Creating Menus

I used to be quite obsessed with copying and adapting recipes, organizing them and amassing a collection. But I have to admit that I have lost interest in that aspect of cooking, which may help explain why this blog has been so lamentably neglected as of late. It has become clear to me that I really no longer need to expend my labor in copying or collecting recipes. The age of the “just in time” recipe is here. Via my relatively small cookbook collection, I have access to over 20,000 recipes (according to my library on Eat Your Blogs), and once I go online, that number expands exponentially into infinitude. If I want a recipe for something, anything, chances are I can find it within seconds. There does not seem to be much point in writing down recipes anymore.

Lately, I have become much more interested in combining recipes into menus — menus that are both interesting to eat and easy to execute. Rather than recipes, it is menus that I have been playing around with, collecting and organizing. Neither my cookbooks nor the online world seem to provide more than the most basic guidance on how to create a successful menu. Yet most recipes don’t alone make a full meal. Each meal requires a new menu.

I am starting to come up with some rules for what makes a good menu. The first rule is that the menu must encompass no more than four separate dishes. Four seems to be the greatest number of dishes I can make without frustration in one cooking session. Three dishes is an ideal menu, in one of these combinations: a starter, an entree and a side; a starter, an entree and a dessert; or an entree, a side and a dessert. For a lighter meal, I can definitely get away with a menu of only two different items.

Another rule is balance. Of course, different kinds of foods, tastes and textures should balance one another. But to save the sanity of the cook, it is also necessary to balance complexity of dishes. If I am making one elaborate dish, the rest of the menu should be composed of relatively simple recipes. A simple entree, such as roast chicken, calls for a more elaborate side, though, in order to keep the meal from becoming boring.

I will try to post some of my more successful menus here, with links to the recipes, of course.

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Trying to Eat Healthy?

Seriously, trying to eat healthy can make you crazy. I have been there. Read: The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater.

The Only Cookbooks You Need

Cover of "The Art of Simple Food: Notes, ...

Cover via Amazon

This week, as I was developing my weekly menu, I got to thinking about the cookbooks I have versus the cookbooks I use. Like many home cooks, I have acquired more cookbooks than I can ever possibly use on a regular basis. I love to browse through cookbooks, especially those with beautiful photography, even if I don’t make very many recipes from them. I have noticed that I used to buy a lot more cookbooks than I do now, because I used to experiment a lot more. Now, I’ve settled on the kinds of dishes that I like to cook at home and that my family like to eat, which keeps me returning to the same cookbooks again and again.

If I had to ruthlessly pare down my cookbook library, I think I could easily make do with just eight cookbooks and spend a lifetime happily cooking from them. These are the four basic cookbooks I consider essential:

  • The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
  • How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
  • The Joy of Cooking
  • The Foster’s Market Cookbook

The Waters book is essentially a home-cooking course for beginning cooks, and I return to its classic, simple recipes again and again. The other two contain pretty much every recipe I’d ever want to make, and they offer lots of variations so I don’t get bored. However, these all-purpose cookbooks tend to skimp on categories that I consider essential: breakfast, easy entertaining and cookies. Luckily, the Foster’s Market cookbook does a terrific job filling in those gaps (especially cookies).

Every now and then, I like to cook something more elaborate, from one of the four basic food groups: Italian, French, Mexican and Southern. I could buy hundreds of cookbooks in each of these categories, but I really only need one that’s definitive and comprehensive for each style of cooking I want to do. Over the years, I’ve settled on these four:

  • Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
  • Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells
  • Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless
  • Sara Foster’s Southern Cookbook

Of course, your favorite regions or types of dishes will be different than mine, so I would suggest researching the cookbook offerings and locating that one definitive cookbook in each category. It’s so much easier cooking out of just a few books and getting to know them very well than it is trying to find that one recipe you want to make from among hundreds of cookbooks.

A Standard Weekly Menu

Planning a menu for the week helps me keep my shopping and cooking on track, and also helps me meet my goal to have a home-cooked, healthy meal most nights. By planning ahead, I can also ensure that I’ve got prepared ingredients and leftovers to make cooking easier as the week gets more hectic. I’ve experimented a lot with different menus and dishes, and at least for weeknight cooking, I keep coming back to the same roster of dishes. They cook easily using ingredients I can easily find, but they can be changed up each week for variety.

Here is my basic menu for a week’s worth of cooking, developed with these principles in mind. I do try to remain flexible to take advantage of special occasions, requests from family members or the availability of a seasonal ingredient.

Sunday: baked casserole or hearty soup served with a big salad. Because my Sundays are usually open, this is a good day to do a lot of prep work and make things easier for weeknight cooking. A family dinner calls for hearty comfort food that results in leftovers for lunch or dinner. Macaroni and cheese, baked ziti, chili, ratatouille, potato soup–there are endless possibilities. If I get started early enough, I can even break out the slow cooker. To accompany it, I make a salad using seasonal ingredients, including a salad dressing of the week that I can repurpose for lunches. This gives me the opportunity to prep all the vegetables from my weekly shopping trip.

Monday: sauteed or roasted boneless chicken breasts, potatoes and vegetable. This is a hearty meal that is also quick to prepare. I can vary it with different quick sauces or by adding some cheese or prosciutto, and there are about a million ways to make potatoes. For the vegetable, I stick to what’s in season and look for simple preparation methods. All leftovers can be repurposed for other dishes as the week goes on.

Tuesday: pasta with tomato sauce or broccoli, or stir-fried noodles. All of these pasta dishes are quick to prepare and kid-friendly. This meal can easily be made vegetarian, or adapted depending on what is in the fridge and pantry.

Wednesday: tacos or wraps. This is the perfect night to use up any leftover vegetables or cooked meat, but if no leftovers are available, I can quickly whip up beans or ground meat for a taco filling. Leftover salad and sauces can often be repurposed as toppings.

Thursday: frittata. By this point in the week, the cupboard is getting a little bare, but we always have eggs. Any bits of meat or vegetables remaining can be quickly cooked for the frittata filling, while shredded cheese from the tacos goes on top. Leftovers make a good breakfast or lunch for the weekend. If we don’t feel like frittata, scrambled eggs and bacon or baked eggs are a great substitute.

Friday and Saturday: pizza, sandwiches, grill or special requests. If we don’t go out to dinner, the weekend is a good time to make something fun that everyone enjoys.

Sunday breakfast: I usually try to make a hearty breakfast on Sundays of bacon and eggs, bagels or some other baked treat.

Shopping list: Keeping the pantry stocked is the key to cooking at home. If you open the fridge and see nothing tasty there, you’ll be tempted to order out. Here’s a standard list of ingredients to keep on hand to make an entire week’s worth of meals:

  • Produce: fresh fruit for snacking and breakfast; salad greens and vegetables; seasonal vegetable; broccoli; potatoes or sweet potatoes; onions; garlic
  • Meat: boneless chicken breasts; bacon, ground meat and sausage for the freezer; other meat that you like for stir-fries or grilling
  • Eggs: I buy cartons of 18 to make sure I always have enough eggs on hand for a quick meal
  • Dairy: yogurt for snacking and breakfast; one or two kinds of cheese; butter
  • Bread: small, soft flour tortillas; breakfast breads; sandwich rolls and pizza dough for the freezer
  • Pantry: various dried pastas; canned beans and tomatoes; tomato puree; chicken stock; olive oil and vinegar; salsas, sauces and condiments that you enjoy (or make your own); nuts and dried fruit

A Quick Soup for Lunch or Anytime

I have been trying to eat more soup lately, at least for one meal a day. When I’m feeling a little under the weather and rundown, which seems to be the norm this winter, nothing hits the spot like a bowl of soup. Soup is also filling and an easy way to sneak in lots of veggies.

But it can seem like a chore to make a pot of soup, especially in the middle of a busy day. With just a little planning, though, I can turn leftover cooked meat, vegetables, and pasta or rice into a quick soup anytime.

The most important part of the soup is its base, the stock. A rich, satisfying, full-bodied soup requires a homemade stock. Making stock ahead of time is easy to do. Just let a big pot simmer away while doing other things around the house or, better yet, break out the slow cooker. Here is my method for making stock.

I usually make chicken stock on a Sunday afternoon. After cooling it in the refrigerator, I freeze it in two-cup containers. In the evening, I pop a container of frozen stock into the fridge to defrost overnight, and I’m all ready to make a bowl of soup for lunch the next day. (Defrost more containers if cooking for more than one person.)

When it comes time to make lunch, I compose the soup out of anything I find in the fridge that is either already cooked or will cook quickly. Of course, I make sure that the flavors are well-matched, too. I usually stick to five or fewer ingredients for a simple, nourishing soup. Here are some ideas for what to add:

  • any cooked meat, shredded or sliced small
  • diced bacon, crisped in the soup pot before adding the stock
  • leftover cooked vegetables
  • fresh greens, such as spinach or bok choy
  • canned or fresh tomatoes, diced
  • canned or cooked beans, rinsed
  • boiled or roasted potatoes
  • cooked pasta or rice

Heat 2 cups of stock per person in a large pot over medium. Add the ingredients and let cook at a low simmer for 10-15 minutes to heat through. Finish the soup with a swirl of olive oil, a pat of butter or a sprinkling of grated cheese, plus salt and pepper to taste. Serve with bread or crackers.

Pan-Fried Potatoes

I’m just realizing, since this is the second potato post in a row, we do eat a lot of potatoes around here. Well, why not? Potatoes are tasty, they go with everything, and they lend themselves to an endless variety of cooking methods. If I have to choose between potatoes and bread — and usually I do — I’ll pick potatoes any day.

I made pan-fried potatoes last night to go with a simple cheese omelet. These “home fries” are one of my favorite potato side dishes, because pan-frying is a quick and easy method that is equally appropriate for breakfast or dinner. If you have leftover boiled potatoes, this is a great way to repurpose them.

I usually parboil the potatoes before frying. This ensures that they cook all the way through and that the insides are creamy. I plan on one medium Yukon Gold potato per person. Here is the method:

  1. Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes of about the same size.
  2. Put the potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are just tender but not falling apart–until they can just be pierced with a fork. Drain. (If you want to save the potatoes for later cooking, refrigerate them in cold water in a covered dish.)
  3. Cover the bottom of a cast-iron skillet with a film of oil. Heat the skillet over medium-high. Add the potatoes in a single layer, pressing down with the back of a spatula. Season with salt.
  4. Cook until the potatoes are well-browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip the potatoes in sections and cook the other side until browned. Continue flipping and cooking until they are as browned as you like.

My husband likes these with ketchup, but I think they taste fine all by themselves.

Potato Cake with Fried Eggs

I have gotten out of the habit of posting here lately, mostly because my cooking has not inspired any post ideas. Either I’ve been making tried-and-true recipes that I’ve practically memorized and that I’ve already posted on the blog, or I’ve been trying out new recipes from cookbooks, which I’m not likely to share until I’ve cooked them enough times to make them my own.

I’m going to try to get back in the habit of posting simple dishes as I make them, especially if they are easy enough that they don’t require a formal recipe. This potato cake is one of those dishes. This is more of a technique than an actual recipe, and once you learn it, you can fancy it up all kinds of ways. I topped it with a fried egg for a breakfast-for-dinner dish. A simple green salad would make a good accompaniment.

I used 1 medium Yukon Gold potato per person. Peel the potatoes and shred them using the shredding disk of a food processor. Rinse the potatoes to remove excess starch, then wrap them in a dishcloth and squeeze well to get rid of the excess moisture. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium with a couple of pats of butter in it. For 2 potatoes, a 10-inch skillet is a good size. Once the butter has melted, add the potatoes and smooth them out to fill the skillet. Cover the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet and let cook another 5 minutes or so, until the potatoes are browned on the bottom.

Slide the potatoes out onto a plate and add another couple of pats of butter to the skillet to melt. Place another plate upside down on top of the first one with the potatoes, and then invert the plates. Slide the potatoes, uncooked side down, back into the pan, and cook another 5 minutes or until the bottom has browned. Let the potatoes cool off the heat for a minute or two, and then slice into wedges to serve.

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