Thanks for reading!

It’s time for me to admit that this blog has gone fallow. While I still enjoy cooking and learning new techniques, I no longer feel the need to document my endeavors in the kitchen. I’ll leave all the old recipes up for some time, but comments have been turned off so I don’t have to deal with the spam.

If you like my writing, please visit my main blog at shannonturlington.com. I also post frequently on Google+, so circle me!

I’ll leave you with the 3 most important things I learned during my cooking odyssey:

  1. Plan ahead, but remain flexible. Plan out the main entrees for the week, but not the side dishes, to take advantage of fresh, seasonal and cheap produce in the grocery store or farmers market. Leave one night free for leftovers, impulses and inspiration.
  2. Prepare ahead as much as possible. Prep fresh fruits and vegetables to always have something healthy ready to eat when you’re hungry. Despite what some blogs say, it’s not necessary to prepare everything from scratch. It’s okay to buy prepped fruits and veggies if it means eating better as a result.
  3. Taste as you go, and add salt and acid. Seriously, if a dish tastes flat, a little salt and some vinegar or lemon juice works like magic to brighten and enhance flavors. I keep a bottle of sherry vinegar by the stove now.

Thanks for reading this blog over the years.

Blog Neglect and Corn Chowder

I certainly have been neglecting this blog, haven’t I? I started this blog many years ago, when I had a lot of extra time on my hands, I wanted to learn blogging, and I wanted to become a better cook. Keeping up the blog helped achieve those goals. Researching cooking techniques and writing down recipes reinforced them in my head, so that now I can do a lot of cooking without consulting a book or a recipe. I also feel more confident in the kitchen and more inclined to experiment or go off the recipe. But that kind of cooking isn’t very bloggable, especially since I’m not one to take a lot of photos of my food.

(Speaking of photos, my husband has taken up photography as a hobby. If he wanted to do some food photography, I would happily showcase his work on this blog.)

Let’s take last night’s dinner, for instance. It was cold and drizzly, and I wanted to make corn chowder. The first recipe I consulted sounded good, but it called for a pre-baked potato. I didn’t have any on hand, and I certainly wasn’t going to bake a potato for an hour just to put it in a soup. But I marked the recipe as something to try when I had leftover baked potatoes, and I also took note of some of the additions it suggested.

The second recipe was in Joy of Cooking. It was much simpler, but I didn’t care for the idea of a soup with a milk base. I’m trying to reduce my dairy intake these days. Still, it was a good base to build on. Here’s what I did.

I fried 3 strips of bacon until crispy and put them on paper towels to drain. I put a spoonful of the bacon grease into my soup pot, along with about half an onion, diced, and 2 celery stalks, sliced. I let them cook a little while over medium-low until they had gotten tender. Then I added 1 baking potato, peeled and diced, about 1 cup of frozen corn kernels, and about 2½ cups chicken stock. I use the word about because I didn’t measure; I just added things to the pot until I had what looked like a good amount of soup. I seasoned the soup with a healthy amount of Southwest seasoning mix (Penzey’s). I brought it to a boil, covered it, and let it simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes were cooked. Using a stick blender, I pureed the soup to thicken it up, but I left it relatively chunky.

To serve, I let each person add what they wanted: crumbled bacon; dollop of sour cream; and grated cheddar-jack cheese. It served 3 people with some left over. I thought it was pretty tasty, but when and if I make it again, I doubt I’ll make it the exact same way.

As a matter of fact, this basic formula would work for any potato-based soup. Instead of corn, you could add leeks, tomatoes, carrots, greens, peas–almost any vegetable you like, really. You could vary the seasoning and garnishes as you wish.

After you get experience and confidence cooking, recipes start to seem superfluous–at least for everyday cooking. I’ll still follow a recipe religiously when I’m trying a new and challenging dish. But when I’m trying to get dinner on the table, I tend to follow my instincts and build a dish as a cook, based on the ingredients I’ve got around and how much work I feel like doing.

How do you cook? Do you follow recipes to the letter, or do you improvise as you go along?

Old-Fashioned Turkey Noodle Soup — Foster’s Market

I seem to make this Old-Fashioned Turkey Noodle Soup once a year, around the holidays when leftover turkey is abundant. The recipe is from the Foster’s Market Cookbook, but fortunately, it is also online.

I start by cutting all the leftover meat off the turkey bone. I put the bone in a big pot, cover it with water, and add roughly chopped onions, carrots and celery (don’t bother to peel). Throw in a bay leaf and few whole peppercorns. I simmer this for a couple of hours, then drain and discard the solids. This homemade stock doesn’t take much effort and definitely results in a richer, more satisfying soup.

I like this recipe because it is very adaptable, and thus is a great way to make use of any leftovers hanging around. I omitted the pasta and parsnips this time, but I added a peeled, diced potato and, in the last few minutes, some leftover green beans. Watch the cooking times in the recipe: I think they’re a bit too long, especially at the beginning. I was able to shorten the time for softening the vegetables without any noticeable issues. This recipe will yield plenty of leftovers, suitable for freezing.

This soup is tasty and, after the indulgences of the holidays, very healthy. You can also make it with leftover roast chicken. Here is a link to the recipe on the Foster’s Market website. Enjoy!

Menu Planning for November

I’ve recently started planning out a whole month of menus at a time. It somehow seems easier to sit down and figure out a month’s worth of menus all at once, rather than turn it into a weekly chore to be done just before grocery shopping or a daily scramble to figure out what’s for dinner that night. Doing a month at a time forces me to sit down, take my time, and think about our home-cooked meals in a more holistic way.

For instance, this month leads up to the Season of Eating, aka the holidays. Before Thanksgiving, I always like to eat leaner and as healthfully as possible to try to counteract the inevitable excess that’s coming. I also want to focus on meals I can prepare quickly, that are heavy on the vegetables and low on the carbs, and that my family will find tasty, of course.

I decided to pick one of my cookbooks and cook most of the meals out of it for the month. This simplifies things — I always find it easier to consult just one book rather than several when I’m making dinner — and it enables me to really give the cookbook a workout and figure out if it’s one I want taking up limited space on my bookshelf. This month, I chose Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater. In the past, I’ve mostly only made snacks and quick lunches from this cookbook, so it should be interesting to see what it offers for dinner.

In the book, he recommends accompanying each meal with a green salad and following it with fruit for dessert, plus cheese if the supper was a particularly light one. So many times, it seems, the simple and easy solution also is the healthiest and tastiest.

Broccoli Soup with Leeks and Thyme from Bon Appétit

I am not finding the time to post new recipes, as I hoped, but I can review some online recipes I discover. With millions of recipes to choose from, maybe this will help you decide what to make for dinner.

I had my doubts about this recipe for Broccoli Soup with Leeks and Thyme from Bon Appétit. It seemed very simple and like it might not be very filling. However, it turned out to have a really creamy texture–amazing because there is no cream or other thickener, like potatoes or flour, in the soup. The flavor is very simple but clean and refreshing. I would recommend using a very good quality chicken broth, or homemade stock, so that the soup has plenty of body, and puree it very well to achieve the creamy texture. You’ll end up with a healthy, light dinner entree.

This soup cannot carry a meal by itself. I served it with open-faced cheese toasts, broiled with cheddar and a little bacon, to give the meal more heft. I reheated leftovers for lunch the next day, adding cooked rice and crumbled bacon to the pot to make a heartier version of the soup.

Thoughts on Meal Planning

I’ve gone back and forth on the question of how much meal planning to do for everyday cooking, or whether a plan is even needed. I’ve tried lots of approaches, but I’ve finally come back to the opinion that it is best to have a plan, albeit a flexible one.

For a long time, I planned a menu for every dinner in the week. However, with this approach, I often found food going to waste. The unexpected happens frequently enough that we should really expect it. Sometimes, we’d go out for dinner, or conflicting schedules required a meal on the run. I usually didn’t get a chance to cook every meal in my carefully chosen seven-day plan.

The other problem with this approach is that it was overwhelming. In my cookbooks alone, I have thousands of recipes to choose from, and that’s not considering the millions of recipes available online. Trying to pick just a handful of those multitudes to cook for the week led to decision paralysis. I do much better when I can choose from just a few options, rather than unlimited ones.

Next, I tried a looser menu plan in which we had roughly the same meal on the same night of the week. So Monday was chicken night, Tuesday was frittata, Wednesday was tacos, and so on. This plan certainly limited my choices, but I have to admit, it got boring fast. Roasted chicken breasts again? I found myself falling into a rut, and I lost the sense of creativity I get when I’m cooking.

Then, I abandoned menus altogether. I bought what looked good and was on sale at the store that week and then found recipes to use those ingredients, with the help of a searchable database. It was a good idea in theory, but it was problematic in practice. I was often scrambling to come up with an idea of what to cook each night. I wanted to make certain recipes but often didn’t have a necessary ingredient, so I’d fall back on what I know and bam! Back in the rut again.

Now I am back to stricter meal planning, but with some changes. I am planning the entire month’s meals in advance, but only four dinners per week. This builds in some flexibility to be spontaneous, go out to dinner, or just eat leftovers for dinner. To help me make recipe choices, I use a preplanned menu, usually from a magazine, for inspiration. Often I have to substitute similar dishes that my family will actually eat for their selections, but at least I have a starting point. This also helps me build in variety and, if I choose a current magazine, stay seasonal. And it seems more manageable to make the plan once a month, rather than every week.

Depending on the cook and the family, I think any of these meal-planning approaches could work well. Some people enjoy a more freeform style; others need a more regimented approach to make efficient use of limited time. I do think it’s best to have a minimal plan, so we don’t wander through the grocery store aimlessly, but we should build flexibility and spontaneity into the plan. In other words, if something looks delicious in the store, get it and fit it into the plan later.

Do you have a system for planning meals? What works for you?

I’m Back

To tell you the truth, I’ve been afraid to peek back in here. I know it’s been a while. Now I see that I haven’t been here since April. Whew, that’s longer than I thought.

The reason why I haven’t been around is that my creativity in the kitchen has been stalled over the last few months. It feels like I’ve been making endless meals of chicken and broccoli, chicken and broccoli. It’s boring but it’s what my customers — I mean, my family — will eat.

Well, I think we all need a kick in the patootie. The past two weeks have been spent remodeling my kitchen, from floors to countertop. New sink, new stove, new cooking configuration. Right now, it looks like a holy mess, but I am promised that in just a few days, I will be living the dream kitchen. And if that doesn’t inspire me to start cooking interesting meals again–meals worth writing about–then I guess I should just shutter this blog for good.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

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