Sunday, January 8, 2012

Absence makes the heart grow fonder...maybe?

Hello again and happy new year!  When I abruptly stopped posting over the summer I hadn't intended on staying away so long.  I found that the longer I went without posting, the more difficult it was to return to it because I didn't have any reason for having stopped.  Well, I had a reason, but it was a little hard to admit that the reason I stepped away was because I was cranky about the whole thing.  As an avid home baker, giving up wheat made me rather uncreative in the kitchen on several levels.  I was finding sporadic moments of creativity, but for the most part we ate a lot of bunless burgers, grilled meats over salad, or grilled meats alongside grilled veggies.  It felt very uninspiring and mundane, which makes for an empty blog post: "Here's some okay pictures... and a recipe (of sorts) was pretty good...I guess. I mean, we ate it and all, do you want to?" Not the most riveting of possibilities. 

On top of that fact, I was finding when I did have moments of creativity they were struggles.  Serious struggles.  I have an unfinished post from back in July entitled: "What will I set on fire next?" (it was a rough week). Giving up wheat means looking at baking from a whole new direction, and with very unfamiliar ingredients.  There are tons of blogs and cookbooks devoted to gluten free cooking and I have found several I really like, but I was finding that a lot of them used odd ingredients (gums, extracts, and processed...things) that I would never have bought for regular baking.  I didn't want to purchase those types of ingredients because our purpose of avoiding wheat wasn't to go gluten free, but to avoid processed and refined foods.  That excluded a lot of those ingredients the gluten free website were calling for in their quest to make gluten free recipes taste and feel like the real thing.  To avoid their replacement ingredients, I was flying by the seat of my pants, having a lot of hard landings, and not being able to replicate my results for the sporadic successes. 

Over the months, our commitment to going wheat-less slowly deteriorated.  We never reintroduced breakfast cereals, lunchtime sandwiches, or crackers and such at snack time, but we were definitely incorporating more and more into our diet (it might not sound like it, but trust me, wheat was slowly making a comeback).  Now that the holidays are over (especially my cookie baking extravaganza) we are going to be returning a bit more to our plan, but instead of going wheat-less we are just going to focus on eating less wheat.  The wheat that crept into our dinner plans will be reduced and the desserts with wheat will be less frequent.  Since it won't be missing entirely, I don't have to worry about being a frustrated baker.  I'll probably be baking just as often as before, which is around once every week or two.  Since I won't be using up all my creative energies trying to replace my favorite baked goods, I'll have some left over to apply towards lunches and dinners. (Sorry, breakfast, you miss out. You're still going to be either oatmeal or eggs, I have no patience for creativity in the mornings because I'm sleepwalking until nearly noon).

I think the final reason I walked away for a while was because of the stress I was giving myself over both the quantity and quality of my posts.  I wasn't quite happy with either.  I felt that I needed to post as often as possible so as not to disappoint anyone, and that each post needed to be littered with beautiful process shots.  As lovely as that sounds it doesn't seem to be my style, and really, there are already so many people who naturally post like that (and who will be able to do it much better than myself.)   

It is so easy to compare yourself with others who are much more talented (and experienced) and in doing so fall short.  I had to remind myself that my blog on this little corner is not supposed to stress me out, it is supposed to relieve stress (wait, that is what hobbies are for, right?).  I'm not getting graded or paid or forced to do this.  I'm doing it because I want to.  Since it is for me (and you just happen to be eavesdropping on my thoughts ;-) which, by the way, I've discovered from Hey, Babe are strange since I think them in narration) I'm much more concerned with quality.  I'm probably not going to be posting more than once a week.  I'm not necessarily going to include a ton of pictures just to have them (if I'm satisfied with how well they came out, that's another story).  I'm not going to be posting our monthly menus anymore.  We still do them but since they no longer follow the months but are instead on a 5 week rotation that doesn't fit nicely in my square box thinking ;-) (plus I think that nearly a full years worth of example is probably quite enough to get an idea of how to make one). 

There are some things that I am going to be doing.  I am going to be more certain that I am satisfied with the work I post.  I am going to try to post more of the recipes that I've been asked for copies of (a Cheddar Beer Bread that reminds me of Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits is high on that list).  Finally, I am going to relax about this and enjoy myself.  As a stay at home Mom, I should already be accustomed to a more relaxed pace, but for some reason with blogging I wasn't following that.  Here's to a new year with less stressing and more enjoying the trip without focusing so much on the destination.  Happy New Year to you all, may it be the best one yet.

Friday, July 1, 2011

July Meal Plan

Hey, remember me? No? I'm not surprised.  Things have been a little crazy around here recently.  I often didn't have the opportunity to post and when I did have the opportunity, I didn't seem to have the inclination.  It's a good thing this is just a hobby and not a job or I'd have been booted a long time ago.

I think that a large part of the reason I've been absent is that since we eliminated wheat from our diet I've been a little bummed.  I love how much better I feel and do not miss the effects that wheat was having on my system, but it doesn't make a baker happy to find out that 95% (or more!) of their recipes are now off limits.  So...I moped.  And I got a bit cranky about all the meals that I've made previously who are just waiting to jump to the head of the line and appear here and now I don't want to post them because I'm in a tiff.

I'm sure that I will eventually post them, just like I will eventually post the new wheat free recipes I've been creating to replace them.  The problem with my replacement recipes is that they aren't fully tested and I don't feel right posting something I created off the top of my head until I'm certain that it works more than once, several times would be better.  As I work out the kinks I'll try to be better about posting the results, but until then things are going to be slim pickings.

As you will be able to see below, this month is pretty much ALL about grilling.  I have no desire to heat up my kitchen so we are taking it all outdoors to appreciate the summer. Also, you might notice that most of the sides are rather up in the air.  I am hoping to be able to fill in those blanks with various fresh veggies from my garden, but at the moment I have NO idea was they will be (and no promise that they will produce!)  Enjoy!

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.

Slow Cooker Red Beans & Rice Chicken Spiedies, Grilled Veggies Hamburgers, Baked Beans, Salad
Hot Dogs, Baked Beans
Greek Chicken Kebabs
Grilled Lemon Pepper Salmon
Tex-Mex Dry Rub- Steak
Bean Burritoes
BBQ Rub- Pork
Salad w/Deviled Eggs
Hamburgers, Beans, Salad
Ham & Pineapple Kebabs
Grilled Salmon Patties, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Chicken & Spicy Wing Sauce
Black Bean Salad, Chips?
Kefta & Zucchini Kebab
Chicken Caesar Salad
Indian Dry Rub- Chicken
Steak & Pepper Kebab
Grilled Mustard Salmon
Hot Dogs & Baked Beans
Grilled Turkey Breast
Taco Salad
Grilled Steak, Grilled Veggies
Teriyaki Chicken & Pineapple Kebab
Grilled Salmon Patties, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Pancakes (Wheat Free!)
Zucchini Parm
Cajun Rub- Chicken
Cobb Salad

Thursday, June 2, 2011

June Meal Plan

May was an interesting month.  We got our garden planted in the beginning, the middle hit us up with some birthdays, a graduation, and Mothers Day and then the last weekend had us missing Hey, Babe as he went to Texas for his first (and can I hope last?) business trip which happened to coincide with our sixth anniversary.  I'm still recovering from May, which is partly why I'm a bit tardy posting our menu. 

The other reason is because I was rather hard pressed to plan a wheat free menu that I'd be interested in cooking and eating in this weather. In our un-air conditioned house I want to do as much of our cooking outside.  That should be simple except for the fact that most things want to be slapped on a bun after you grill them.  I have discovered that it is very possible that I should not eat wheat for health reasons and so I'm trying harder to stick to that.  Here is what we have come up with, our wheat free (the hot dogs and hamburgers will be bunless), hot weather friendly dinner plan. Enjoy!

Mon. Tues. Wed. Thur. Fri. Sat. Sun.

Lemon Chicken, Potato Salad Potluck Game Night
Waldorf Chicken Salad
Hot Dogs & Beans
BBQ Chicken, Grilled Sweet Potatoes
Taco Salad
Dry Rub Steak, Grilled Potatoes, Peas
Bean Burritos

Grill Roasted Turkey Breast, Asparagus
Salmon Patties, Spinach Salad
Chicken Scampi over Veggies
Chicken Caesar Salad
Pepper Steak, Brown Rice
Greek Chicken Kebabs, Tzatziki Party
Black Bean Salad
Grilled Sausages & Potato Hobo Packs
Grilled Rosemary Chicken w/Fresh Greens
Cobb Salad
Kefta and Zucchini Kebabs
Taco Dip
Barbecue Ribs, Corn, Cole Slaw
Huli Huli Chicken, Broccoli Salad
Cream Cheese & Parmesan Grilled Tilapia, Spinach
Dry Rub Chicken, Grilled Summer Squash
Chef Salad
Hamburgers, Baked Beans, Salad

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How To Make a Monthly Meal Plan, part 5

Yesterday I wrote about the first three problems I thought of that can interfere with successful meal planning, today I follow up with the last three.

-I don’t like cooking or I don’t have time for it and with this plan I’m finding myself chained to the kitchen all the time and I can’t take it!

So plan differently.  No one said you have to make a gourmet meal every night, or even that you have to make a from scratch meal every night.  You are the one who is deciding what kind of meals your are making and how complicated they are, and how often you need to make them.  One woman I know cooks three nights a week and makes enough for two meals each time.  After eating those three meals once, they eat them a second time and then either go out or order pizza on Saturdays.  This works wonderfully for their family and might be something that would work for yours. 

If your family (or you!) don’t care for leftovers then just plan simpler things. It is your plan.  No one is grading it and critiquing it.  I don’t eat or buy most processed foods (often) but that is how my family works.  Your family eats and likes different things than mine and each of our menus will reflect that.

Another tip to cut down on prep is to do some things ahead.  Chop all your peppers/onions/etc. for the week on Monday and put them in containers.  Each night you will use only what you need for the day and you won’t be pulling out the knife and cutting board every night.  If you rely on convenience foods, eating at restaurants and ordering takeout for 95% of your family’s dinners it might be better to start small and gradually increase your nights of cooking.  Who knows? You might discover that having a plan in place with all of the necessary groceries eliminates the part of making dinner that you truly hate and actually cooking doesn’t bother you at all!

If possible enlist help.  If your spouse isn’t home to be any use preparing dinner on a week night, try preparing a few meals in advance on a weekend, or after the kids go to bed one night.  If your kids are old enough to be of any use in the kitchen, use dinner prep as a teachable moment.  I was taken aback when I got to college and discovered how many students were there who had no idea how to do things like cook for themselves or do laundry.  When/if your kids are old enough maybe they can be in charge of planning and cooking dinner one night a week.

-blah! We all got hit with the stomach bug!  We have a house full of food but none of us are well enough to prepare it OR to go and get anything else to replace it with that we might be able to keep down:

This happened to us a few months ago and I learned a very valuable lesson.  Keep sick people food on hand at all times and put it in an emergency place so that you don’t just dip into it when you are feeling lazy.  We now have in a crate in the garage a few cans of chicken noodle soup, a box of saltines, a few boxes of jello, a six pack of little bottles of ginger ale, a few serving size bottles (not the big ones) of pedialyte, and a container of Gatorade powder.  And we aren’t going to touch it.  Most of that stuff can keep for a looong time, but we are going to replace it at the beginning of flu season every year just to make sure none of it is ever expired.

Keep a couple of emergency, totally from the pantry meals on hand so that you won’t feel forced to order pizza when life doesn’t go your way because it is going to happen.  Rather than always keep the same emergency meal on hand in the pantry I sometimes try to plan a couple of new ones for the end of the month.  If I need to use them earlier in the month it is not as big of a deal and I can back cycle whatever meal I’ve skipped.

-I thought this was supposed to save money, why is my grocery bill so much higher?
Well, first off I’d like to ask if you are including your takeout/restaurant spending (including tips!) in that total.  I’m going to pull some random numbers out of the air here but if you used to spend $75 a week at the grocery store and then another $125 a week eating out, then your grocery bill all of a sudden doubling to $150 is not too surprising, as long as your eating out bill is either equally reduced or completely eliminated.  Double check but you are probably spending less. 

However, if you aren’t then what the heck are you making for dinner?  Really, I’d like to know because it is probably fabulous and I’d like to invite myself over.  Are you still buying a lot of convenience items (pre-made pizza crusts instead of a bag of flour and jar of yeast)?  By making some things from scratch instead of buying them premade you will save a little money and usually be eating a little healthier. 

Another option is to surround a spendy item will cheaper items.  Make a nice piece of salmon and serve it with a pile of cheap bulk rice or frozen green beans instead of the costlier asparagus (which you can serve instead with a cheaper cut of beef or some chicken).  It helps to spread out your “gourmet” without making you feel like you are depriving yourself by rotating between rice & beans and beans & rice. 

You are the one making the plan, so if you are choosing expensive things it will understandably cost more.  Think about what your family was already eating on a regular basis. Was it costing you less when you were scrambling around? That's okay because you can still throw some of those options back into the mix (or options in a similar cost bracket) but this time do it without the scramble. 

Also, keep in mind the sales.  If you planned on making steaks and got to the store to discover the price was astronomically more than you had expected, check to see what kind of substitutions you can make.  If there isn’t anything in a similar vein then scrap the meal for a different idea entirely or be prepared to shell out for the steaks.  I find that this is why it sometimes helps to bring your meal plan along with your grocery list to the store, it can help you remember why you put certain items on the list and whether or not they are crucial to any given dish.

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series, please start here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 4

For some people, making a monthly meal plan (or even a weekly one) is fraught with peril.  There are several pitfalls that people come across when they attempt meal planning on a larger scale for the first time.  There are six big ones that I can think of and I'll share with you, half today and half tomorrow, how they can be addressed or avoided.


So now you have spent valuable time and planned out your meals, written your grocery lists, bought your food and gotten it all put away.  You are all set for a week/month of stress free dinner prep, except:
- Someone (your kids, your husband, perhaps even yourself) always says they don’t want that for dinner.  Can’t we have/go to _____ instead?
Sure you can.  Sometimes things just don’t go as planned and you have to roll with the punches and consider that the important thing is that everyone was fed a relatively healthy (hopefully) meal.  However, if it is happening often perhaps you might think about why this isn’t working to see if there is a theme. 

Does it happen regularly on specific days?  For me it happened every Monday.  After having Hey, Babe home during dinner prep on Sat and Sun, I dreaded starting it up again solo on Monday nights.  Now I make sure I’m planning things that I will look forward to eating and be more willing to prep like my favorite homemade pizza.   Another option is to plan something that can be totally assembled earlier in the day while the kids are napping that just needs to be popped into the oven at the correct time. 

Does it happen for specific meals?  Tell it to me straight, you don’t like my chili do you?  You never feel like eating it, though you have before said you like it, and now when it comes up on the rotation we always seem to waffle around it and eat something else.  Since you never actually eat it, stop planning on eating it.  It is a waste in more ways then one.  Maybe leaving it off the rotation for a while will make it more appealing in the future.  Or maybe you can plan it for the night that whoever it is that hates it is not going to be home for dinner. 

Is it always the same person?  I have two separate suggestions here.  First off, maybe they just need to learn to live with it.  Pickiness, especially when it comes to food, is never welcome.  You are allowed to have things you prefer to eat and prefer not to eat, but if a meal is made for you, you eat it or you go hungry (ESPECIALLY if you are an adult/teenager).  I’m sure that as with any rule, there are exceptions (allergies, intolerances, etc.) but generally speaking this should hold true.  For some households there is always an alternate option to have (pb sandwich, hummus, etc.) for other households that just means you say, “Okay, the next time we are eating is at __ o’clock, see you then.”  It is up to you to decide which method will work better for your family.

Another solution would be to have the unsatisfied person contribute more to the meal plan.  If they are asking for blueberry pancakes for dinner instead of the spaghetti and meatballs you are making tell them “Ooh, what a great idea! Why don’t we write that down and have that ___ (tomorrow for breakfast/lunch, next week for dinner, etc.).  When you are making the next meal plan, have them come up with a list of foods that they want to eat and maybe make them a part of the preparation process for “their” meals.  You might want to make a note of which of the meals were their ideas so you can point out to them that they are the reason it is tonight’s dinner if their pickiness comes into play anyway.

In our household, I know that I am the most likely reason that dinner isn’t following the menu.  Not the kids, not Hey, Babe, not any other factor.  Just me.  I need to remember to suck it up and just make whatever is on the plan because I KNOW that when I don’t it makes the last few days of the month rather hairy and takes away the peace that meal planning is supposed to bring me.  I have to keep in mind when I am meal planning that what I have planned may not be exactly what I am in the mood food, but it is still tasty, nutritious food.  If I am going to tell my kids, “tough, that’s what is for dinner,” than I have to do the same for myself. 

-I just bought AAAAALLLLLL this stuff to make ONE MEAL, and it costs so much money, and now whatever isn't used in that one meal is either going to spoil or get pushed to the back of the cupboard and lost forever:
You may need to tweak how you are planning slightly.  There are four things I can think of to fix this: 
1.      Choose less complicated meals, or at least do so for some of them.
2.      Freeze leftover ingredients (granted, some things don’t freeze well.)
3.      Make twice as much of whatever the meal is and freeze half for a bonus meal next week/month! (yeah, some things still don’t freeze well).
4.      Plan another, different meal that will incorporate those extra ingredients for a night or two later.  Leftover ricotta cheese? Make some lasagna, stuffed shells, or cheese blintzes.  Use it up somehow.  Some of my tastiest creations came from adding odds and ends together so that none of them went to waste.

- Similar to the last complaint, I made dinner every night this week and we have a ton of totally prepared food in the fridge and yet another new meal planned for tonight:
I had this trouble a lot myself and started planning fewer meals for a while until Little Man started eating more.  You can go a few routes with this one:
1.      Eat leftovers for lunch and stop buying so many other lunch options.
2.      Plan fewer meals for the week, make one night leftover night and free up some time where you would have otherwise been in the kitchen.  Maybe make a nice dessert on leftover night since you didn’t have to cook dinner.
3.      Make smaller quantities so that there aren’t leftovers.  Scale recipes down, cut portion sizes in half, and have some extra salad to fill people up instead.
4.      Reinvent leftovers.  Make a roast on Sunday and plan on using the leftover meat on Monday for Pulled Pork Sandwiches or soup or a casserole.  Or if you think your picky family might catch on to the fact that it is similar to yesterday’s dinner, plan on using it Wednesday or pop it in the freezer and use it next week.
5.      Intentionally make enough that there is a whole second meal and freeze one of them for a bonus meal!

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series please start here.  Tomorrow, three more pitfalls with suggestions how to resolve them.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Daring Cooks Make Gumbo

I am interrupting the series on monthly meal planning to bring you this month's Daring Cook's challenge!  The series will resume once again next week.  Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I can't even begin to tell you how utterly unenthusiastic I was about this month's challenge.  Really.  After reading the challenge I immediately sighed and decided that I was going to make it to bring to potluck game night at the church so that I might not be stuck with so much in the way of leftovers.  I wasn't going to shrug off the challenge just because I didn't think I'd like the food, but I didn't have to be happy about it either.  Lovely attitude, don't you agree?

Now, so far I had only seen the subject line, not the recipe or any of the example photos, and I had already done a mental shrug and eye roll over this challenge.  However, after reading some of the ingredient options and seeing the absolutely stunning pictures in the example, I was feeling a little more charitably inclined toward this Gumbo.  I can't even understand where my prejudice towards Gumbo came from since I've never actually tasted it but it was slowly starting to melt away.  Not enough, however, for me to reassign it on the menu away from the game night.  It might have seemed a little more appealing, but I still wasn't inclined to want a ton of leftovers.

Considering those things, I find it quite ironic that I fell a little more in love with this dish nearly every time I tasted it throughout the cooking process.  And I couldn't have it all to myself since I had already told people what I was bringing to the potluck.  Drat!  It serves me right after forming opinions based on absolutely nothing.  Really, nothing.  I have no idea why in my mind Gumbo = Gross.  Perhaps it was simply the name?  Or the fact that it usually (maybe always?) has Okra, which I dislike intensely.  I have no clue.

While I was making this I made quite a few changes, omissions, and alterations, both accidentally and intentionally.  I knew that I didn't want to make it too spicy, so I left out the spicy sausage called for (not realizing that smoked Andouille Sausage is also spicy!) and I didn't want to have a lot of extra seasoning bottles gathering dust in the cabinet never to be used again so I assembled my own Creole spices but it a much smaller quantity than provided in the given recipe, this also lead me to omit the File Powder.

I dislike okra (I won't even describe what it reminds me of) but I had planned on putting it in anyway because Hey, Babe likes it.  The Okra was eventually omitted when we couldn't find any after checking in three stores.  Another minor change I made was to add half chicken thighs and half boneless breasts instead a a whole cut up chicken.  After the first 45 minute simmer I took all the chicken out and de-boned and skinned it so that I could shred the meat and add it back to the pot, thus making it easier to serve at a potluck dinner.

The last two changes came about after a little...mishap, shall we say, in the kitchen.  According to the recipe you are supposed to cook the roux for 15 minutes, constantly whisking.  Due to either distractions from the kids or the fact that I chose to use some of the leftover bacon oil from breakfast, I am pretty sure that I burned my roux.  The house was slowly filling with smoke, and it was not smelling tasty at all, but the recipe said I was supposed to keep cooking.  I wanted to stop, but according to recipe I wasn't supposed to!

(grossly separating roux)

I should have gone with my gut.  I added the onions and ended up with a weird pot of separated oil and charred...stuff.  It didn't look right and it tasted even worse.  But I couldn't help but wonder if this was actually the result we were looking for?  Who knows, although if any of you think that I was actually on the right track, let me know.  Maybe I'll sacrifice a small experimental pot of it next time.  At any rate, after a little deliberation I decided to start over and cook it less along with no bacon fat this time and with a movie playing for Little Man.  The only problem with starting over was that I only had one onion left.  Oh well!

(the top spoon is the charred version, in case you couldn't tell)

It was the most exquisite form of torture.  Riding in a car for half an hour with the pot of bubbling hot Gumbo sitting in my lap was almost more than I could handle as we went on our merry way to Game Night.  If it hadn't been so very hot I'd have been even more tempted by the intoxicating fragrance to start drinking it up right there in the car.  The general consensus seemed to be that it was delicious, with a caveat from a few who thought that it was a tad too spicy for them.  Next time, and oh, there will definitely be a next time, I'm not too proud to admit when I was wrong!  Next time I will ease back on the cayenne, maybe add a little sweet sausage along with the spicy, and serve it with Tabasco Sauce at the table for anyone who wants to kick up the heat. 

Because I made many alterations to the given recipe, I will post my version below.  To use the recipe without my adaptations, or to check out the recipes for Seafood Gumbo click here.

Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Serves 10-12

1/2 tablespoons celery seed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (or less if you don't like spicy)
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 large onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts Chicken Stock
2 bay leaves
14 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4-6 cups cooked Rice (I used brown, but I might try mashed potatoes next time, not traditional maybe but I think it would be delicious!)

Combine the seasonings together and sprinkle them over the chicken pieces while you prepare the vegetables.

Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes (the second time I only cooked if for about 10).

Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes (again, the second time I did this for around 7-8).

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Add the rest of the vegetables and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.

Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.  (I got a lot of oil off of this, more than 1 cup.  Can anyone explain why we add it just to take it out?  Can't we just toast the flour without the oil?)

Remove all the pieces of chicken to a plate.  Add the chopped andouille and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Start to simmer for another 45 minutes, while you are removing the skin and bones from the chicken pieces.  Shred the meat and return it along with any accumulated juices back to the pot.  Continue to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 3

Making a monthly meal plan is such a valuable way to gain control of what for many people is the most stressful part of their day, the pre-dinner chaos that leads to fast food (and tears!).  Many people have heard of the Flylady who discusses getting your homes in order and keeping them that way.  I like what she has to say about meal planning:

"You can't eat what you don't have in the house. Just the simple act of sitting down and thinking about what to fix for the next week then going to the grocery store and purchasing the food will give you more freedom than almost anything. This will save you time and money and put good food in your pantry. When you have nutritious food in your home you will feel better about what you and your family are eating." Flylady

I happen to like cooking and experimenting with new recipes so we have a new plan for every month but that doesn't mean you have to.  If you are the opposite of me or if your family is less adventurous you could make one 30 day plan and just repeat it over and over again.  After all, that means you would only be repeating things a dozen times a year (providing of course that there were no repeats already scheduled).  The beauty of a set monthly plan is that once it and the accompanying grocery list are written, you will spend a lot of time each month not thinking about dinner.  When making your plan you can keep any number of days either "set" or "changeable".  You can keep one day a week or a month free for changes, or maybe you will keep only one meal the same each month.  It is completely up to you!

Your meal plan does not have to be gourmet or complicated or expensive.  It is not supposed to make your life more complicated.  For some people, making out a plan might make them over ambitious and I'd just like to remind you to be realistic.  If giving up takeout and restaurants will be tough, schedule some nights that allow for it.  If you don't like being in the kitchen, plan for quick and simple foods like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese.  Or perhaps you will only plan on cooking only three or four nights a week, either because you know you don't want to do more than that ever or just to start as you are easing into a new concept.  If a month seems daunting, plan for a week or two.  You can always use those meal ideas again if they work and scrap the ideas that don't.  I included the following steps in my handout at the meeting but for those of you who weren't there or didn't get one here is a good way to create your first monthly meal plan.

1. Get a calendar, paper for list making, a pen and some recipe sources (magazines, internet, cookbooks- by the way, most public libraries have a surprisingly large cooking section). I use a computer spreadsheet, but you can use an actual paper calendar if you’d rather.

2. Compile your family’s complete schedule for the upcoming menu period (week, weeks, month). Include information such as the nights people won’t be home, known crazy busy days, holidays, special events, entertaining, etc.

3. Write a list of your family’s favorite meals or even just foods they eat often and willingly. Perhaps even ask for input to see if there specific things they’d like to eat in the near future.

4. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you have that should be incorporated into the upcoming plan and add those meals to your list.

5. Start plugging the meals into appropriate days. By appropriate I mean days where you will be able (physically or mentally) to prepare that meal. If you aren’t going to be home all day you will want to plan a crock pot type of meal or maybe that will be your pizza night for the week instead of having a hands on intensive dinner.

6. See what you have left. Are most of the unfilled days busy days? Flip through your recipes to find some crock pot meals or make ahead dinners.  At the meeting, one mom suggested getting a menu to a favorite restaurant or two and looking for inspiration there.  You can often find copycat recipes for popular restaurant dishes online.

7. While you are filling in your weeks keep in mind that you probably don’t want to schedule too much of the same thing in a row, like three Mexican dinners, or three nights where the main ingredient is lentils. Look for recipes you’d like to try and maybe add one new thing for each week (more than that and you might start overwhelming yourself.)

8. Leave room for changes and have a plan for leftovers. Planning a new meal for each night often times means too much food. For us it means that we have lunch for the next day. If there is enough of certain types of meals leftover I will freeze it and have a ready meal waiting in the freezer for a busy night.

9. Going through each meal and the corresponding recipe, make sure you right down all the ingredients you will need, including those for any side dishes or desserts you plan on serving with them. I like to put my ingredients into five columns: dairy/cold, freezer, meat, dry goods, produce. This makes it easier later when you are shopping. Make sure you cross check this with your pantry.

10. Finally, post the menu in a prominent place where you and the rest of the house can refer easily to it. This makes it harder to forget to take out the roast to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, and eliminates a lot of questions of, “What’s for dinner?” once your family gets used to the idea of the meal plan.

If you missed them earlier, read parts one and two.  Please feel free to ask in the comments if there is anything in particular you would like to know.  Also, I have in mind to address some pitfalls.  In your experience, what have been some you've encountered?
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