, fish and even frozen breaded fish (I recommend Trader Joe’s breaded cod and tilapia – not your mother’s fish sticks!). Plus there are a lot of excellent “steam fresh” frozen vegetables in family and single sized servings – I recommend Bird’s Eye Steam Fresh peas and brussel sprouts (yes, brussel sprouts!). It’s also a good idea to have a variety of long-lasting refrigerated items on hand – various sliced and shredded cheeses, deli meats, and plenty of condiments (our family would DIE without ranch dressing).

The ideal is, of course, to have all the time and inclination in the world to prepare fresh meals the “hard way”, all the time, every time. But we live in the real world, and reality dictates that we do what works for our busy lives. Convenience foods are no longer the anathema they once were, and your family will appreciate consistent hot, nutritious meals that appear as if by magic minutes after you walk in the door.

Stay tuned for next week’s article – Menu Planning by the Week.

Article: The Necessary Slow Cooker

8 Feb

If there is one appliance that busy families – or really, ANY cook – can NOT do without, it is a slow cooker, or “crock pot”. I can’t begin to tell you how many times having this one simple device in my possession has saved the meal, saved the day, and produced rave reviews. Indeed, the slow cooker is enjoying a renaissance as cooks everywhere rediscover its uses, expand its repertoire, and recall from their youths the meals it’s capable of producing.

The slow cooker can literally be left to its own devices all day long. With a few simple steps performed in the morning before work, school, or errands, it can welcome you in the evening with a home filled with delicious aromas. The time it takes to go from pot to plate with a few simple side dishes is the work of moments – even faster than the time it takes to get through the line at the drive-through of some fast-food joints! And which would you rather have – tender home-made roast beef, or a luke-warm patty of “mystery meat” on a bun?

There is a very simple concept behind the success of the crock pot – meat/veggies + liquid = delicious. It seems the longer the meal is cooked, the better it becomes. It’s almost impossible to “ruin” a meal made in the crock pot! A whole fryer chicken when placed in the crock pot with two cups of broth, cooked on low all day (typically in my household that means from about 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night) produces juicy, moist, flavorful meat that falls off the bones. A pot roast seasoned and covered with beef broth and a splash of wine results in the tenderest beef, at the end of the day, you will ever experience. For either recipe, piling a bunch of potatoes and carrots or other veggies in the bottom of the pot before adding the meat will provide a ready-made side dish.  And the broth left over thickens quickly and easily with a few tablespoons of corn starch dissolved in milk, broth, or water.

Absolutely nothing is beyond the capability of the slow cooker – meats, vegetables, soups, stews, casseroles, beverages, desserts – the possibilities are endless. Trust me on this, if you don’t have one, GET YE HENCE THIS MOMENT and purchase one.  They are inexpensive (ranging from $20 to $100 and up depending on the size and amount of “whizzy-bang” capabilities), yet priceless.  The particular model I use is a Rival 6.5 quart, with just three settings – low, high, and off.

There are multiple recipes for the crock pot listed on this site – simply click on the “crock pot” category to the right, and enjoy a fast, easy, delicious meal!