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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: Meal Plan

Lazarus was dead four whole days until Jesus brought him back. I only made it two.

It’s just that the pine nuts and tomatoes and mozzarella looked so pretty in the bowl I had to take a picture…And then it seemed a shame not to use the picture. And then it occurred to me that when I made up a new recipe I’d want to write it down. And then I though – why not just put it on the blog?

So here it is. Tonight’s dinner was Pasta w/Pesto, Cherry Tomatoes, Toasted Pine Nuts, Sauteed Red Onion and Mozzarella. It was actually inspired by an attempt to use up leftovers in the fridge (pesto & red onion) before they went bad. And it was so good I decided that in addition to leaving one night blank on the meal plan to be inspired while shopping, I was going to plan one meal around using up leftovers before I shop. Nifty, huh?

So I don’t know what this means. I’m going to try to avoid any more grand pronouncements since the last one went so poorly. Let’s just say I hope it ends better for me than it did for the guy who brought Lazarus back. Luckily I have a much smaller following.

 

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So far every meal for the last three days has been different than what’s on the meal plan. Sort of a sign that I made too complicated a plan for such a busy week. Oh well. Tonight I still couldn’t face up to my gazpacho and quesadillas so I made my favorite standby, Peperoncini Pasta. One of the few things I know how to make “from the pantry.”

It was just the kids and I so we ate dinner at my favorite hour: 5:30. Being someone who hates lunch and doesn’t know what to eat besides cereal, I’m starving by then. I have never outgrown this predilection for an early dinner and doubt I ever will. I can’t often indulge it but then if I could, I imagine it wouldn’t seem so pleasurable.

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The freezer is almost empty of everything except ice cream and waffles. In the summer my mother would sometimes serve fruit salad and coffee ice cream for I think it’s time to do the same with my own kids.

I managed to cobble together a meal of arancini, onion soup and, because one kid doesn’t like onion soup, ravioli. It was obviously heavy on the starch, but no one complained. My husband hit on the genius idea of popping some of the ravioli in the oil that was frying and making some fried ravioli too. I will try to focus on the veggies when I make a meal plan on Sunday.

I’m happy I made it through the week relying totally on the freezer but I’m already starting to worry about how I’ll manage next fall when I have school and a TA job. I think things might fall apart – I’m going to have to become that person who “whips things up” in thirty minutes.  No idea how that will happen.

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Look closely at those peas. They are almost the only vegetables my family ate this week. The first thing to go when the meal plan goes is the vegetables. This is my sausage pink sauce from the freezer with pasta and peas. There should have been enough sauce for two meals but instead I ate all the sauce after I finished my pasta. Oops.

 

 

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All right – it’s going to be a crazy week. School is rushing to an end and I have so much work to finish that I’m not sure when I’m going to make the meal plan. I’m going to have to wing it – a day by day thing.

Monday’s dinner was breakfast burritos which were quite easy. (I say that because my husband came home just at the point they needed to be assembled, which was good because I wasn’t sure quite how to do that.) The burritos had scrambled eggs, black beans, salsa, jack cheese & avocado. The only thing I really had to make was the salsa and I’ve got my own little recipe down now: cherry tomatoes, scallions, lime, salt & pepper, green tabasco.

I had the broiler on thinking they needed to be cooked but that’s not how it’s done. My husband heated the griddle, moistened the tortillas and heated them briefly, layered the ingredients and cooked them just until the cheese melted then took them off the grill and wrapped them. It’s a lot like swaddling a baby – it seems like it should be easy enough but getting it to stay tight takes a bit of practice!

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Meal Plan day; I delegated to the children. They came up with an all-mexican plan and I obliged because I am a firm believer that when you delegate you must also abdicate some fair measure of control or you’re not really delegating at all. So that explains why tonight’s Tortilla Soup will be followed later in the week by Chili Pizza (their idea), Chilaquiles and Burritos.

But the real beauty came when I brought them along for the shopping. They decided that they would come up with the “surprise” meal and went off in search of ingredients together. That gave me enough time to invent a salad to go with tonight’s soup: mixed greens, radishes, corn, cherry tomato, grilled red onion and avocado. It was a good combination (and I got the pleasure of using the mandolin successfully on the radishes) but I didn’t like the dressing I made. I’m not sure if it’s because I mixed lime and vinegar or because I shouldn’t have used lime at all. But I quibble; it was deeply satisfying to watch the kids (who didn’t eat any salad when I started the blog) eat a salad which contained that many vegetables.

Every time I begin to question whether or not the blog is a worthwhile endeavor, something always pushes me to continue. Today it was the kids; I can’t help thinking that if I wasn’t paying quite so much attention to how I cook and what I cook, they wouldn’t be quite so interested themselves.

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Meal Planning is getting easier, which is funny, because the blog is a lot of work.

I do wonder what the hell I’m doing spending so much time photographing and writing about food, but the problem is, I keep learning stuff so I can’t stop. One of the things I’m learning is that as I wean myself from total dependence on recipes I plan much faster. I haven’t quite figured this out yet. Is it because there’s more information about food stored in my brain now? Is it because it’s easier to imagine a meal than find a meal in a notebook? Leaving one day blank to be inspired by ingredients at the store certainly helps.

Or perhaps, like tonight, it’s because I didn’t come up with the meal at all – my son did! He requested sausage and mushroom pizza which required no thought whatsoever on my part.

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Tonight’s dinner was the perfect illustration of the fourth item under How To Meal Plan: Make it Visible. I was out with my daughter later than I expected, my husband and son got home before us, and because the meal plan was hanging up in the kitchen, it was easy for him to get things cooking. I breezed in with just enough time to change into my pajamas before the chili toastadas were ready. Now that’s a weekend.

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Tonight was my second surprise meal – the one not pre-planned but inspired by ingredients at the store. This time I was wooed by a display of yellow plum tomatoes and some shiny poblano peppers.

I decided to cook a made-up version of chile rellenos, sans-frying, and use the tomatoes for a fresh salsa. Here’s how it went down: I made a pot of rice and pot of black beans. I sliced the peppers in half, seeded them, and broiled them six minutes to a side. Then I stuffed the halves with rice, jack cheese and corn and broiled them again to melt the cheese. I chopped the yellow tomatoes and added red cherry tomatoes, red onion, scallion, cilantro, olive oil, lime, salt, pepper, cumin and green tabasco. The sauce was already made, bless my husband, and frozen from long ago. I’ll have to get him to make another batch for the freezer because it’s definitely a meal we want again.

If altering the routine of the meal plan is going to continue to be this enjoyable I’m going to have to reconsider my instinctive and habitual fear of change.

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I was getting a little beefed out so I planned two vegetarian meals and three chicken dishes for week ten.

It was a strange sensation making the meal plan this week, my new tactic of leaving one day free was so, well, freeing, that I was tempted not to plan too much. I contemplated just going to the store and winging it. But I’m not a wing it kind of a gal. I was afraid I’d come home with only half the ingredients I needed. When I started the blog I couldn’t conceive of ever enjoying shopping or cooking. Now I seem to be enjoying both. I can’t help but wonder (read worry) how far is this thing going to go? Will there still be a meal plan at the end of the year???

Tonight we had sesame noodles and a new side dish: dry fried string beans. Chinese food cooks fast but takes a lot of prep. I got very distracted tonight and ended up serving dinner remarkably close to bed time. I think next time I’ll try to do all the chopping and measuring in the morning so that dinner can be made faster.

Making the string beans was the first time I’ve ever used a wok. Makes me think maybe I’ll venture a stir fry for one of my surprise meals.The string beans were devoured but there are enough noodles left to feed us all lunch tomorrow. Hooray! My least favorite meal of the day taken care of. God forbid I ever start another blog but if I did, I would call it: I Hate Lunch.

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Cheap. Easy. A little Burnt.

Used up our leftover steak, onions, mushrooms and jalapeños by making quesadillas for dinner. But I enjoyed piling on the fillings a bit too much and didn’t realize how high the heat was. So we had crunchy quesadillas, which was alright.

I was shamed into making my meal plan tonight. Aesthetically shamed. I deleted last week’s menu and put tonight’s meal at the top. Then it looked so pathetic hanging out there by itself under the heading “Weekly Meal Plan,” I was forced to give it company. I’ll thank myself in the morning.

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A last minute change in the dinner plan. My husband decided to grill burgers in this unseasonably warm, March weather. We ate outside for the second time this week (ridiculous!) and benefited from the first day of extended daylight hours.

I wasn’t in the mood for what was on the meal plan (couchiflower pasta) which is a remarkably rare occurrence. Many people ask how I could know what I want to eat a week in advance, and of course, I don’t. Usually just the fact that a plan is in place and the food had been purchased is enough to ‘put me in the mood’ so to speak. Not tonight. Maybe its spring fever. In March.

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Last night was another first. It was my first planned, unplanned meal. It was the day I left intentionally blank on the meal plan to be inspired while shopping. I have to admit I didn’t stray too far from what I know but I was in a very specific mood: I wanted to make a pink sauce, like vodka sauce, but with sausage.

It came out exactly the way I wanted it to; I was so pleased. I sauteed onions in olive oil, then removed the skin from five Italian sausages. Four of them I broke up with my fingers into small pieces. I wanted it to be like that great sausage you get on some pizza – not perfect slices of cardboardy tasting meat, but irregularly shaped, heavenly little morsels. The fifth sausage I crumbled, like ground meat, to thicken the sauce. I browned the sausage with the onions and then added vodka, cooked it down, and added more. After the vodka was mostly cooked off, I added one can of crushed tomatoes and some kosher salt. I served the sauce over fusilli with parmesan & hot red pepper flakes.

Lately I’ve been adding spices, not with a measuring spoon, but with my fingers. I’ve been getting a feel for how much I put in. Yesterday, when I wrote about the idea of using my senses when I cook, I left out the sense of touch. I think feeling the ingredients is as important as tasting, seeing and smelling them. Ripping sausage, pinching and sprinkling salt, helps me, somehow, to know instinctively how much to use. I honestly can’t believe how much my cooking practices have changed in two months, just by writing about them. Never has being wrong been so pleasurable.

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So it’s official, I’m going to try to change my ways. A tiny bit. I’ve been undermined by my own blog.

When I started the blog I was sure that the easiest way to get the cooking done was not to think about it. I thought I had mastered a brilliant strategy for how to serve dinner every night even though I didn’t like to cook. Meal planning and following recipes were my battle tactics. Then, in the act of writing about it I discovered that, in fact, my way was not the easiest way – even for me. I learned that on the nights I didn’t need to follow a recipe, I was more relaxed.

At first this was a source of great concern because I am not comfortable with change. (Is anyone?) But in the end it seemed ridiculous to avoid being more relaxed. There’s just no justification for that. So  I am going to see if I can nudge myself to learn more about cooking without recipes. Here’s the plan (because there always has to be a plan, I haven’t changed that much….)

I’m going to leave one night a week open on the meal plan. When I do the shopping, I’m going to allow myself to be inspired by some ingredient in the store and create a meal around it (Which I will then put on the plan. Again, I haven’t changed that much). It’s sort of like my daughter’s challenge for me to make dinner from what was in the house, only, I’ll have a much better “pantry” to choose from. The crazy thing is, this actually sounds fun to me.

I realized while I was shopping today that my plan keeps me from paying attention to anything other than finding what’s on the list. It’s really a silly sort of way to go through life. As an homage to my former self I am going to post in the sidebar my Meal Plan 101. I’ve had it written for ages but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to adding it. It will be a record, of how the unnatural cook got her start. I’m not going to stop meal planning, but maybe, over time, I can adapt it so that I’ll grow as cook. One day, far in the future, I may even attain natural cook status.

Tonight we had leftover tomato soup with garlic broccoli and french bread. I finally doctored the soup to my satisfaction! I did it poorly a couple of weeks ago – too tangy, no flavor – so I tried to correct that with what I had around. I added sugar, fresh basil, marjoram, hot pepper and extra cream. Being willing to do it wrong and keep trying is the secret to all success in life, why I thought cooking was different I have no idea.

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A night like tonight is when I love my meal plan. I didn’t get home until 11:30 but my husband was able to make a homemade dinner fast ’cause I’d taken out the ingredients in the morning.

We used left over poached chicken from the freezer and stewed it in chipotle pepper sauce (La Morena, from a can, also leftover in the freezer) and lots of crushed & fire roasted tomatoes. He made tostadas & topped them with the chicken, jack cheese, thinly sliced onion, cherry tomatoes & cilantro. It’s a new family favorite.

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I don’t write like I meal plan. I don’t sit down and plot in advance how the piece will go (beginning, middle, end-wise) in the way I plot how the week will go (food-wise). Lately, in class, there have been hints about the flaws of this approach. Namely, if you don’t know where you’re headed, you don’t get there purposefully.

I’m conflicted. I want to lead readers purposefully toward a conclusion but if I know the conclusion before I write will it ruin the joy and discovery? Do you see less on a drive if you map it first? Well, I actually have some experience with that. Two years ago we drove across country and back. We had a broad plan for sights we wanted to hit, we knew where we’d start and end (home) and we knew what day we had to reach the middle (California). We plotted our route a few days at a time, but not the whole trip before we’d left. Once we were on the road we relied heavily on maps, but we rarely took the main highway. We took the scenic byways as much as possible till they lead us to grand sights.

Maybe that’s the trick. A loose outline – beginning middle end – some key moments – and then, get there as beautifully as possible. It seems that with cooking and writing I need to improve in opposite directions. To become a better cook, I need to learn to plan less; but to become a better writer I need to learn to plan more.

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Eaaasy. Scrambled eggs (I mixed the leftover spinach in mine) and one of the kids’ favorite sausages Aidells Chicken Apple, but in nifty little links. The kids helped by getting the toast, fruit and their own vegetables ready while I did the eggs. I try to do something that doesn’t take much thought on meal planning day and this did the trick. Plus I’ve never put spinach in my scrambled eggs before and it made me feel virtuous.

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My daughter doesn’t accept the idea that I am an unnatural cook. She keeps trying to prove me wrong. When she is a teenager this desire to prove me wrong will be very annoying, but right now it is incredibly sweet. She refuses to allow me to speak ill of my talents and she thinks “unnatural” is an insult. Yesterday, she gave me a challenge: make dinner from what was in the house. At first I refused. No way. It made me incredibly nervous. Then she gave my husband a challenge – he should make a meal plan! He balked too! I realized how much I’d love it if he did make a meal plan and so I reconsidered the challenge. Why not?

Turns out that making dinner from what’s in the house is a great way to clear out the fridge. Duh. I know lots of people do this I’m just not those people. I made pasta with pink sauce. It should have been pinker than it was but one of the creams wandering around in the fridge turned out to be rock solid. I used bacon, leftover shallot, parsley and 1/2 a red onion, sun dried tomatoes (which must have been at least a year old), garlic, chicken stock, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. It tasted good and was on the table fast.

So I have a confession: I think it might be more relaxing to cook without a recipe. Now what am I supposed to do? I didn’t start this thing so I could change my habits. I started it to…well, I don’t know why the hell I started it. I certainly did not mean give up my recipe following ways. But what did I expect? The blog is a way to make the daily habit of cooking into a creative endeavor. A decent artist allows herself to be changed by the process of art making, doesn’t she? Otherwise, what’s the point?

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This week’s meal plan was based on the concept of a nine-day week. I stretched it because my second semester of school started and I didn’t want to grocery shop until Thursday (after my classes were over). On school nights I try and keep dinner as simple as possible – usually something from the freezer. Tonight we had mac & cheese (leftovers) and garlic broccoli. The garlic broccoli is John’s recipe and I thought I knew the technique but I was wrong. The broccoli he makes is blackened and garlicky but mine was mild and overcooked. One of the nice things about the blog is that it forces me to correct mistakes. Normally I’d fret, do nothing and screw it up again. It could go on that way for years – but now I’ve discovered Command K.

Command K is the link button and I love it. I knew I’d want to turn the words garlic broccoli into a link and even as I was cooking, I was writing out the recipe. As things turned out, it was a recipe for bland, mushy broccoli. So over dinner John explained the technique again, and after dinner he corrected the recipe for me. Next time, I’ve got it in writing. In school the professors often talk about imitating writing you love as a way to learn how to write. I suppose it’s the same with cooking. Recipes are a form of imitation. I’m imitating cooks I love (in this case literally) until I become one myself.

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I almost did something crazy today. I almost renamed all the posts. I noticed something on WordPress’s website about the importance of a good title and it occurred to me that titling each post by the week and day of the meal was the least interesting way to look at the blog. When I think about the posts I like best, I like them because they’re not just about the food they’re about obsession or creativity or love or failure.

But the editor in me likes structure. The need for structure, the beauty of structure, is part of what keeps me meal planning in the first place. I know the benefits of an organizing principle. And so I balked.

Then it occurred to me, what about the tags? The cloud could include the ideas that interest me along with the food. I will remember that I once wrote something about Adam Gopnik, but will I remember we also had pasta for dinner that night? Why not put his name in there? Or how about divergent thinking? The cloud is a non-linear form of representation. I’m growing! So I went back an obsessively re-tagged everything.

Because I was obsessively re-tagging everything dinner was late. But I did manage to pass another salad off on the children. I thought it might be the vinegar that was causing the salad problem so I used a new vinegar that my friend Iana introduced me to this summer, White Balsamic Vinegar from Trader Joe’s. It’s very mild. Dinner was white bean soup from the freezer. I knew making the beef stew last night would be labor intensive so I purposely followed it with something easy. The little joys of meal planning – for someone who doesn’t like to cook, that constitutes the benefit of structure.

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