Dinner on a Deadline: Week 1 – Get organized

Posted by Anita on 05.07.10 6:55 AM

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.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*

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.

DinneronaDeadline-logo

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.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*

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:

  1. Thaw the stock in the fridge, if frozen.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.) 
  2. Warm the leeks in a skillet with just a splash of added water.
  3. Mince the chives.
  4. Bring the chicken broth to a lively simmer and whisk in the Parmesan.
  5. Just before you’re ready to serve, soft-poach the eggs.
  6. 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.)

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, 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. [LM: you can also rinse the leeks after slicing in half lengthwise and before slicing. It's easier to do than rinsing the slices if you leave them connected at the top. Then you can just shake off before slicing]I generally slice my leeks and submerge them in water to clean – having done it both ways I think it removes more grit. Just my $.02 :) -Jennifer Hess 5/6/10 12:31 PM [AC: I agree with JenH; I've tried it both ways. Plus, the extra water isn't an issue here.] 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:

  1. Thaw the stock in the fridge, if frozen.
  2. Grate the Parmesan cheese with your finest grater, and refrigerate. (We use a Microplane, so it melts almost instantly.) [ST: Do you really? Does it not affect the texture and flavor too much to grate it that far in advance?] [AC: I don't grate the whole wedge, but if I'm using it within the day I don't notice a difference.]

When you’re ready for dinner:

  1. 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.) [ST: This is something I might put in the make-ahead category. If I'm making any kind of grain, I make more than I need, and use it over a few meals. Quinoa holds up well.][AC: I actually find premade quinoa to be gluier than I like, but I'd love it if you could add your experience in the comments once the post goes up.]
  2. Warm the leeks in a skillet with just a splash of added water.
  3. Mince the chives.
  4. Bring the chicken broth to a lively simmer and whisk in the Parmesan.
  5. Just before you’re ready to serve, soft-poach the eggs.
  6. 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 cheese, farm eggs, homemade stock)
- Breaking prep tasks across multiple days (pre-cooking the melted leeks, pre-grating the cheese, etc.)

cooking, Dinner on a Deadline, meatless, recipes
29 Comments »

 

29 Comments

Comment by Chuck

Great way to get started! Planning ahead is something I’ve said I was going to do for years but, um, haven’t.

I’m all for Ruhlman’s manifesto and I love to cook, but after a 60-90 minute commute home that sometimes doesn’t get me in my door until 7:30pm, I just don’t wanna. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. :)

One trick that’s worked well for us is getting a biweekly delivery of organic fruit and vegetables. The service we use is called Spud (formerly Organic Express), and the selection is seasonal. It’s not enough for two weeks of daily meals, but it’s enough to have a starter for several of them, plus fruit for breakfast or dessert. (We got three different kinds of berries this week.) There’sa always *something* in the fridge to work with. Anything else I need that I think of at the last minute I just grab at the corner market on the way home.

Posted on 05.07.10 at 8:12AM

Comment by Laura

Thanks for the reminder that I should get back in the habit of meal planning. When I do dinner goes so much smoother and we don’t end up eating random leftovers combined with whatever veggie we have on hand.

I’m excited to try this recipe (but maybe not on Mike the first time) as I think it’s a big improvement over the leek, cream and egg dish I was playing with all winter. That one I never did find a happy version of, plus serving it to your lactose intolerant spouse is just kind of cruel.

Thanks!

Posted on 05.07.10 at 8:31AM

Comment by Jennifer Jeffrey

Anita, I love everything about this post, especially this line about stocking interesting stuff – amazing how well that works!

You inspired my breakfast this morning, in fact. I made a poached egg over corkscrew rice pasta, with chunks of feta, loads of sauteed green onions & fresh thyme. Simple and delicious.

Posted on 05.07.10 at 8:59AM

Comment by Jessamyn

Your approach is similar to our own. Before our grocery trip every weekend we look at our calendar for appointments and see which nights we’ll actually be cooking. I usually make a soup on Monday morning, since I work a late shift, which means my husband can just heat up dinner and the leftovers give us lunches. Then we figure out meals for the remaining days based on what we’re trying to use up and what we think will be available at the store. We seldom waste food, and always have some individual portions in the freezer for emergencies. We usually leave Friday night open in case we feel like going out, but have pasta or burger fixings available as a backup. It works pretty well.

Posted on 05.07.10 at 9:37AM

Comment by Nelson W

Wow!

To quote my first boss: Anita, not only are you a genius, but you’re a f%^&$ng genius!

Great entry, with much food for thought, or visa versa.

Posted on 05.07.10 at 9:49AM

Comment by Michael Procopio

I feel like a complete barbarian when I compare my eating habits to yours. So I’ve simply stopped comparing myself to you.

I am so fascinated by parmesan broth that I could just spit– it looks amazing.

Posted on 05.07.10 at 9:56AM

Comment by S

Great start to a cool project, so much good information here.

One thing I love about meal planning (and its often just a scribble on the bottom of the grocery list) is that it helps you plan for using leftovers, AND when you do have leftovers, you remember how old they are :)

Posted on 05.08.10 at 6:47PM

Comment by The Raven

What a fabulous-sounding meal! Thnks for all the tips for this week in the kitchen.

Posted on 05.10.10 at 10:17AM

Comment by Ellen

Quick question: Do you want us to post our response to the challenge, then leave a link here in your comment section?

Posted on 05.10.10 at 4:55PM

Comment by jeannebee

It really comes down to the planning part so what I need to do is work on doing that task. That would help me out a lot. First you left out where does a girl go to find the pasta & salad maker? I can get started immediately following! :-)

Posted on 05.10.10 at 5:57PM

Comment by Anita

Chuck: I agree that a CSA box or similar like you get is a great way to keep the fridge stocked with likely suspects. Before I learned to cook on the fly, though, the box felt like a time-sensitive problem. Once you know how to put meals together on your own, without a recipe, it’s a great resource.

Laura: With all the fresh eggs you have, this is a shoo-in for you!

Jennifer: That sounds amazing — you know how I love the savory breakfast.

Jessamyn: That’s great that you’ve found a system and a rotation that works for you. Makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Nelson: Flattery will get you everywhere, my friend.

Michael P: The Parmesan broth couldn’t be easier. All you need is a Microplane and a whisk.

S: Indeed — managing leftovers (cooked or raw ingredients) is a great side benefit.

Raven: Thank you! Glad to have you joining us.

Ellen: Everyone should feel free to participate, blog or no blog. If you want to post about your experiences, that would be great! And yes, please do let us know how it’s going.

Jeanne: You make an excellent point. Anyone who’s planning on her own should use menu-planning night as a worthy excuse for their favorite take-out option, or a meal from the freezer. (More on the latter, later.)

—-

Just to clarify — I won’t be recapping each week (I specifically didn’t want call it a challenge, because really getting dinner on the table each week is challenge enough!) but at the end of the series we’ll have a blog event where I’ll encourage everyone to post — and I will recap that.

I would love to hear how it’s going for everyone — if posting to your own blog and leaving a comment or trackback here is easiest, that’s great!

Posted on 05.11.10 at 6:50AM

Pingback by Married …with dinner » Blog Archive » Dinner on a Deadine: A little housekeeping

[...] the menu planning homework going? We’d love to hear about your successes and your struggles, either here in the [...]

Posted on 05.11.10 at 9:11AM

Comment by katie

I’m so glad to know I’m not alone in my (possibly) obsessive menu planning! My husband and friends are all more than a little amused by my list making habits, and my menu/grocery planning in particular. But, with a fairly brutal commute and time in the kitchen as my way to unwind from the day, making dinner every night is so important to me – but if we’re not eating in under an hour, I’m almost out of evening. I’m excited to get some new ideas, and perhaps share a few of my strategies.

Posted on 05.11.10 at 7:47PM

Comment by Amber

I love your article, although the picture of the poached egg dish scared me a bit :)

I have to do meal planning if I want my husband and daughter to have any decent food while I’m at work at night. I only plan three meals a week, so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

My one suggestion to your readers would be to keep the simplest meal for later in the week when you’re feeling warn out. Many times, I’ve tried to save a great dish for Thursday or Friday, only to let it go to waste because I was too wiped out from work/life/debauchery.

Can’t wait to read the rest of your series!

Posted on 05.11.10 at 8:33PM

Comment by Anita

Katie: That’s a great tip! I usually leave the recipe I am most excited about for the hardest night, so I motivate myself, but your way makes sense, too. It’s all about finding the system that gets dinner on the table, and everyone’s motivations are different.

Amber: don’t fear the egg! It could just as easily be a small piece of poached fish, or some pulled chicken or a piece of seared tofu… we’ll talk more about recipe improvisation later in the series.

Posted on 05.11.10 at 9:12PM

Comment by Catherine

Ooooh this is so good! I now want an iPhone for the menu planning app alone! Although I’m sure I can do just as well with your Dinner on a Deadline series. I love it!

Posted on 05.12.10 at 2:08AM

Comment by emily s

I’m a planner, but that part of me hasn’t yet spilled over into my meal ideas… I’m more spontaneous there… but I need the motivation to plan better! Thanks for the great ideas : )

Posted on 05.12.10 at 5:10AM

Comment by Gudrun

I have been posting my menus on Mondays for the last year – mostly to manage our veggie box from Two Small Farms. It is such a time saver, and we waste far less food. Plus, lunch leftovers are way more exciting than a boring sandwich. Most of my friends think I am nuts, I try to explain how nice it is to have a plan ahead of time….

Posted on 05.12.10 at 11:02AM

Comment by tea_austen

I think this all is brilliant, but you already knew that:-)

What I really wanted to say is that the leek, quinoa, egg dish is wonderful! Just made it for lunch—simple and sophisticated. Brilliant!

Posted on 05.12.10 at 4:02PM

Comment by Amera

Fantastic series! Just got this week’s homework up! http://marocmama.blogspot.com/2010/05/shrimp-tajine.html

Posted on 05.19.10 at 6:34AM

Comment by Phoo-d

What a lovely recipe. It sounds perfect for a delicious weeknight dinner. I love seeing how you plan everything out. I try to maintain a similar approach but really should plan before the farmer’s market not afterwards! That is a great tip.

Posted on 05.24.10 at 1:58PM

Pingback by Reflections on Meal Planning « Family Foodie Survival Guide

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Posted on 06.06.10 at 8:47AM

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[...] July 20, 2010 Moving into the MidAtlantic Midsummer….CSA Week 7 Posted by food4five under Local Foods, Sustainable Eating Leave a Comment  So, it’s week 7 for our CSA….and the eating will be good this week. We are moving to mid-summer produce.  Corn and tomatos, as well as chard, squash, lettuce, basil, carrots, and cucumbers.  The picture below only captures some of what was in our overflowing bag this afternoon. Some of the corn and the lettuce have been consumed already…and I need to plan the use of the remaining ears of corn  – not enough for each of us to have an ear, but plenty to use as a key ingredient to something else…perhaps a black bean salad?!  I imagine that there will be more pesto prepared, as well as our “standard”  cucumber, tomato, and feta salad (maybe with some corn tossed in), sauteed Swiss chard, zucchini bread…and I think that I’d really like to try the summer squash fritters that were on our CSA’s newsletter a couple of weeks ago.  I also saw a recipie for a zucchini and tomato tart that I want to try…. And we’ll have to serve some thick sliced tomatos with basil and balsamic vinegar for salad one night.  And for the carrots, we should make the honey carrot medallions that are such a hit with the picky eater.  Ahh… I think I’m getting into the menu planning space that my fellow blogger at Married….with Dinner recommended. [...]

Posted on 07.20.10 at 5:25PM

Comment by Jenny

It’s been really hard for me to get organized for a whole week of grocery shopping. I haven’t been able to get it together very easily, but I find that it is really rewarding when I can DO it! I love it.

Posted on 07.25.10 at 9:47AM

Pingback by Soups A Plenty! › shutterbean

[...] Melted Leeks and Quinoa with Poached Farm Egg & Parmesan Broth from Married with Dinner [...]

Posted on 12.02.10 at 5:16PM

Pingback by Melted Leeks | What Happens After Five

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Posted on 01.05.11 at 3:06AM

Pingback by Melted Leeks and Quinoa with Poached Farm Egg and Parmesan Broth « One Messy Kitchen

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Posted on 09.05.12 at 8:37PM

Comment by Melissa

I just wanted to say thanks so much for posting this recipe, I blogged about it here: http://onemessykitchen.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/melted-leeks-and-quinoa-with-poached-farm-egg-and-parmesan-broth/

Its one of my favs, I’ve made it so many times. My hubby loves it and thinks its very creative. We love the addition of the poached egg!

Posted on 09.09.12 at 12:21PM

Comment by Melissa

You’re photos are GORGEOUS by the way. Its what made me want to eat this so badly the first time I saw it :)

Posted on 09.09.12 at 12:22PM

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