Last month, our friend Morgan Weber — who runs Revival Meats in Houston — came to town to talk shop with his Bay Area cohorts. He visited a who’s-who list of our local charcuterie shops and sustainable butchers, hitting up Fatted Calf, Boccalone, Bi-Rite Market, Prather Ranch, and a number of other carnivore havens. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I think it’s safe to say that one of the highlights of his trip was the Saturday afternoon spent at Hudson Ranch, a trip Morgan generously invited us to share.
Ranch manager Scott Boggs escorted us around Hudson’s spread, showing us both their hog and poultry sites, as well as their CSA vegetable farm. Hudson is primary known as a winery — their wines are cult favorites — but Scott came on board 2007 specifically to manage the edibles at Hudson Ranch. A veteran of The French Laundry’s garden operation as well as its kitchen, Scott brings true farm-to-table experience to the ranch; he understands what chefs want and need to see coming through the kitchen door.
We started our tour near the ranch offices, just off the main Carneros Highway. Our first stop — as Morgan was in town specifically to see them — was a pen full of dalmatian-spotted piglets, a litter born from an Old Spots sow mated to a boar of wilder heritage. Anyone with lingering doubts about how ethical meat can be would have been happy to see what we saw: A spacious, shaded pen with lots of room for piglets to play and plenty of room for their mama to move around (though she kept her snout in the trough during our whole visit), plus a view across to a beautiful lake and rolling hills beyond.
Down the road a piece, we got to peek in on a gaggle of chicks: babies in their boxes, and adolescents in their indoor roosts. By now, some of these birds are out on pasture, scratching away and fattening up for Chez Panisse and other local tables. A little further away, we trekked down a winding dirt road to check in on the CSA fields, where the first corn and tomato seedlings were already reaching for the sun.
We’re lucky that we were already eating lots of Hudson Ranch-raised food, even before we had any idea who they were. Hudson Ranch supplies Fatted Calf with some of their pork and poultry. (They also sell chickens and game hens to many restaurants you’d recognize.) The pig from Cameron’s birthday pig-roast last year was a Hudson, as were two of our last three Thanksgiving turkeys. Hudson also makes an award-winning olive oil, and they stock the produce shop at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, in addition to supplying their CSA members’ weekly produce boxes.
One of my new year’s resolutions for 2010 was to eat more food grown by people we know. It wasn’t just born from a desire to eat more local food — we’re pretty much doing that all the time, now — but out of the realization that the closer we are to the source of our meals, the more satisfying they are for us. Even before last year, when we had the pleasure of picking our own tomatoes at Mariquita Farm, we were well acquainted with Julia, our Thursday night “casual CSA” farmer. And of course we had the privilege of helping Alexis and Eric after their devastating fire at Soul Food Farm, where our CSA chickens and eggs start out. We’ve toured Marin Sun Farms with Dave Evans, and seen where much of our beef, chicken, and pastured eggs come from.
Every time we open a quart jar of tomatoes, I’m reminded of the drive we took down to Watsonville and the morning we spent picking the very ripest Beefsteaks. When we enjoy a perfect omelette, a crisp roast chicken, or a plate of freshly dug new potatoes, we take a certain pride in knowing where it the ingredients came from, and in doing right by the food and the farmers who grew it. It may seem corny, but when we take a particularly delicious bite of food, we often thank the farmers, the ones who bring our daily feasts. I’m glad we can add Scott and his beautiful ranch to our roster of farmers we know.
5398 Carneros Highway
Napa, California 94559
(by appointment only)
@HudsonRanch on Twitter
Morgan and Stacey Weber are friends of many years; Revival Meats is an editing client.
Hudson Ranch sent us a bottle of olive oil earlier this year as part of a media promotion.
This post is the third of 12 installments in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.
There are entire books (and at least one blog) devoted to the idea that recipes are the problem, not the solution. Rather than cheerful assistants, the theory goes, recipes can be tyrannical oppressors, stifling creativity and causing culinary heartache.
Though I’d never go that far myself — my cookbooks and recipe binders are a source of wonderful inspiration, and a great resource for those rare days when I have plenty of time to spend in the kitchen — I definitely see the value of dispensing with recipes for many everyday meals.
When it comes to no-recipes meals, there are plenty of old standbys. On Twitter, I asked what readers like to make when they cook without recipes. Nearly everyone named at least one dish that falls into the category our friends Sean and DPaul call leftovers velcro: Omelettes and frittatas filled with bits of cheese and herbs, a chef’s salad with cold roast chicken and a few crumbles of bleu cheese, hearty soups made from stock and the assorted contents of the vegetable bin.
All of these are good, simple meals, and I love them because creative re-use is both easy on the wallet and environmentally fabulous. But cooking without recipes can be much more than just a way to clear out your fridge. It’s a way of thinking about ingredients that gives you basic formulas for easy suppers, and a platform for improvising even as you plan. If you stock your pantry well, you can combine protein, starch, and seasonal vegetables in dozens of ways.
Here’s one example that makes use of our favorite pasta + pork + greens trinity: Simmer pasta of your choice. Meanwhile, sauté sausage, bacon, ham, or ground pork; remove the cooked meat with a slotted spoon. Using the same skillet, sauté a clove or two of minced garlic in the rendered fat from the meat; add legumes or greens (examples: shredded kale, chopped broccoli raab, sliced sugar-snap peas, cooked cannellini) and sauté until tender, adding a little stock or water to steam the firmer items. When the pasta’s done, toss everything together, adding a splash of stock or cream. Sprinkle with herbs and/or Parmesan cheese and you’re good to go. (Two favorite variations on this theme include Orecchiete with Broccoli di Ciccio and Italian sausage, and Pasta e Fagioli with ‘Nduja.)
This method also works great with international flavors. For an Asian-style meal, sauté a quick-marinated protein (sliced meat, shrimp, or tofu tossed with soy sauce, sherry, sesame oil, and a bit of cornstarch) in peanut oil; remove with a slotted spoon. Sauté garlic and greens (such as long beans, bok choy, spinach) until tender. Stir in a regionally appropriate flavor enhancer (like curry paste, oyster sauce, chili-garlic sauce), then add the meat back into the pan and heat through; serve over rice or noodles. If you prefer a Tex-Mex variation, you can make fajitas: Grill or sauté chicken or steak strips, add sauteed peppers and onions, and serve with tortillas. Once you have the basics down, the variations are only limited by your imagination and the depth of your pantry.
This week’s homework
No-recipe novices: Plan at least two meals for the upcoming week, including at least one no-recipe dinner. Make use of your newly organized pantry staples.
Extra for experts: Take one of your existing no-recipe meals and adapt it into something new. For example: If you usually use pasta as the base, turn it into a stir-fry over rice. Or, add an ethnic twist, use a different protein, or make some other modification that will push your creativity.
This week’s recipe
I realize that this goes entirely against the spirit of the lesson, giving you a real recipe with measurements and timing. But for anyone new to the no-recipes concept, it’s useful to see how it works. After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be able to come up with your own variations, judging quantities and timing by eye.
We made this dish — a Food 52 category winner — for a midweek supper with our friend Meriko; we liked it so much we had it again this week. (The fact that we’ve got a bumper crop of sugar-snap peas helps, too.) The second time around, we were out of mint and low on cream, so we swapped in some parsley and chicken stock; we liked the fresher end result even better. Feel free to make your own substitutions depending on what you have on hand or what strikes your fancy.
Creamy Pasta with Prosciutto and Snap Peas
- adapted from Food 52
For each 3 servings; multiply as needed
6 to 8oz dry shaped pasta (preferrably shells, orechiette, or other cup-shaped pasta)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 T olive oil
2oz prosciutto, lonza, or country ham, thickly sliced (1/4-inch minimum) then minced
2 small shallots, minced
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup unsalted stock
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for the table
1/4 pound fresh sugar-snap peas, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
2T to 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large saucepan, bring salted pasta water to a boil while prepping the various ingredients. (If it comes to a boil before you’re ready, cover and reduce heat to low.) When everything is ready to go, add the pasta to the boiling water.
In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When shimmering, add the garlic and cook until just softened. Add the minced prosciutto and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Add the shallots; continue cooking until softened. If at any point the garlic or shallots start to brown, add a splash of water and/or turn down the heat. When cooked through, season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Amounts will vary greatly depending on how salty your pork is.) If there are more than 3 minutes left on the pasta timer, reduce the skillet heat to low, or remove the pan from heat, depending on how long you have left.
When your pasta is about 3 minutes away from being done, add the peas to the proscuitto mixture and cook for 2 minutes over medium heat, until just tender. With one minute remaining, raise the heat to high; add the cream and stock, and bring to a boil while stirring. Add the Parmesan, stir to combine, and reduce the heat to low.
Drain the pasta, and add to the sauce; toss to coat. If the sauce is loose, simmer over medium-high heat until it coats the pasta. Sprinkle liberally with fresh herbs, and serve with black pepper and extra Parmesan.
Rhubarb when raw is so tough
And its leaves contain poisonous stuff,
- But when cleaned and de-soiled
- Dipped in sugar and boiled
Then the stalks are quite tasty enough.
- — The Rhubarb Compendium
This month’s CanJam challenge — hosted by Toronto Tasting Notes — offers not one but two options for us to put up: Asparagus or rhubarb. Given that I’d used the former in last month’s project (the theme was herbs, and I made tarragon asparagus pickles), my path was clear.
I know that some of my friends (including both of the people who I consider my pie gurus) will disown me when I admit this, but I’m not generally a fan of rhubarb’s texture; I just can’t tolerate the usual sliminess. I love its tart fruitiness, so I’ve learned a trick or two for keeping it firm in desserts, but canning it in a water bath — the whole point of the CanJam — would undo all of those careful preparations.
But there are a few preserves, like flavored syrups, where the pulp of the fruit (or vegetable, in this case) is strained out, leaving just the juice and its flavor behind. Best of all, syrups are simple to preserve, and they’re a compact way to save the flavors of seasonal produce for enjoyment throughout the year. You can also freeze syrups, if — unlike me — you’ve got the space to safely stash a glass bottle.
You can use this flavored syrup any place a sweet-spicy-sour touch would be welcome, something as simple as brushing it onto a cake, or diluting it with sparkling water for a homemade soda. To my mind, its perfect use is making a pink variation on the venerable summer drink known as the Paloma (or even a virgin variation, sans tequila).
- makes 1 jar to keep, plus a little to use right away; can easily be doubled or tripled
1.5 cups white sugar
1 cup water
2 cups thick-sliced rhubarb stalks, leaves discarded
1 cup chopped ginger (no need to peel)
Prepare canner (or a saucepan deep enough to cover the jar by 3 inches), plus a small jam jar and its lid, according to the usual method; keep jar and lid hot until needed.
In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring to dissolve. Add the rhubarb and ginger; return to a simmer, then reduce heat and let slowly bubble until the rhubarb is thoroughly soft. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, line a metal strainer with cheesecloth, and place it over a heatproof bowl. (If you want crystal-clear syrup, use a muslin jelly bag and be prepared to wait for gravity to draw the liquid into the bowl; be careful not to press or squeeze the solids.)
Bring the strained syrup back to a simmer, then pour into the heated jar, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Wipe rim and center lid on jar. Screw band to fingertip-tight.
Place jar in canner. Bring to a boil; process covered for 5 minutes. Remove lid, wait 5 minutes, then remove jar. Cool, check seal, and store in a cool, dark place.
La Paloma Rosada
1.5 to 2oz blanco tequila
1/2 oz rhubarb-ginger syrup
tart grapefruit soda (such as Izze Grapefruit)
Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add the tequila and syrup; fill with grapefruit soda, and give a good stir. Top the ice with a few shakes of bitters.
This post is the second of 12 installments in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.
So, gang — how’s the menu planning going? From my point of view, the homework looks great! Between the comments on last week’s post and the Twitter stream, I’ve seen some good menu plans, lots of delicious meals made from items already on hand, and many good tips for weeknight dinner prep. So let’s move on with some more ideas for getting food on the table.
One of the most powerful weapons in the weeknight-dinner arsenal is a well-stocked pantry. Now, when I say “pantry”, I hear all the small-kitchen cooks groan. But a pantry doesn’t have to be large or lavish to be effective — even a single, dedicated shelf next to the dishes is better than nothing. No matter whether you have an enormous pantry or a tiny one, keeping staples on hand encourages spontaneous meals and lets you shift gears quickly when your weeknight throws you a curve. And, stocking up is especially important if you’re not a particularly dedicated meal planner.
Once you stock your pantry, keeping it up to date needs to be a continuous process. At our house, we opt for the instant-replacement method: If we use, say, a package of penne, we add penne to the grocery list and buy it on our very next trip to the store. When we get down to the last few ounces of soy sauce, it goes on the list, too. We never wait until we need a staple item to replace it. In the case of items we use a lot, we even keep backups on hand when space permits.
Speaking of space: The elephant in the room here is that most people’s pantries (including mine, until I tidied it up last weekend) look like a disaster area. Once you clear away the clutter, you may find yourself with a lot more storage space than you thought you had. With this in mind, the first real step in stocking the pantry is a thorough clean-up. I know the idea of spending your precious kitchen time tackling a long-postponed chore isn’t terribly appealing, but the payoff is huge. Even the most rudimentary kitchen organization helps make it fun to cook, instead of a hassle. Once you’ve got your kit organized, you won’t have to dig through a mess to find things when you need them quickly. You’ll also have a better idea of what you have, and what you’re missing.
When it comes to quick weeknight dinners, staples are key. There are a few million articles online dedicated to stocking your pantry. (Simple Bites has a good one, with links to many others.) Every site’s list is a little different — and they should be. There’s no one right way to fill your shelves; the important thing is that you figure out the kinds of meals you eat (or want to eat) and stock for them. Personally, I don’t like to rely a lot on the canned soups, commercially frozen vegetables, and other industrial products that some of the lists include. You know your own tastes better than I do; look through a few lists, and use them as a jumping off point.
Here’s what our pantry typically contains:
• In the fridge: Eggs, cheese (something melty plus a hard cheese like Parmesan), bacon, milk, sour cream, kimchi and/or sauerkraut, tortillas, bread, butter, mushrooms, olives, mustard, peanut & almond butters, maple syrup
• In the garden: Fresh herbs, lettuce, carrots, radishes, celery, lemons, green onions, one or two seasonal vegetables (peas, tomatoes, etc.)
• In the cupboard: Pastas, rices, polenta, dry beans, posole, coconut milk, chiles (pickled/dry), tomatoes, pressure-canned chicken stock, pickles & preserves, soy sauce & fish sauce, canned tuna, shallots & onions, garlic, ginger, potatoes, crackers, tortilla chips, nuts, salsas, herbs & spices, oils & vinegars, baking supplies
• In the freezer: Precooked beans and grains; pie and pizza doughs; pasta sauces; curry pastes; leftover bread/buns; leftover cooked meat; precooked meatballs; quick-thawing raw proteins (ham cubes, chicken parts, sirloin tips, ground meat, duck confit) in meal-size packs; sausages (Italian, chorizo, breakfast, ‘nduja); pancetta & guanciale; butter; blanched garden veggies; ice cubes of many types: chicken stock, lemon and lime juice, egg whites, tomato sauce/paste, chipotle en adobo, etc.
(I know there’s a a lot of untapped detail in that last bullet item; we’ll talk more about stocking the freezer later in the series.)
Looking at our list, you can probably already see that, even without a recipe, I can get a number of basic dinners on the table using just what we have on hand. This week, I made a simple Asian-style noodle dish using beef from the freezer and a bunch of items from the pantry, plus a few vegetables from our farm box. Pretty much once a week — and more often when we’ve been traveling or otherwise unable to get to the farmers market — we eat this way, “shopping” from the items we’ve put aside for quick weeknight meals.
Once you have a well-stocked larder, you’ll be amazed at how handily you’re able to put together meals, even when you’ve got “nothing” in the house. After just a few weeks of building meals from what you’ve got on hand, you’ll start to develop a repertoire of pantry-based suppers.
In addition to this week’s recipe below, here are a few meals we make using pantry staples and just one or two fresh ingredients:
- Simple chilaquiles
- Fondue mac & cheese
- Weeknight paella
- Korean-style tacos
- Deep-dish pizza
- Pasta carbonara
- Pea and proscuitto risotto
- Pasta with leafy broccoli and sausage
- Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup)
- Ham, chickpea, and orzo salad
- Chorizo, potato, and mushroom tacos
That’s not an exhaustive list, by the way — that’s just the pantry-centric ideas we’ve already blogged about. Once you’ve got your own pantry stocked, you’ll see the possibilities and patterns in your own meals.
This week’s homework
Novice pantry-stockers: Organize your pantry space: Take everything out and put it on the counters, wipe down the shelves, and then put things back in an order than makes sense based on the way you use them. Same thing with the fridge and the freezer — they’re an extension of your pantry, after all. Give away (to the food bank / coworkers / freecycle) anything you don’t want to eat that’s taking up space. Think about the kinds of meals you like to eat, make a list of what’s missing, and stock up as your budget permits. Plan and cook at least two meals, each using a pantry ingredient you already have.
Extra for experts: Tackle the organization project above, plus one of these two options: (1) Write a post about at least 5 items in your pantry, and why they’ve earned a permanent spot on your shelves. (2) Buy yourself one splurge-worthy ingredient (Calabrian chiles, a new kind of rice, heirloom beans, etc.) and cook with it, using at least two existing pantry ingredients that you’ve let languish.
This week’s recipe
I love this recipe — which really is more like a template — because it’s so flexible. Don’t have beef? Use the same quantity of sliced chicken, butterflied shrimp, ground pork, or tofu cubes. You can use pretty much any Asian noodle, too: Fresh, dry, egg, wheat, rice, curly, straight — they all work, so long as you’ve got close to the right quantity going into the wok. Any crunchy vegetables can take the place of the peas; we’ve used boy choy pieces, green beans, and celery cut on the bias; don’t be afraid to experiment.
When it comes to Thai-style curry paste; we like the Mae Ploy brand that comes in a plastic tub (it keeps almost forever in the freezer if you roll up the inside bag tightly); this recipe is especially good with the red and yellow varieties, but it’s flexible enough to use what you’ve got. Heat and saltiness vary widely, though, so if you’re using another brand, start out with less paste; if you find the end result is a little bland, spike it up with some fish sauce and/or chile flakes at the table, and make a note to adjust the recipe the next time. I like to mix it up by using half red curry paste and half peanut butter, which makes an especially tasty combination for little kids or other spice-phobic eaters.
This recipe can be made by one focused cook in less than 30 minutes from start to finish, but to streamline the post-work chaos, I generally do all of the prep the night before, then store all of the measured and cut ingredients in the fridge overnight.
Thai Curry Beef Noodles
- adapted from Big Bowl Noodles and Rice
For two servings — multiply as needed:
4 to 6 oz dry Asian wheat or egg noodles (for substitutions, see end of instructions)
Peanut or vegetable oil
6 oz beef (such as flank steak or sirloin tip) sliced thin across the grain into 2-inch lengths
1-1/2 tsp dark soy sauce (we like Kimlan Super Special)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/3 cup homemade chicken stock (or water — canned broth is too salty)
1-2T fish sauce (depending on the saltiness of the curry paste)
1T fresh lime juice
1-1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 to 1 red chile (such as Fresno), julienned
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
a handful (12 to 15) snow or snap peas, cut in half on the diagonal
1 to 2T Thai curry paste (depending on how hot you like it; you can use half peanut butter)
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped
a few tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a boil and cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain, run under cold water, drain again, and toss with a teaspoon of peanut oil; set aside.
Mix the beef with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and sesame oil. In a separate bowl, mix the chicken stock with the fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar and whisk to blend. Set both the mixtures aside.
Heat 1/2 cup oil in a wok (or your largest skillet) over high heat until very hot but not smoking; add the beef, stirring to separate the slices. Using a slotted spoon or a spider, remove the meat to a clean plate when still pink in the center. Pour off the oil into a heatproof bowl.
Wipe the wok clean and return it to the burner over high heat. When hot, add 2T of the reserved oil. Add the chiles, onions, and peas; cook, tossing rapidly, until well coated with the oil. Scoot the vegetables to the side of the wok and add the curry paste to the bottom. Stir the paste around briefly in the oil to release the flavor. Add the seasoned stock mixture; bring to a boil, stirring or whisking to distribute the curry paste. Then, add the noodles.
Cook, tossing the noodles until mixed with the sauce and vegetables. Add the beef and toss briefly until everything is heated through and well mixed. Remove the cooked noodles to a platter, sprinkle with peanuts and chopped cilantro, and serve.
If you want to substitute other noodles, keep in mind that fresh noodles gain very little mass when cooked, where dry pastas can double or triple in size. You want 8 to 10 oz of cooked noodles for two servings. If you find you’ve prepped too many noodles, they keep for a day or two in the fridge, provided they’re tossed liberally in oil and well covered. They make a great snack or lunch when reheated with a little peanut butter, a splash of water or stock, and a sprinkling of chili flakes.
This is a housekeeping post in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.
How’s the menu planning homework going? We’d love to hear about your successes and your struggles, either here in the comments, or — if you’re blogging — with a trackback to your post. And, if you have any menu planning questions (either from us or other readers), we’ll get them answered.
(Oh, and that beautiful weeknight dinner to the left? That’s our riff on Shauna and Dan‘s asparagus and walnut salad, one of the most interesting and hearty salads I’ve enjoyed in a long time. We used thyme and Parmesan in place of their tarragon and mizithra. Sometimes you’ve gotta improvise to get dinner on the table.)
I’d originally thought to post new Dinner on a Deadline topics on Fridays, to give people a chance to use the weekend for their homework. But after realizing that most of you are coming here on Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m going to adjust the posting schedule. This way, you’ll have the week to think about homework (and tackle it, if your schedule permits) and then the weekend to kick it into gear before the next post goes up on the following Monday. But don’t let my posting schedule pin you down; you should feel free to tackle each of the projects on your own pace.
Recaps (or not):
A couple of commenters have asked where they should post their homework, which took me (pleasantly) by surprise because I hadn’t really expected participants to post weekly updates — although I am flattered that you would, and I will love to read them all. Please do leave a comment on the appropriate post so that other readers can follow along. I won’t be recapping each week; getting a new Dinner on a Deadline post up each week is about all I can handle at this point. But at the end of the series we’ll have a blog event where I’ll encourage everyone to post their graduation homework — and I will recap those posts in a final roundup.
I’ve got a new Twitter account — @DeadlineDinners — that you can follow if you want to know when each Dinner on a Deadline post is live, or to get midweek updates. Our existing @MarriedWDinner account will stay focused on the usual mix of food and blather.
This post is the first of 12 installments in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you like to cook. But there’s some evil alchemy that happens on a weeknight, after a long day of work; even avid cooks lose their mojo when dinner starts to feel like drudgery. Although I’m not a planner by nature (really, I swear — stop snickering!), I’ve developed a routine that helps me fend off kitchen ennui. By mapping out our weeknight meals in advance, and making sure I have everything I need to keep things moving, I feel less harried and enjoy cooking more.
In the same way that it’s always easier to cook when you’ve done your mise en place first, it’s always easier to tackle menu planning when you’ve done a little legwork in advance. During the week, make a file of recipes that catch your eye as you’re reading magazines, blogs, and cookbooks. Then, figure out a way to get yourself at least a half an hour when you won’t be interrupted, so you can focus on your task. Clear off your desk or the table, then sit down with your calendar and your cookbooks, magazine clippings, and bookmarks. At our house, I work on menu planning on Fridays, the night before our favorite farmers market. To free up my time, Cameron fixes a garden salad and his choice of pasta — using pantry staples and homemade sauces from the freezer — while I plan dinners for the coming week.
To make menu planning less daunting, I have a few stock meals slotted into in the schedule. In addition to our regular Friday pasta night, on Tuesdays — when Cameron has band rehearsal — we usually reheat something from the freezer, like sloppy joes, chili, or a hearty soup. Plugging those standbys into my schedule, I have 2/7 of the week taken care of, right off the bat. Next, I block off any nights where we won’t need to cook: Wednesdays are rough days for us, so we often treat ourselves by going out for dinner or grabbing takeout sushi on the way home. We also frequently have some sort of outing during the week — theater tickets, dinner parties, and the like — so I note those, too. Saturdays we typically have plenty of time to spend in the kitchen, so I schedule the most time-consuming meal there, along with any kitchen projects like making big batches of chicken stock, pasta sauces, and other freezer staples. By this point, the week’s filling up nicely, and it’s just a matter of shuffling a mix of old favorites, new ideas, and seasonal inspirations from my clipping file into the remaining days.
It also helps to know what foods are in season in your area, both to minimize shopping hassles, and to keep your budget under control. Many farmers markets feature seasonality calendars on their sites (and yes, there’s an app for that). If you’re worried that your plan includes items that won’t be available, hedge your bets and know what your fallback recipe requires. If I’m planning, say, a fennel salad during a time when I don’t know whether there will be fennel at the market, I’ll make a note on the list of an alternative ingredient (like frisée) that I’m positive I can find.
If this seems like too much work, you can just head to the farmers market or grocery store and buy what looks good, but you’ll want to make sure to browse with a plan in mind. A lot of my friends do this, shopping with a list of categories like “vegetables for 2 dinners, fruit for 4 lunches” rather than an entire menu plan, then deciding when they get home how it all goes together. (I will confess that whenever I shop this way, I inevitably end up missing some key ingredient; I think my friends are better organized than I am!) If you’re not already adept at building meals from the pantry and cooking without recipes, though, you could find yourself with too much of one sort of thing, like tempting-but-perishable vegetables, and not enough of something critical, like meats or starches.
Speaking of surpluses: Meal planning can help prevent food waste and the motivation-sapping guilt that goes with it. I start my planning with a quick fridge inventory. With a list of what’s in the crisper, I can plan the next week’s meals to use up stragglers before they turn to compost.
As funny as it sounds, one of my menu planning secrets is to leave room for a little spontaneity. I always keep at least one night open, allowing us to accept impromptu dinner invitations, indulge a craving, or polish off leftovers.
Just as every cook has a different style, your planning will be different than mine. There’s a universe of software, sites, even iPhone apps designed to help you plan meals; the good ones will create a shopping list automatically as you add recipes to the menu. I find that a little too complicated for my taste; my system involves nothing more than a word-processing document in GoogleDocs with a shopping list down one side and menus down the other. I keep it online so both of us can reference it from anywhere — home, work, the grocery store — in case we need to add to it or shop from it. It doesn’t really matter what system you use, but it needs to work for you.
Have I scared you off yet? If the thought of planning for the whole week seems overwhelming, start with just a couple of planned meals and see how it goes. I think if you plan at least a few meals every week, you’ll begin to see how much easier it is to get dinner on the table without a lot of drama. The more you plan, the less likely you are to push the panic button and find yourself dialing for pizza.
This week’s homework
Novice planners: Plan out at least 2 meals for the coming week. Make a shopping list for your planned meals. Print out the recipes you’ll be using (or flag them in books) so you can find them easily when you hit the kitchen. If the meal you’re planning takes more than 30 minutes of prep, see if you can figure out a way to break it into manageable chunks by prepping parts of the recipe in advance the night before or the morning of.
Extra for experts: If you’re already planning meals ahead of time, this one’s for you: Make at least one full meal this week from what you already have on hand in your fridge, freezer, or pantry, without shopping for anything new. Bonus points for dessert.
This week’s recipe
When my friend Jen and I went to dinner recently at Range, I ordered an appetizer that epitomized spring comfort foods for me. I’m a sucker for anything with an egg on top; the buttery leeks were indulgent, and the Parmesan broth was silky and rich. Looking at the various components, I had a hunch that I could re-create this combination at home.
As I started planning this meal, I was excited to realize I could make it entirely from things I already had on hand, although you certainly could buy them from any good grocery store. (Quinoa, by the way, can often be found in the bulk bins; feel free to substitute brown rice, lentils, or any other small, quick-cooking grain or legume.) With a little reheating and a quick bit of actual cooking, our dinner — a credible duplicate of a dish served at a Michelin-starred restaurant — was on the table in less than 20 minutes.
In the coming weeks, I’ll talk more about stocking your larder so that you can improvise, too. In the meantime, you should be able to make all the components from start to finish in less than an hour, even quicker if you’ve got a helper. If you’d rather do some of the prep work in advance — a topic we’ll discuss in more depth later in the series — I’ve noted how far out you can make that happen. Add a simple salad and a glass of wine, and you’ve got a meal that you’d be proud to serve to anyone.
Melted Leeks and Quinoa with a Poached Farm Egg and Parmesan Broth
- inspired by a first course at Range
For each serving — multiply as needed:
1/3 cup melted leeks
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
1/2 cup simmering chicken stock
a handful of Parmesan cheese, grated as finely as possible (about 1/2oz by weight)
1 extra-large egg
minced chives, for garnish
salt, as needed
Up to a week in advance:
- Make the melted leeks
- Slice the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice the white and light-green parts into half-rings about 1/4- to 1/8-inch thick. Rinse leek slices well in a bowl of running water. Melt butter in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add leeks and a couple of tablespoons of water. Simmer slowly until leeks are tender and almost all water evaporates, adding more water if needed to further soften the leeks. Season well with salt. If using immediately, remove pan from the heat and set aside. Otherwise, cool to room temperature and store for up to a week in the fridge. (2 cups sliced raw leeks + 4T butter makes about 2/3 cup cooked, enough for 2 servings.)
Up to 24 hours in advance:
- Thaw the stock in the fridge, if frozen.
- Grate the Parmesan cheese with your finest grater, and refrigerate. (We use a Microplane zester so the cheese melts almost instantly when it hits the broth.)
When you’re ready for dinner:
- Cook the quinoa. (1.5x water to 1x quinoa, slow-simmered about 20 minutes or until all water evaporates. 1/2 cup quinoa + 3/4 cup water makes 1-1/4 cups cooked, a little more than enough for 2 servings.)
- Warm the leeks in a skillet with just a splash of added water.
- Mince the chives.
- Bring the chicken broth to a lively simmer and whisk in the Parmesan.
- Just before you’re ready to serve, soft-poach the eggs.
- While the eggs are cooking, divide the melted leeks among individual bowls, spreading to cover about 2/3 of the bottom of the bowl. Scoop the quinoa over the leeks, and top each serving with a soft-poached egg. Sprinkle with chives, and pour the Parmesan broth around the edges of the bowl.
Plan-ahead ideas that made this meal easier:
- Having chives in the windowbox
- Stocking interesting stuff in our larder (quinoa, Parmesan, farm eggs, homemade stock)
- Breaking prep tasks across multiple days (pre-cooking leeks, pre-grating cheese, etc.)