Adventures in Meal Planning #001

I have never been great at meal planning. I tend to have big ambitions and am swayed by shiny new recipes. I am also easily bored of what is in my fridge. I find that sturdy green vegetable that has been hanging out in the back of my crisper for a week totally uninspiring. Yet I’m salivating over that chicken dish I saw on Instagram and, even though it calls for five ingredients I don’t currently have, I MUST make it. Sometimes, I end up working until 7p and then really do NOT want to cook. Takeout Thai it is.

Each week, I meal-plan using a program called Notion that allows you to have different databases that are connected to one another. So I have my recipe database and my meal planning database. Throughout the week, I find recipes and save them in the recipe database and then, on Thursday or Friday, I plan meals for Saturday through the next Friday. My plan is usually a mix of new recipes and old favorites, online recipes and cookbook recipes. Sometimes I also write my meal plan up with colorful markers and post it on the fridge so Andrew knows what’s coming.

I always plan for at least one takeout or date night because I am only human, but even with those easier nights planned for, I have never successfully made it through all my meal plan meals. Sometimes it’s due to working late. Sometimes I haven’t had time to do all the grocery shopping. Sometimes I or Andrew just crave something that is not on the plan, and life is too short to be militant about it.

Every two weeks I get a CSA box from Hitchcock Restaurant Group. It has all the ingredients for a complete meal for 4 people, including a protein, some prepared items from the restaurant like hot sauces and dressings, some sort of starch, and of course produce. It was started to help support the restaurant staff and suppliers during the pandemic, and it is something that I really look forward to. This obviously takes care of one meal for the week, and the veggies can be worked into other planned meals.

When it comes to “cooking from my pantry” though, I have a less than stellar track record. I’ve definitely had to throw away some boxes of stock and enchilada sauce recently that were the results of early pandemic panic buying. This is mostly because my “pantry” is actually far away from my kitchen so it can be an out of sight, out of mind situation. I started a spreadsheet at one point to try to keep track of what I actually have, but I haven’t really been motivated to build it out. I am better at cooking from my freezer, especially since we recently got a chest freezer and  I can see what the hell I actually have. Recently, I discovered some duck legs in there that I’d kind of forgotten about and turned two of them into a tasty one-pan roast duck dish with potatoes. I did duck confit with the other three (don’t ask me why I had five duck legs…ha). I also used some duck fat from the pantry for the confit, which made me feel pretty accomplished. 

So, despite the unexpected curveballs everyday life throws at me, here’s how the meal plan panned out:

Day 1:

Duck confit happened to be the first meal of my plan, which was definitely ambitious. I served it with potatoes cooked in duck fat and a french butter lettuce salad. Delish!

Day 2:

Day two is CSA meal day (Credit Hitchcock Restaurant Group for the recipe as well as the CSA goodies). The CSA included some manila clams and all the ingredients for a little clambake. “Clambake” is a bit of a misnomer as it is not baked in an oven. It is more of a moules frites situation, but with clams and fingerling potatoes. Sauté some leek and garlic with chili flake, then half a bottle of decent white wine goes in (the rest is chef’s treat, of course) along with the clams and the fingerlings that were previously steamed. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally so the clams open, release their juices and mingle with the wine. When the alcohol flavor has dissipated, taste for seasoning, “mount” with a good dollop of butter and stir so it is incorporated. Squeeze some lemon; toss in a handful of roughly chopped parsley, and have crusty bread for dipping.

Day 3:

I had a bag of Rancho Gordo Cranberry Beans and read that they could be substituted for pinto beans in Frijoles Charros. I sauteed onion and serrano chilis with some chunky bacon that my Mom’s boyfriend Steve had smoked, homemade chicken stock, and fire-roasted canned tomatoes, along with the pre-soaked beans. All that goodness bubbled away in a dutch oven for about an hour. Then I served it with a dollop of sour cream and cheesy, pickled jalapeno nachos on the side.

Day 4:

I was feeling like something a little different midway through my meal plan so I went vegetarian with this saucy tofu number over noodles. I also can’t say no to a dish that includes pickles. The “meat” of the dish was extra firm tofu, wringed out in a clean dish towel to get rid of as much liquid as possible and tossed in salt and pepper and cornstarch before frying in oil. When cooked, it really did have the consistency of ground meat! Add to that finely diced mushrooms and an unctuous sauce made of tahini, soy sauce, black vinegar, and chili crisp and you really do get an umami bomb of a “gravy” that clings to the ramen noodles. The whole dish is topped with a quick pickled cucumber and more chili crisp. This will definitely be on regular rotation. Note: The noodles are green because they are hippie Jasmine rice noodles from PCC.

Day 5:

Day 5 was supposed to be Mission-style Burritos using some of the leftover beans from Day 3, but I forgot I had pre-ordered Moto Pizza a while back, so burritos would have to wait. If you are in West Seattle and have not tried Moto, I highly recommend it. They opened in 2020 and, at first, you had to order months in advance, but now they release order slots (they are takeout only) on a monthly basis. So follow them on socials to find out when the next month opens. The pizza is detroit-style and made with a 100 year-old sourdough starter called Betty. I’d say it is the platonic ideal of pizza.

Day 6:

This day  was meant to be Chicken Piccata and Lemon Feta Orzo, but that had to be moved to next week’s meal plan because I am being extra and reusing the beans from the Frijoles Charros for those Mission-style Burritos. “Mission-style” means no rice, so I loaded them up with leftover beans and top sirloin cooked in bacon fat along with, pico, salsa verde, cheese, and sour cream. Then I rolled everything up and fried it in more bacon fat before wrapping up in foil. So good, and I had enough ingredients to make two extra and freeze them!

Day 7:

Date night was takeout from our local big-plate Mexican joint, Viva Mexico, complete with extra large margaritas. Andrew says that trough and bucket are the proper units for this kind of food, and I agree.

A Culinary Resolution: An Update

In an effort to cook more out of the cookbooks I own, I decided that for 2021, I would cook out of cookbooks I own, but have not used much (if at all). Generally, I would make an effort to regularly cook dishes from these cookbooks, snap some pics and try to learn a few new things. For the first cookbook, being indecisive, I decided to let the internet make the selection for me. I asked my friends on Facebook to vote for three options: Chez Panisse, Moosewood Cooks at Home, and Together. Moosewood Cooks at Home won by a hair.

Moosewood is the lauded vegetarian restaurant collective in Ithaca New York. Their most famous cookbook is simply titled Moosewood. I have cooked out of it before and loved the recipes so much that I bought their other two cookbooks, one focusing on world cuisine and the other easy home cooking recipes. I was looking forward to trying it out.

Flipping through the recipes, they looked a tad on the simplistic side but, in my experience, it is often the most humble dish that truly satisfies. I had some silken tofu in the fridge that needed using, so my first recipe was a Tofu Basil dressing. One of the suggested uses for it was as a dressing for new potatoes. I used red potatoes, diced them and boiled them un-peeled, and added the dressing when they were still a little warm. I think I didn’t cook the potatoes enough and I should have peeled them. The end result was potatoes covered in a thick, white, viscous substance reminiscent of…

So, 0 for 1. Soldiering on. The next two recipes I tried were cuban black beans and mango salsa. The beans wanted for flavor and were more sweet than savory as there was fresh squeezed OJ. I added some Tabasco to them which greatly improved the flavor. The mango salsa was also good and I served Jasmine rice, seasoned with lime juice and parsley and cooked with a little more liquid than usual so that the rice was slightly sticky and could be molded as you sometimes see in Caribbean restaurants. 

Overall, I was pretty unimpressed with Moosewood Cooks At Home so the best thing that came out of Month 1 was that I gave that cookbook to Goodwill (and now have room for another cookbook!).

February’s cookbook was the January runner up, Chez Panisse. The first recipe I made was scallops with prosciutto and Mayer lemon relish. First I made the relish, which was just finely diced meyer lemons, shallot, parsley, chive,  lemon juice and oil.  It seems odd to eat something that is primarily diced up raw lemons but meyers are so sweet, that it was not sour but piquant and refreshing. I let the relish hang out while I made the scallops. Scallops are notoriously easy to overcook and whenever I make them, I think of the season of Top Chef where several contestants failed when cooking scallops, earning the show, briefly, the name Top Scallop. The trick with scallops is to cook them in a hot pan, briefly on both sides so they caramelize on the outside but remain creamy on the inside. It’s easy, if you don’t have a very hot pan, to leave them on too long, waiting for that maillard reaction to take place and ending up with rubbery scallops. The cookbook suggested heating the pan up, putting the scallops in and cooking in a 425 degree oven for 5 mins. I did this but flipped the scallops right at the end so both sides were browned.

I served the scallops with prosciutto slices and the relish. The saltiness of the prosciutto complemented the creaminess of the scallops and the relish really set off all the flavors. Delish!

The second dish I made out of Chez Panisse was a Rustic Pizza with anchovies. I have since made this pizza twice. When we got our gas stove put in, we started making pizzas pretty regularly. Dough from Trader Joe’s made this an easy weeknight endeavor. We take turns making a traditional combo pizza with sausage, mushrooms, olives, and peppers for Andrew and my kind of pizza which usually includes, kalamata olives, anchovies or pepperoncinis – sometimes all three!

After February, this resolution went the way of most resolutions and fizzled out. However, I consider it a win because it inspired me to cook more out of my cookbooks in general. I rediscovered my Alison Roman Dining In cookbook as well as Marcella Hazan and am seriously eyeing some of my “cooking project” cookbooks and planning a whole weekend of culinary exploration.

Post-script: If you too are wanting to use your cookbooks more often, I highly recommend the website Eat Your Books. For free, you can “upload” five cookbooks. By upload, I mean add the titles from their extensive database. When you have done this, you can search by ingredient. It’s like a digital index for your paper cookbooks. They don’t show the recipes of course but often, it says which page the recipes falls on. The website does not have great UX but it works for what it is. After uploading five, you need to pay to be able to upload as many as you want. At $30/year though, that it is totally worth it for me.

A Culinary Goal for 2021

Each new year, January brings with it an inner struggle for me. I appreciate the New Year – fresh start mentality, but I also shudder at the thought of lofty resolutions abandoned and the feeling of failure this engenders. I read about a book called The Power of Ritual which, among other things, discusses the power of everyday practices to increase our wellbeing. Perhaps 2021 will be the year I focus on rituals to improve my life, rather than big goals or resolutions. To that end, cooking and eating can certainly be defined as rituals, so I will start there as I strive to make 2021 better than 2020. How hard can this be, really? The bar is set so low.

Something that I have been wanting to do for a long time is cook out of my cookbooks more. I feel I am often stymied by choice when I sit down to meal-plan on Thursday or Friday. I receive the New York Times Cooking newsletter. I have an ATK subscription. I follow Food 52 and The Kitchn. So. Much. Content. Then I look at my bookshelves and see dozens of cookbooks that I have barely opened or cooked only one recipe out of. Something has got to give! I have tried to stick to cookbooks (rather than finding recipes online) but I come up against two roadblocks again and again.

Roadblock #1: Which cookbook do I choose? What do I feel like cooking? I don’t know what I feel like cooking, which is why I am asking this question. And round and round it goes.

Roadblock #2: I am meal-planning and I need to use up the ingredients I have. I can’t just pull up an index of all the recipes in all my cookbooks and easily find a couple recipes to use up those pork chops in the freezer and the carrots in the crisper that are threatening to go flaccid. That is what the internet is…and I am trying not to do that…

So, how can I slightly alter my cooking ritual to address these roadblocks?

I’m going to focus on one cookbook per month. I’ll cook a selection of recipes primarily from that cookbook. This will take the selection paralysis out of the equation, and encourage me to really dig into a cookbook which I may otherwise just dip into for specific things. I could even discover some new favorites! While I am focusing on that cookbook, I’ll allow myself to use the internet and my own repertoire of favorites, or even other cookbooks to supplement. I’ll sit down on Thursday with that cookbook in front of me and pick 1-2 recipes to make from it (let’s not get too crazy to start). I will strive to select recipes for which I already have 50% of the ingredients. This might be difficult, but it’s something to strive for to keep the grocery bill low, and cut down on food waste. Then at the end of each month, I will write about my experience here on the blog and share my favorite recipe from the month.

Below are some ground rules to keep me honest and sane.

  1. One cookbook focus per month.
  2. 1-2 recipes per week at first, more if it is going well.
  3. 50% of the chosen recipe’s ingredients should be ones I already have on hand.
  4. Don’t make the same thing twice in the month.

For January, I have narrowed down my selection to  3 options. One is a cookbook with recipes from immigrant women who work in a community kitchen in London. Another is a Moosewood cookbook from the iconic restaurant collective in Ithaca New York, which focuses on easy, quick comfort food recipes. Lastly is a cookbook from the famed French-inspired Californian restaurant Chez Panisse. With two of the cookbooks being from famous restaurants, and  all written by women, I am pretty sure I can’t go wrong. I have posted on social media to ask my friends to choose for me and I will make my selection tomorrow.

From the Left: Together: Our Community Cookbook, Moosewood Cooks at Home, and Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook

Here’s to cooking more in 2021, discovering new favorites, and banishing my cookbook hoarder guilt for good!

Induction Cooking in My Half-formed Kitchen

I have cooked on both gas and electric and gotten pretty familiar with the quirks of both. There is always a readjustment period when switching from one to the other, but both are pretty predictable and I can usually hit my stride quickly. Induction cooking, however, is another beast entirely. Rather than relying on indirect radiation, convection, or thermal conduction, induction cooking uses an electrical current to produce a magnetic field that excites iron molecules, heating the pan and its contents very rapidly. It is more efficient because it has good electrical coupling between the pan and the coil, and can be quickly turned on and off. The cook surface both heats the pan quickly and cools off quickly so there are safety benefits as well. 

When we moved in with my mom last May to start seriously saving for a house, we did not have our own kitchen which drove. Me. Crazy. A Hungry Ginger without a kitchen is a Hangry Ginger indeed. To improve our transitory situation, we got a beefy Breville Smart Oven and a two “burner” induction cooktop. Luckily we did not need to get new pans for the cooktop, as our Demeyer cook set is induction compatible. The controls took some getting used to as they measure in temperature rather than heat level. This would seem more precise, but when you are used to things cooking on low, medium or high and all recipes use these metrics as well, choosing a temp between 140 and 460 can be a tad confounding.

Because it is so efficient, the induction cooktop heats very quickly and much less energy is lost in the process of heating. The following is not 100% scientific, but it helps me conceptualize the differences a bit: Think about traditional heating methods as two step systems: Electricity must heat an electric coil and gas creates a flame before heating the pan. With induction cooking, the stove and the pan are, in a sense, one system with the electromagnetic field produced in the stove being carried seamlessly into the metal of the pan.

The first time I made bacon on it, I burnt the shit out of it in the blink of an eye. Eggs seemed to go from runny to seared to the pan in seconds. I solved the bacon issue by using the aforementioned Breville oven to bake it and learned that for eggs, I should heat up the pan at 300 for a min, crack the eggs and then turn the temp down to 210 or 260. Through trial and error, I gradually got used to the induction cooktop.

Bacon a little too dark, nailed the eggs

Here are a couple things I have learned about different types of induction cooking over this past year and a half. Keep in mind that I am working with a portable induction cooktop that cost me all of $200 on amazon. Built-in ranges from the major manufacturers are surely more consistent and less finicky.

Induction is great for:

  • Heating up water quickly for pasta or mac and cheese emergencies. 
  • Related to this, steaming anything.
  • Soups and stews – Basically anything that doesn’t require really precise cooking (there are only 4 temp settings and there is no “in between.”)

Induction works well if close attention is paid for:

  • Eggs – switch between a couple settings to finesse them to your perfect doneness.
  • Sauteed veggies – as with eggs, start on a higher heat and turn down for more long term cooks or else you will get crispy critters or flaccid failures. 

Induction is ok for:

  • Meat – It can be difficult to get an even brown (at least on my portable cooktop) and I found myself having to rotate pieces of meat to ensure an even brown. The brown they did get was always good, but a little too labor intensive and uncertain in my opinion.
  • Anything else that requires a consistent steady heat. I noticed that with this cooktop, once the pan reached the target temp, it would stay there briefly but then cool down and heat up again to get back up to temp. This cycle wreaked havoc on an ill-fated attempt at crepes and more than one chicken thigh.

Overall, the induction cooktop has been great because it has enabled me to cook meals in my own little makeshift kitchen. I’ve needed to get pretty creative at times because of the whole two burner situation (I’ve made good use of trivets and try to do a mix of stovetop cooking and oven cooking for most meals so I wouldn’t need more than two burners). However, as a nice bookend to the whole experience, I am happy to say that I am on the cusp of getting a big girl gas range. I am looking forward to being able to make more than two things at once on the stove (though the hubby is probably not looking forward to more dishes). And I will be doubling my counter space because it will no longer be taken up by the Smart Oven and the induction cooktop. I appreciate this experience though and I think it has helped me to become a more intentional cook who savors the small joys, like four burners and familiar heat settings.  

Old and new: The induction cooktop doing its thing on the new gas stove (which was not yet hooked up)

Seasonal Spotlight: Tomatoes

Call me basic, but I love a good late summer tomato. Cutting into it, the dark flesh bursting with flavor. Sprinkling some salt and pepper and eating while standing up in the kitchen, juice running down my chin and onto…ok maybe not juice running down my chin etc (I’ll save that for the NSFW version of this post 😏). 

One of my heirloom tomato plants

The rule of thumb for these tomatoes is to not do much with them beyond the slicing and seasoning. Of course if unable to consume as they ripen, turning into a sauce and freezing for the long dark is highly recommended.

During one of our camping trips I made a fantastic salad with some heirloom tomatoes. Super simple: Tomato slices, cantaloupe wedges, cucumber slices and torn fresh mozzarella. Everything drizzled in pesto. This came from a cookbook called The Campout Cookbook by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson. I highly recommend this for glampers and gourmands. Great recipes for home cooking as well as camping! Some of the preparations I find a little too fussy for camping, but they have a lot of tips on prep that you can do at home so you don’t have to do too much at camp (when there is the real possibility that you will be too far into the Rosé to competently prepare a meal).

While the salad featured the tomato in its purest form, if you are interested in cooking it a bit more this risotto recipe is perfect. You grate some of the tomato and mix it with the risotto before you start adding the stock, so it ends up cooking with the risotto and infusing it with flavor. Then you add chopped tomatoes at the end with fresh basil and parmesan cheese. It is a true celebration of summer produce.

This year, my tomato plants produced just the right amount of fruit for salads and occasional tomato-centric dishes, but in past years, I have had an overabundance. When that happens, I always roast some up in a 325 degree oven for 45 -90 mins and with garlic and maybe some onion, extra virgin olive oil, s&p and freeze in jars for the cold winter months. It is probably for the best that I do not have that kind of yield this year because, in our current place, we have a counter depth fridge with limited freezer space and finding room for anything among all the bags of chicken bones and Parmesan rinds and half baguettes is…a…thing.

Summer is definitely winding down and though we are currently encased in a vile smoke layer, I hope to get outside later this week when things clear and harvest the last of the tomatoes. It will be bittersweet, because options for really great tomatoes are limited Fall through Spring. I will continue to enjoy them in their late summer glory though and plan for my garden next year (and my future chest freezer which I will fill with sauces and stocks).

A caprese because, gotta include a classic

Good eating, friends!

~ Hungry Ginger