Meal Planning: Save Money and Time

Homemade Chicken Tortilla Soup

Homemade Chicken Tortilla Soup

What’s for dinner? Even if you love to cook, finding the time to cook dinner every night can be a challenge.  As a commuter, I understand how easy it is to fall into unhealthy, expensive eating patterns. Before I started regularly meal planning, my weeks went something like this: Go to the grocery store at the last minute on Sunday with a vague plan for things we might want to eat that week. Go to work, get home and not really feel like figuring out what to do with the groceries in the fridge, suggest ordering take out (an idea that very seldom meets with resistance), and end up doing this a few times a week. When I finally did decide to use the groceries I would realize that the vague plan was not enough and I would be missing a few key ingredients necessitating another trip to the store.  I was spending too much on takeout and wasting too much food because I wasn’t planning.

When I read an article in the NY Times about menu planning services  I thought that this just might be the answer. I joined The Fresh 20 and every Friday I was granted access to 5 recipes that focused on whole food, clean eating and a list of 20 ingredients that would allow me to make these recipes. Common wisdom says that it takes 21 days to make a habit.  Well, I don’t know if it took 21 days, but I was soon in the habit of grocery shopping once a week and making food that made me feel good about eating it.  This left me free to enjoy eating out on the weekend guilt free.

I did the Fresh 20 for a little over a year and then something strange happened.  I graduated from needing my menu planning service to plan the menu for me to being able to plan my own menu. I started creating my own list. I started looking through my cookbooks and finding recipes I wanted to try. Of course we live in a wired society, so I quickly found a new service that would help me plan my own menus. Now I use Plan to Eat, which allows me to input my own recipes and collect recipes from online. Every week I can drag and drop my selected recipes into the calendar and a grocery list is generated for me.  It’s great and when I tell people about my commitment to meal planning I get responses like: “I should try that” or “that’s a great idea!”.  I realized that my experiences might help those who wanted to get in the habit of meal planning.I hope that the tips below inspire you to make meal planning a regular part of your week.

  • Set aside the time to plan your menu. This is where it all begins. If you don’t spend the time to plan your meals and your grocery list, you won’t be able to make it work. I’ve made it a priority to dedicate an hour or so on Friday after work or on Saturday morning to create our menu for the week.
  • Prep what you can on Saturday or Sunday. If there are vegetables that can be chopped up or things that can be measured, take the time to do it. One of the reasons professional kitchens run so smoothly is that there are prep cooks on staff to prepare everything in advance.
  • Find recipes that are designed to be cooked for weekday meals. It’s no longer in publication, but Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food was a great source of these types of recipes. Luckily, before it ceased publication, a few cookbooks of recipes from the magazine were published. I also find Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook to be an inspirational source.


    My weekday meal inspiration

  • Save big cooking projects for the weekend. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, because my favorite cookbooks tend to be the kind that contains long, involved recipes*. I had to teach myself to save these recipes for the days when I had the most time to spend on them. Cooking can’t be fun if you are stressing out about getting everything done in a reasonable time to eat dinner and still have a little bit of time to yourself.
  • Find recipes that use the same ingredients and make double batches when appropriate. In the sample menu below I made a double batch of taco meat early in the week. One half was for enchiladas and the other half was used for taco salad. This is an especially good technique when you know you have a busy week ahead. Other combinations include turning chili leftovers into chili mac and using leftover roast meats in fried rice.
  • Have a well-stocked pantry. This is a topic I’ve written about before . To that blog post I would add that you should have a high quality balsamic vinegar on hand at all times.  Also, make sure you check your pantry before you go shopping to stock up on items that you might need.

*Deborah Madison, I’m looking at you

And finally, here is an example week

  • Sunday: Chickpea Minestrone
  • Monday: Tex-Mex Turkey Enchiladas (make double meat for taco salads)
  • Tuesday: Leftover Minestrone
  • Wednesday: Turkey Taco Salad
  • Thursday: Garlic Lemon Mahi-Mahi
  • Friday: Hit and Run Pan Baked Chicken

Jamie Oliver’s Hit and Run Pan Baked Chicken

Happy Dog

If you live near Cleveland and you haven’t been to Happy Dog, you should know that you are missing out.  Located in the Gordon Arts District, Happy Dog has become one of our go-to Cleveland restaurant destinations.

Happy Dog Menu

The idea is that you get a hot dog and as many toppings as can fit on top of the dog.  I don’t just mean mustard, onions, chili and coleslaw*. I’m talking things like Oaxacan Red Chile and Chocolate Mole Sauce, Bacon Spiked Southern Greens, Habanero Hot Sauce from Momocho, and Warm Pineapple-Ginger-Currant Chutney.

Dog with Spanish Onions, Habanero Hot Sauce, Mole Sauce, and Housemade Peanut Butter. Tots with a side of Chimichurri Sauce

When you sit down at your table there is a notepad that has the menu selections, a cup of golf pencils and a laminated card that has some “Suggestive Wieners”.  You simply check off if you want a hot dog or a vegan sausage and the toppings you want. If you flip your paper over you will see your next tough choice. Fries or Tots.  It’s never a bad idea to go with the tots and there is a selection of sauces that you can pick from. For another $1 you can add from a variety of cheeses, chilis, and an egg to your potatoes.

One of the suggestive wieners. It has "Everything Bagel" Cream Cheese, Southern spiked Greens, and hot sauce.

We have never been disappointed. My last trip there I discovered the Brazilian Chimichurri sauce as a dip for my tots. It was so good that when I ran out of tots I was eating the sauce with my spoon. There are endless combinations for your hot dog and it has a really nice dive bar ambiance. Not as in “EEW, my feet are sticking to the floor!” but as in the waitresses all wear punk band T-Shirts and it looks like the building has always been the neighborhood bar. It’s a great restaurant in an area  that has really seen a lot of growth in the past few years.  If you’re looking for a bite to eat in Cleveland, you’ve gotta try Happy Dog!

*Please note: Ketchup was deliberately left off this list. Everybody knows it  does not belong on hot dogs.

Salad days

If you know me, you know that I equally love incredibly healthy food and over the top unhealthy food. Lately the scales have been tipped in favor of unhealthy food, so we made the decision to try to eat salad once a week. There are some things to keep in mind when turning to salad as a healthy option:

  • Watch the dressing. If you douse the salad with unhealthy dressings you are running counterproductive to your goal. I try to make my own dressing. It’s easier that you would ever think, and soon you will be wondering why you ever bought dressing in the first place.
  • Add some protein. Since we are making this a main dish, I find that adding some meat makes it more filling. Of course if you are a Vegetarian you can pick your favorite veggie based protein.

Cobb Salad

Making Your Own Dressing

The most basic vinaigrette consists of four ingredients: Oil, Vinegar, Salt, and Pepper. I usually add a little bit of dijon mustard to make it emulsify nicely. The basic proportion is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (vinegar). Be a miser with the salt and a crazy man with the pepper. Once you get this down, you can play around and make all kinds of variations. You can add fresh herbs, or even replace some of the vinegar with citrus juice. It can turn into an Asian vinaigrette with the addition of some soy and sesame oil.

Greek Salad

Salad Topping Ideas
Here are some ideas to get started. A Build Your Own Salad Bar is always fun and allows everyone to have the toppings they want.

  • Artichoke Hearts
  • Sun Dried Tomatoes
  • Roasted Red Peppers
  • Kalamata Olives
  • Feta Cheese
  • Blue Cheese
  • Apples and Pears
  • Berries
  • Nuts (Almonds, Walnuts, Sunflower Seeds etc…)
  • Mandarin Oranges
  • Hard Boiled Eggs
  • Snow Peas
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Corn
  • Black Beans
  • Taco Meat (Use Lean Ground Turkey)

Asian Salad with Flank Steak

Kitchen Tips: Pantry For The Beginning Home Cook

I know, I know. I promised myself I was going to blog every week. Wanna hear my excuse? It’s not because I haven’t been cooking, in fact I’ve been cooking more than ever. I’ve even been developing my own recipes, and I have a whole folder that includes what will hopefully become an award winning chili. So why no blogging? Here is my confession…food blogs should have pictures. Gorgeous, colorful pictures that make you wish you could reach into the computer and taste the food being shown.  I don’t have a nice enough camera to take photos of my food, so I sort of started to ignore my blog. But then I had an epiphany. MFK Fisher didn’t need photographs to be the best food writer ever*, so why not let my English degree work for me a little bit while I wait to get a camera? So I’m back. Hopefully this time to stay.

And this week I bring you some simple kitchen tips regarding what to keep in the pantry. Much of this may seem common sense, and experienced cooks will probably be bored reading it, however for those who are just starting to experiment in the kitchen you will find that with these ingredients on hand you will always be able to whip up something amazing.  Here is my annotated list.

Eggs-Frittatas and Omelettes make beautiful dinners especially if you have a bunch of leftover produce you need to use. The varieties are endless and you can experiment with all kinds of spices and herbs. Also having eggs on hand means baked goods, like cookies. (For an example Frittata recipe check out this post from 101 cookbooks.)

Spices-Build a good collection of spices. I find that spices at CostPlus World Market are that rare blend of cheap but decent quality.  It can be expensive to buy them all at the same time so pick a few different ones each trip. The spices I use most are: Cumin, Coriander, Chipotle Chili Powder, Chili Powder, Sun brand Madras Curry Powder, Crushed Red Pepper, and Cayenne Pepper.

Butter-The real stuff. Your cookies will thank you. Also mix room temp butter with an equal amount of flour to create a beurre manie that will thicken your sauces and soups nicely.

Olive Oil-Find a good mid-level olive oil for everyday use. The expensive olive oil is better for dipping and drizzling as a sauce.

Pasta-I try to keep several varieties on hand. My favorites are Penne,Campanelle, and Orrichette

Milk-Combine with eggs and you have the basis for custard which will help you create a variety of sweet and savory dishes.

Good Cheese-Fontina, Aged Cheddar, Gruyere all make dishes that would be boring with velveeta or american sing. And I always have a big chunk of Parmesan in the fridge for sprinkling over pasta dishes.

Sugar- With sugar, eggs, flour and butter you will be able to create baked masterpieces in a moments notice. Bonus if you always have a bag of chocolate chips on hand.

Canned beans-Technically this should be dried beans which are cheaper and healthier, but I haven’t figured out how to cook and freeze dried beans so I usually have cans of black beans, kidney beans,  garbanzo beans,  and white beans. Remember to rinse your beans in cold water to get rid of the excess sodium.

Rice-My favorite rice to keep on hand is Lundberg Short Grain Brown, but any rice will do and if you’re feeling adventurous you can keep a variety on hand. Others that I keep on hand include Basmati and Jasmine

Canned Tomatoes-I keep a variety of can sizes on hand. Some 28 oz. cans of whole and diced tomatoes for sauce and chilis, some 14.5 oz. cans for smaller dishes and as secondary ingredients. I’m partial to Muir Glen’s Fire Roasted Tomatoes, which pack a lot of flavor.

Fresh Garlic-Garlic in a jar and garlic powder can’t match the flavor that is offered by fresh cloves.

Flour-Unbleached, all purpose. For baked goods like breads and cookies there is no better than King Arthur’s Flour.

So what kinds of last minute dinners can you make with these ingredients?

  • Sauteed chickpeas tossed with olive oil, pasta, and Parmesan cheese.
  • Beans and Rice (Experiement with spices to find the flavor you want)
  • Cheese Omelette
  • Vegetable Frittata
  • Homemade Mac and Cheese
  • Spaghetti Sauce
  • Vegetarian Chili
  • Shortbread Cookies
  • Muffins
  • Pancakes

*I’m not insinuating that I have the talent of Ms. Fisher. I do not. yet.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year! For Beer!

When I was in high school I remember seeing an advertisement for Stuart Weitzman shoes in which the tagline was “We’re a little obsessed with shoes”.  Lately I think I’m becoming a little obsessed with food. Of course, I can’t really be blamed since the time between  Thanksgiving to New Year is pretty much one collective excuse to obsess about food.

What’s the next best part of the holiday season? The Booze! If you’re in Northeast Ohio you probably know about the sweet, sweet nectar known as Great Lakes Christmas Ale. It’s brewed with honey, ginger and cinnamon and as is befitting a holiday brew it has a high alcohol content. If you didn’t get a six pack this year, you’re probably out of luck, but there’s always next year. (When you should just pick up a whole case.)

Liquor isn’t just for drinking during the season.  While shopping for groceries, I noticed the assortment of holiday foods with  liquor. Fruitcakes, brandy hard sauce, rum balls and rum cakes lined the shelves. I realized that during the holiday season, not only is is socially acceptable to add booze to anything you cook…it is almost expected.  So I went to work on two projects: Beer Caramel Sauce and Aged Egg Nog.

Continue reading

A Celebration of Picnics

It is late October, and though the weather is starting to turn,  I think we may still have a few days of Indian Summer ahead of us.  I’m looking forward to this because there is no better way to celebrate such a day than with a picnic. I love picnics. I’m the kind of person who will spend a week agonizing over just the right picnic menu for a road trip just so we don’t have to stop at a McDonalds.  And, it should be noted, my picnic sandwiches stay far away from the Wonder bread and bologna*.  My standard is a creamy French cheese like Brie or Camembert combined with a good ham or roast beef on a baguette.  No condiment, just the delicious simplicity of really good meat, cheese, and bread.

But picnics aren’t just for road trips.  Anytime I encounter a beautiful vista I am inclined to say  “This spot would be perfect for a picnic.”  When I was in Vermont,  home of fantastic artisanal cheese and meat, and surrounded by beautiful  mountains and water, I was in picnic heaven. We decided to have a Ploughman’s lunch at Shelburne Farms. We purchased some cheese**, bread, olives, and ham from a local Burlington market and drove over to Shelburne. We arrived hungry, but after looking at the map I realized that the best place for our picnic was probably on the highest point of the property.  I found our path and forward we trudged.   “Trust me, it will be worth it!”  I said as the hunger dug in. And then we stepped out into this:


Photo by Josh

It was glorious. Eating delicious food surrounded by mountains and looking at Lake Champlain, it was the perfect depiction of everything that makes me want to move to Vermont.  And it was the perfect place for a picnic. I’ll even give you another picture just in case you weren’t completely convinced.

Photo by Josh

Photo by Josh

And now that it is Fall, the scenery in Ohio is beautiful and it is apple season.  So go grab some aged cheddar from Holmes county, some apples and cider from Brants,  and celebrate those few days of Indian summer with a Ploughman’s lunch of your own.

*  No offense to those who like Bologna. Even when I was little it was my least favorite lunch meat.
** I stand by my assertion that Morbier is a stinky cheese whose bark is worse than its bite, and is actually quite delicious.

Vermonster Madness

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vermont?  There’s a good chance that you think of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. These two friends took a correspondence course on ice cream making in 1977, then  in 1978 they opened the first Ben and Jerry’s scoop shop in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington.  In 1980 they started packing it pints, and now you can find their ice cream all over the world.

When I was planning our trip to Vermont, I made sure to include a stop at the number one tourist attraction in the state, The Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury.  Before we even stepped through the door we had made a decision. We decided that the four of us were going to take on the Vermonster. 20 scoops of ice cream, 4 ladles of hot fudge, 4 bananas, 3 cookies, 1 brownie, 10 scoops of nut, 4 toppings and whipped cream.  (Although ours was modified a bit with 2 bananas and fewer nuts)

They told us to pick 4 or 5 flavors, that more than that would overwhelm the sundae. So, We all picked our favorite flavors, me going with the classic Phish Food. And this is what we were served:

The Vermonster (Photo by Sam)
The Vermonster (Photo by Sam)

A decadent bucket of Ice Cream. It was an exercise in American excess and we knew we were going to lose, but we had to give it a shot. We had been counting on Josh to be our secret weapon, and knew we were in trouble when Josh said he was feeling full and although we had been eating and eating no dent  seemed to have been made.

Sam Digs In (Photo by Josh)

Sam Digs In (Photo by Josh)

After a while it turned into a soupy mess, but still we soldiered on.
Brian takes a big bite (Photo by Sam)

Brian takes a big bite (Photo by Sam)

In the end we were left sick and full , yet ice cream remained in the bottom of the bucket. As was predicted we had been beaten, but we were not surprised. We discarded the disgusting looking remnants of the sundae and kept the bucket as a souvenir of our failure and fun at the Ben and Jerry’s factory.