Menu Planning

I am one of those folks who does menu planning. I think like home cooking it is a bit of a lost art.  Menu planning is something that takes time and if changing things up bothers you can become a bit of an albatross around your neck; creating more stress when its purpose is just the opposite.   I do menu planning for one of several reasons.

First I don’t work in town and hence don’t grocery shop but once a week.    If I plan to serve interesting well-balanced meals that I need to have everything I might need in my pantry.  My pantry is well stocked with staples: flour, sugar, can goods and a freezer with beef, pork and lamb.    Perishables like milk, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and bread constantly need to be restocked along with what we have used up since our last time at the grocery store.   Shopping with a plan helps to ensure not only do I have what I need, but  I don’t end up throwing things out because  they have spoiled from lack of use.   It also helps keep us from going crazy buying things we really don’t need or are likely to use just because there is a sale.

Second I hate leftovers.   I can’t imagine eating the same thing two days in a row.    This for me means planning how to repurpose a meal so it is not the same.   I often cut my meat in to two or three pieces before I cook it.  If we have pork roast one night,  the leftover will be split and we will have pulled pork  or Cuban sandwiches then the next possibly chili verde.   It is highly likely one night a week will be smorgasbord of leftovers.   No matter how well I try I do end up with leftovers.   Usually it is a little of this and a little of that.  Sometimes it enough for another meal and that goes into the freezer for a future no cook night.   With my leftover tidbits, not enough of anything to make a meal, but when it is all served at the same time with a new veggie for fruit salad thrown in makes a nice meal.

Lastly we like to eat a wide range of foods and have an adventuresome palate.   We are always looking for a new recipe to try.   After work if we don’t know what we are going to make with the recipe handy , we have a tendency to fall back on the same old things.  Also Montana is not the place to come if you are looking for restaurants to sneak out to feed your need for serious ethnic cuisine fix.  Good authentic ethic foods is made in the home with ingredients you horde from online shopping or trips to the cities where there are ethic neighborhoods with grocery stores that stock what you need.     Montana is the place where beef is king, but don’t be surprised to be fed elk, antelope and lamb.   Our season are too short and growing many veggies that the rest the US sees as normal is hard here , as a result it is carnivore heaven.   Meat and potatoes is the main fare here.   We enjoy a good piece of meat, but it just doesn’t have to be roasted or broiled.   It can be wrapped in the spices of the world and served in ways that meat  is a piece of the total menu, not the over running piece of whole meal. Some nights we even do a meatless meal.

Menu planning is a Sunday evening chore for us.   RangerSir and I sit around and talk about what we are hungry for.   Possibly what one us has an urge to make.   Once that is decided the plan mode kicks in,  where we suggest what we might do with the other parts of the cut of meat if we make x or y.   We spend some time on our Kindles surfing the net for something that looks good and printing off recipes.   Once done we stack them in to make order, make notes about sides.   Look at the ingredients list and compare it to what we have on hand.   Monday night is shopping night, and we eat one of those frozen meals we have on hand.   The rest of the week we work our way through the printed out recipes, sometimes shuffling them base on time and preference.   Occasionally things really change up and the roast that was supposed to make three meals only makes two then we move in to full comfort food mode, making a simple soup, burgers or dinner salad with what we have on hand.

Menu planning isn’t for everyone or every family, but if you have thought you might want to try it, I hope you will give it a shot.   Like  every other kind of planner, customize it up and get it to work for you, not the other way around.

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Furlough: Dinners from the Freezer

One of my favorite oldies!

We are now in our third week of government furlough.    It has been a time for us to appreciate all that we have in our pantry and freezer.   We are lucky to have such a well stocked larder.   The challenge is we like to cook fresh and ethnic foods.    It means we often pull things from our stores and add things from the grocery to allow us to make exactly what we want.    We are now having to tap into out our creative side of making menus without going to the grocery to get items.  We are challenging ourselves to make do with what we have at home.   This generally means we are eating more traditional 50’s American menus.   I have been tapping into my old cookbooks.  It is interesting to explore some of the old favorites and discover some new ones.   One of the biggest challenges is to cut recipes down to size for just the two of us, because we are not big on leftovers, but this lack of a paycheck is reminding us to be more thrifty than normal.

Recently we had half a ham which should have been one family Sunday dinner.   Instead it was a traditional ham dinner, the next night we had scalloped potatoes and ham, followed by Senate Navy bean soup, lastly it made a great Indian lentil soup (dal).   There is a little ham left and we will be making a Quiche to finish it off next.    We were quite pleased with how we succeeded in making so much from that single piece of meat.    It did serve to remind us though that good menu planning is no accident.   It takes time and forethought to ensure that you are successful with menu planning.

Though there is an ongoing economic price to pay for us being a pawn in the government, it has reaffirmed that there is a reason we are frugal, and put food by.   We again thank our parents for teaching us to get by with what we have and plan for rainy days.   We have been reminded that we are survivors, because that is a choice we can make when it seems like there are no choices for us.   It has made us stronger as a couple because we are in this challenge together, stronger than we would be separately.

My Taste Treat

Last weekend we joined friends at a restaurant that featured cuisine from countries that you might have found if you traveled the silk road. All menu items were served tapas style/size;  each item a size to allow four people to each have a couple of bites.

It was  a great time.   The conversation and laughter flowed freely.      It was made better by the fact that we were all willing to try things that we had not had before, or  would not normally have ordered.   It was a free for all taste treat.  No holds barred.

We tried three wines, and settled on a favorite and then ordered a  bottle for our dining accompaniment. We started with three items that may have been more  along the appetizer line.   Unanimously we agreed that we liked our humus to be heavier on the garlic.   That was the worst thing we said about anything all night long.    It was doubly fun in that each round we picked 3 or 4 things we had not yet tried on the menu.   When we were done we had tried 14 different menu items.     At no time did anyone speak up and say I don’t think I would like that.   We ordered  and let the chips fall where they may.

I am not traditionally a fish eater.   Yet I ate and enjoyed three fish dishes.   For me the item that I will remember as a taste treat was the Tuna Tartare.  It was also the dish I was most unsure of, almost to the point that I wanted to speak up against it when it was ordered.   I am so glad I did not.   I loved it.   I would gladly order it again!

It was a reminder to me about  my life.   You don’t know until you try!  Limiting yourself you can miss out on some life’s best experiences.   Amazing how a dinner can dish up a life lesson.

What a Difference the Internet Makes

My lifetime friend and her husband are coming to visit in August.  We are so looking forward to it.   Usually when she comes we provide her with a list of all the things we need from the city. The list is about 90% foodstuffs.    I love to cook and enjoy making all sorts of ethnic cuisines.    Many of the recipes I use call for ingredients that I can’t  find locally.   Not all the ingredients of the recipe but there is usually one or two things that you just don’t see on the grocery shelves in southwestern Montana.    Some of the things have been spices; other times it is an ingredient.

This year I don’t have a grocery list for my friend.   It seemed  strange, and so  I thought about it.   What was different?

  • We have a new grocery store in town.   This grocery is a sort of hybrid store:   Part locavore featuring local produce, meat and dairy, Part exotic specialty ingredient store, Part “Whole Foods”, Part general grocery.  Not very big, but I do lots of shopping there.
  • You can get more grocery ingredients via the internet.

This is one of those examples of the world getting smaller.   We all travel more and further and expect to see some of what we see away from home, now days at home.      We use the internet to reach out to places far from home when home just won’t do.     I had not realized that until now what a difference these two things made in my life.

Cooking Around what You Have

veg-webEach Saturday night or Sunday morning we do menu planning for the upcoming week.    We plan our menu around what we have, and what we think we might want to have for our dinners.   This week I got the Mexican Vegetables option with my Bountiful Basket. It was a gorgeous collection of food that inspires so much food south of the border.  This selection requires a much more adventuresome menu than Taco night. The package has more than you can incorporate in a single meal or two.  Here are some of what we have planned.

We had an assortment of Anaheim, Hatch and jalapeno peppers.   Can you say Chili Rellenos?

The avocados are calling to be made into some guacamole.  I will use some of the garlic, peppers, onion, lime juice  and cilantro.

The grey squash is going to be made up into Calabacitas con Queso.  If you don’t know what this is you are missing something great.

My Mexican collection included a Chayote.   I have never have had one of these,and I have picked a recipe called Garlic-Chili Roasted Chayotes to try this new veggie.

My chickens have started to lay again so Huevos Rancheros are on the menu for next weekends as brunch again.

Not only will we cook Mexican, but we have some andouille sausage so Jambalaya is on the menu, as well as Cuban Black Soup.

I am sharing this with you because we generally always buy and cook the same things.   It is hard to justify buying things you have never worked with, but  occasionally buy a single item you are unsure of.  Challenge yourself when you get home to find a way to cook it on the net.   You aren’t going to love them all, but you are going to try something new.  You will likely find more things that you like than you don’t.   Your menus will be a little less of the same old same old.  Life will be a little less routine, a little less boring.

Food Orgy

Last Thursday night we end our annual conference.   We had packed up all our things in the trailer and were ready to leave the next morning.   That night those of us left in Great Falls wanted a meal that came from somewhere other than our hotel where we had been eating all week.  It was the beginning of the problem trying to find single place that we could all find things that each of us  were looking for.  Enter the Tummy Taxi, aka Cafe Courier.   It solved all our problems.   This service worked with multiple local restaurants to deliver their menu items for a fee.   Those of us who were looking for something more exotic ordered a sampler platter from a Greek restaurant, and those with a less adventuresome palate were looking for a “regular fare” ordered their food from a different  restaurant.

Less than an hour later our taxi had picked up food from two different restaurants   The Greek food eaters were having an aroma orgy as we opened the boxes and inhaled the smells.   Soon we were enjoying fare that is quite out of the box for those in Montana. I savored each bite and tasted a little of everything that we got.     Overall it was quite nice, though the moussaka was one of kind, a bizarre Montana version that no one would ever recognize.   It had elbow macaroni!   I am not sure how they got something so wrong and the rest was so nicely done.  Some of the best Greek I had had since moving to Big Sky Country.

I never thought about enjoying food so much, but the standard fare eaters  had lots of fun watching my face as I ate this menu treat.   My face said my mouth was having a taste orgy.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Each fall when we returned to school from summer vacation, it seemed all my  teachers were programmed to require students to write or tell what they did on summer vacation.  I was lucky, in  that when I was a youngster one set of my grandparents traveled lots and I always had a story to tell.   As I have gotten older it seems we have taken fewer and fewer vacations.   I am always tucking a little money away for that proverbial rainy day or disaster.  I listen to the forecasts and squirrel away more money for that futuristic retirement.   When the bills are paid and the saving is done, it seems there is little left for a travel vacation.     I am happy to report we just got home from a few days away.

We traveled to Spokane, a city I had only driven through in the past.   We went to visit a friend who lived there. She had offered to let us use her home as a home base.   We arrived to find our friend living in one of the older  neighborhoods, with the large old homes from the turn of the last century, full of character, mature trees and small lawns.  It was an overdose of green considering that my home in Montana never can brag about an abundance of rain in August and this year has been particularly dry.

Though the heat was terrible and humidity not  much better, I did find myself sneaking in walks and taking in the architecture of the homes, the flowering plants and even the trees. The boulevards were lined with sycamore trees, creating an archway of shade over cobblestone streets. Almost every house had some kind of porch, and it was decked out with furniture, but seldom was someone out watching the world go by. I on the other hand found myself out there almost every chance I could, enjoying the fresh air, watching the runners, walkers and the visiting cats. It reminded me of summer nights where generations of my family spent the evenings after dinner outside chatting with neighbors, watering the garden, and swatting at mosquitoes.

Our hostess took us out to see parks with exquisite plantings.   There were areas dedicated to roses and an English garden.   There were beds of perennials and herbs.   We visited a conservatory with plants  too delicate for the full set of seasons that Spokane offers.   It was fun to see her share here city with us.

My husband and I are ethnic food junkies and always look for good ethnic food no matter where we visit.  On this trip we took a walking tour of Spokane that was part history and part food called Spokane Bites  It was a great time that reminded us of how much we enjoy a visit to the city.   Our tour guide was full of facts about the history of her city, recent to far distant past.   The restaurants they chose were local joints, no chain stuff here.   We sampled the best smoked steelhead I have ever had, along with a local brew.  We had two kinds of soup at a spot may downtown workers favor that turned into a local night time hot spot each night. We sampled wares from an Italian restaurant that the owner had actually come from our neck of Montana.  We had chocolates and deserts that were just grand.      When we finished both my husband and I wished we were staying downtown for a couple of days because there was so much yet to explore there.  We found ourselves thinking that for a day or two we could once again enjoy the mad rush of energy that comes with living downtown in a city.

Only a day later we would find ourselves back on the road heading back to our piece of paradise.  That dry land in a sparsely populated state with little ethnic cuisine.   As my husband and I chatted on our long drive home we agreed it was a good visit,  but we were glad to be going home.   It confirmed our life choices had been right for us.  We had lived in the heart of the city once and enjoyed it, but we did not long to return to that life.   We knew what it offered and what we were missing, but the scales of life were much more weight in our favor living the rural life in Montana.