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.

Slaving Over the Stove

We picked up a small bunch of apricots last week at Costco.   They were the last package and they called my name as I love apricot jam.  I love to can and make jams but have no need to make or desire to have a dozen pints of anything.   I have been doing lots of reading about small size jam making and decided that this was the perfect opportunity to try it out. I was going to make two or three half pints of sunshine in a jar…apricot jam with a little bit of apricot brandy in it.

I grew up with a mother who canned and have done a fair amount myself over the years, but nothing like I was going to try this time. Part of it plays into the fact my house is at 6,000 feet above sea level and that impacts how long things have to process and the temperatures that it reaches are not the same as the cookbooks state.   I was going to have adjust for where I lived.   The second factor was most of my tools were nothing like what I had used in the past.   No big old white and blue speckled enamel canner and not measuring ingredients in pints, quarts and pounds.   I was going to use my stock pot to do the water bath not the big old kettle.   I bought a nifty little jar holder on Amazon. It was a simple wire rack just like Mom had, no sturdier or fancier.  This one fit in my much smaller stock pot (just under 9 inches across) and could only hold 5 half-pints.   I also used my largest in diameter skillet to cook the apricots, no big heavy old pot.     The theory in all of this is that the larger air surface allowed for “quicker” evaporation i.e. shorter cooking times.   I honestly don’t know if it was true, but I ended up with jam.

Making jam in a very small batch

Making jam in a very small batch

When I was done I had two 8-ounce jars and two 4-ounce jars of jam.  It all set up very nicely, in spite of the fact I could not find my thermometer and had to use the sheet test.  Thank heavens I still had an old Ball canning book from years ago when people tested by look and not temperature on a thermometer.    Some of the jars  did not seal, but I attribute that to the instructions having me pulling the jars and setting them on a towel while I cooked the jam.   In the future I will leave them in the pan of hot water until I fill them like in times past and the old Ball book suggested and I used to do.     So my first small jars of sunshine in a jar  will need to be given and used as gifts immediately instead of saving for the winter, but oh well I had fun and it is pretty yummy.

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Bounty for my larder

A Small Batch of Jam

plum-jamI had a collection of plums I had received as part of my last Bountiful Basket.   They were not yet ripe so I let them set on the counter top a few days and then threw them in the refrigerator.   Out of sight, out of mind.   Today I decided that if I could find a recipe that I could adjust for my very tiny batch of plums I was going to make them into jam.   I got out my old canning books and  it was as I remembered  I would need a bushel, or at least a peck of plums for any of those tried and true recipes from Ball or Kerr.   So I headed to where we all go now the internet.   I found my answer, an 100% scalable recipe for my plums.

Plum Jam Recipe

1:1 ratio, chopped plums to sugar.   Cook 5 minutes and can.

Ok it wasn’t that simple.  I did not expect it to be that easy.   I had to cook it longer than 5 minutes to get  my sheeting off the spoon test to work.  I suspected such would be true at my altitude.   No biggie.   I then decided that I would finish my 3 half-pints off in a water bath since things never get as hot as they need to  when water boils at 198 degrees.   New problem.   I no longer had my hot water canner.   I had given it away after living in Montana for 5 years and not using it.  I threw a cotton dish cloth in the bottom of a tall soup pot, brought my water to a boil and put my precious cargo in.   Twenty minutes latter I pulled my precious cargo out.

It was a wonderful flashback moment of the joys of when I canned all the seasons bounty.

Chickens are like Cowboys – most of what you think isn’t true

Chickens are sort of like cowboys.  There is a lot urban beliefs on what is based on TV shows and Hollywood movies.  If you live in true cowboy country you know many westerns are just plain crazy with things that are preposterous.    I am a transplant to Montana, and though I grew up in rural Illinois, my cowboy IQ before moving west was shameful.   After living here for a number of years I  have friends who own ranches, are married to true cowboys,  help out during branding, love to help bring  herds down in the fall, lady friends who have barrel raced for years, and  neighbors who have arenas on their property so they can practice their team roping skills.   I know so much more, but my cowboy IQ is still pretty low.    Some of favorite urban legends about the west are: horses whinny and talk all the time,  you can get off your horse and if you don’t tie it up it will be there when you come back twenty minutes later, all cowboys are sexy except the old chuck wagon cook, and none of them chew.

On the other hand I have had my own flock chickens for quite awhile and my chicken IQ is pretty high.      Here are some of my favorite chicken fallacies.

Rooster Farm_CottageArts

You need a rooster.  A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and a chicken needs a rooster about as much.   Unless you planning hatching chicks, there is no need for a rooster.   A rooster like a man is need to make babies, without it the female gender will produce eggs and slough them off.

Brown eggs are better, more nutritious, better flavor, you pick.   Brown eggs are a genetic egg shell color period.  Nothing more exotic than that.

Chickens scratch and wander around the “barnyard.”  Some chickens are great forager, meaning the scratch around looking for good food..   Others have no interest in moving around beyond going to the feeder. I pick my birds for their forage quality and I can tell you some are rock stars going out and finding the first green grass of the spring and others well they will get there, but if they miss out on a tasty morsel or grasshopper they don’t care.

Chickens are fed hormones or steroids to make them big faster.   The poultry industry doesn’t need to do this.   After years of selective breeding they have developed a bird that will “naturally” grow from egg to maturity in just about 6 weeks.   This breed is extremely efficient turning everything they eat into body weight.  They sit in cages and have food available to them non-stop.  They grow so big so fast, their legs often can’t hold them, and can get congestive heart failure.

sdrum_kitschykitchen_eggBASKETCage free or Free-range means something when buying eggs.

  • Technically yes cage free means exactly that the chicken that laid your egg was not in a cage.   It doesn’t mean it had a lot of space or could wander around the chicken coop, it just means it wasn’t in a pen. I am not sure if that is any better, chickens have a pecking order and can be quite mean to one another when allowed to be free, and in crowded conditions things always get worse.  Cage free generally  is just a bunch of free chickens crowded in a coop.
  • Free-range is a term that means the chickens had the opportunity to go outside.   It doesn’t mean they have a wonderful green lawn with bugs, slugs and seeds for them to eat.   It just means there is a door in case they want to use it.   There is no standard that says each free range bird must have at least two square inches of outdoor space.   It doesn’t mean they ever have to be so uncrowded in the coop that they could make their way to the sunshine.   Keeping chickens myself I can tell you it takes no time for them to denude green space, so odds are this free-range space has long since been picked free of any green material they might eat.

Organic or vegetarian eggs are better.   Organic just means they at organic food, it does not speak to how they were treated or raised.    The only advantage of organic in my mind is they are not fed food that was not raise with pesticides, but probably more importantly to me no vaccines or antibiotics.   Vegetarian eggs on the other hand is plain insanity.   Chickens are omnivores, like us they eat meat and veggies.   Vegetarian and free range are mutually exclusive.   You can’t let them egg bugs like they naturally do and call them vegetarian.

There are many more, but these are some of my favorites fallacies about chickens and cowboys.

Knowing Where Your Meat Comes From

There are not many true butcher shops left today.

This week with all the horse meat controversy going on in Europe it made me think again about how important it is to know where your food comes from.  It is something that none of us can do all the time, but maybe we should spend a little more time thinking about how we can take baby steps in the right direction.   Lots of baby steps can together make a big difference.  Now days so many folks have no idea about where there meat comes from.  We have pre-cut meat coming to our supermarkets ready packed  in those Styrofoam containers, some injected with gasses to keep them looking better longer.   We in this country want good cheap meat.   I would argue that cheap and good don’t go together.   It doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive, but you do get what you pay for.

In high school I read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.  It forever tainted my view of the US food system.   It was a novel written to expose the plight of the working poor, but the pictures he painted in my mind of the Chicago meat industry have never left my mind.    I have always though much more about where all my food comes from ever since.  During the Clinton administration,  we for the most part returned meat inspection to an honor system by processing industry.   We have fewer food inspectors on the US payroll and we are having repeated cases of contaminated food in our consumer food system being reported.   I question if self policing is in our best interest. 

Think just a few years ago pink slime was in the news here in the US.   Now it has blown over.  Pink slime may be gone, but if you don’t believe that something else has replaced it  I would have to say you are deluding yourself.   Those big meat packing houses are looking at the bottom line, and not looking into your face as they hand you ground beef you just ordered like the local butcher shop.   If you wonder why ground beef in the roll is so much cheaper, than the stuff at Sam the  butcher’s shop, ask yourself are they really both the same quality.  I doubt IBP or some other big packing house really cares about what you think or say.   Sam the local butcher knows that if he has crappy meat it will get around town and he won’t be in business long. 

Growing up we did not live on a farm, nor grow our own meat.   My parents did work with local sources and would buy a whole beef or hog and have it butchered locally.   In the rural area I grew up in almost every town had a meat locker and a local butcher.    Once your was cut and wrapped we would bring some to our home freezer but most of it was stored at the local meat locker.  We could not store that much meat at home.       For you those who are unfamiliar with the term a meat locker was a place generally owned by the local butcher.   They came into play when electricity in the country wasn’t so common and even if it was a freezer in the home large enough to hold your beef was not easily found.  Local butchers had large walk-in cooler/freezers to age beef that they would cut and sell. This huge room that was the walk-in freezer also had rows of baskets you rented to store your frozen goods.   You then put a padlock on the basket  so only you have access; hence the term meat locker.

Today we source our beef and lamb from  local ranchers.   Our chickens are  from our own flock.   Fish at our house comes from local streams, rivers and lakes.   That is not possible for everyone.  The reasons are many why not everyone can do that.   What I am hoping you will think about after this article,  is that frequently your local butcher or meat shop may be one of those baby steps you can take.   It may not be as convenient as the supermarket in your city.   It likely won’t be quite as cheap.   I am thinking you will  know a little more about how your meat has been handled, and at the same time support a small business owner.   Pretty good combination in my book.   Hope so for you too. .

How many Christmas Cookies do you really need?

Diana's-personal

I spent Saturday and Sunday in my own little world baking to my heart’s content.     After a few years of not allowing myself this time I was unsure if would enjoy it.   Did I stop because my job “took too much of my time” or did I use my job as an excuse to stop an annual ritual I did not enjoy.

I spent Friday night picking one classic recipe from previous years and the rest came from cookbooks and the internet.   If I was going to turn over a new leaf, let’s get out of the box as well.   If I had quit because it was no longer fun, maybe it was making the same cookies year in year out.   I was going to make things that no one had ever seen in a cookie box of mine before.

Saturday came and I plugged holiday movies in the DVD player and set my kitchen up for baking.   I baked cookies and more cookies.   I finished off supplies I had to the point that Saturday night meant a shopping trip for more flour, sugar and eggs.  It had been a great productive day.  I had made my one classic and some new ones.

Sunday morning came and my kitchen was restocked.  My second and final day of baking  was to begin.   My first question of the process began when my husband tasted one of my beautiful new cookies made on Saturday.   I had thought they were nasty yucky, but my husband is like Mikey he will eat anything.   He spit it out.   This was the pivotal moment was I going to let this stop me.   Lucky for my cookie recipients  despite the baking disaster, I was not deterred. Sunday would bring more Christmas movies and many more batches cookies.

Sunday night brought the  reason I do all of this, to give it all away.   I got out my containers, put notes on each as to who they belonged to and how cookies of each variety that meant.   I took each batch and divided them up between my boxes, making sure each box got enough that everyone in each family got a taste.   If there were a few left over I would think what family would really like this cookie.   I had this silly moment of “did I bake enough varieties?”   I am not sure how many Christmas cookies you need, but am sure that  this number is the perfect number for me.  There were Fudgey Bonbons,  PB&J Blondies , Snow Cap Meringues,  White Heavenly Hash, Cherry Macaroons, Peanut Butter Nanaimo Bars, Italian Lemon Drop Cookies, Dave’s Christmas Crunch Cookies,  Peppermint Bark and Banana Chocolate Chip Oatmeal..   Once they were divided up in to containers, I got out my collection of priority mail boxes and made them ready for shipping.   They left our little post office in Montana on Monday destined for family and friends.

I had a great time.   I was also glad it was all done, baked, packaged and shipped.    I had spent two days making gifts of the heart.  I am likely to do it again next year, it seems I had not lost my baking spirit after all.

In case you are wondering he disastrous Pumpkin Orange cookies went to the chickens.   Probably gave them a sugar high, but could not eat them, nor give them.

Christmas Cookies Again

I used to be one of those who would make dozens of different cookie recipes each Christmas Season to give  away.   I would daily bake  a couple of different batches starting the day after Thanksgiving.   I would end up with hundreds of cookies of all sorts and varieties.   On December 15th I would bundle up my hand crafted treasures and give them away.   I would drive all over town to deliver my boxes of homemade goodies.     I would prepare 20 or so boxes and mail them all over the US.        I learned when I lived in Jewish neighborhoods how to make some of their traditional favorites to include in my collections.  No one was left out, friends and family alike were given a holiday treat box.    I wanted people to know I thought of them and they were important to me by giving them a gift of my heart and hands.      I followed that routine for years and enjoyed every minute of it.   Then about four years ago I got a job where the busiest season for them ran from Thanksgiving until the middle of January.   It made making all those cookies a chore and took all the fun out of it.   I finally gave it up.

I have spent lots of time this year re-evaluating things and decided that I enjoyed baking for gifts and am taking it back.  I still have my job, after all it affords me many things including the ability to afford the expenses associated with baking.   But I have decided that I used to like to bake and I am going to try it again.  If I stop baking it will be because it isn’t any fun any more not because my job has over taken my life.   So this weekend I am doing a two day marathon of baking.   I am not sure how many cookies it will yield, but I am going to allow myself two days of baking , and see how it goes.  I will keep you posted.