Have you seen Courtney’s house tour? Because it’s what hooked me. Well, that, and he always seems to have some pretty handy tips that have me wondering why I hadn’t thought of it first. Courtney Out Loud, a lifestyle and design blog, is here to give us a little help in the kitchen (and goodness knows I need it; Scott won’t argue that). You might as well get out those notepads (or get those “pinning” fingers ready), because he’s here with one handy guide to cooking with a game plan.
When I was in culinary school, students would arrive early to prepare their mise en place. In other words, we were setting up the ingredients that would be used in the day’s dishes. By prepping everything prior, it allowed us to focus on preparing the dishes rather than the components.
In my own kitchen, I approach menu planning the same way. By laying out all the things I will need in advance, I cut the time I spend at the grocery and in the kitchen saving money because nothing is wasted. Thanks to practice, I can plan a week’s worth of meals and shop in just over an hour (depending on the checkout line). It’s the same amount of time I normally wait for take-out (not that I ever order Round Table and order a large BBQ Chicken Pizza…nope, not me). Follow these simple rules and you can eat like a king off a pauper’s budget and still have time to veg on the couch!
Know Your Schedule & Lifestyle:
As I said, planning is essential for this system to work. First and foremost, determine how your family eats. Do you live alone? Do you work odd hours? Do you all sit down to a meal or is it grab and go? Are there days of the week that no one is home?
By answering the above questions, you start to create systems unique to your family. That is Rule #1 and something I stressed with all my private chef clients – this is your house and therefore you need to eat meals that suit how you live. The quickest and easiest way to accomplish this is to steer clear of the antiquated notion that meals are three unique components – a meat, vegetable and starch. Unless it’s a special occasion, all the meals I cook in my own home can easily be morphed into something else with a few additional ingredients allowing me (or my partner if I am lucky) to cook once but often eat two or three meals.
Cook Once & Eat Twice:
I plan meals around key foods that I can prepare in large amounts and use in several different recipes throughout the week. This is different from making large batches of the same recipe and eating leftovers. For example, if I roast a chicken, I will actually roast two at the same time – takes the same amount of time but allows me to have extra on hand to make chicken tacos on one night, chicken curry later in the week and chicken hash with the vegetable leftovers on the weekend.
The key to cooking once and eating multiple times is organizing the sequence of your meals, ensuring that you are creating “mise en place” for the subsequent meals. Notice that each dish in my sample menu (below) can stand alone without numerous side dishes – and when side dishes are required, they can be used as part of the next dish’s prep. The vegetables from the chicken tacos can be thrown into the curry while the potatoes from the chicken curry can be used in the chicken hash. With this system you are spending less time prepping because of the base meal you prepared at the beginning.
You Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Recipe:
Well actually you sorta do, but recipes shouldn’t rule your actions in the kitchen. Recipes are simply directions, not mandates –they are meant to guide you along the way but you should feel free to deviate. Have extra vegetables in your crisper? Toss them into another dish, make a stir fry or add them to the side. It’s your house – you make the rules! Have left over rice from last night and want to have it with your bolognaise sauce rather than pasta? Go for it! For example, in the bolognaise recipe I recommend, feel free to substitute turkey for the pork or leave out the veal completely and double up. The goal is to morph the recipe to fit your life. As a former chef, it shocked me to hear the number of clients that did not make particular dishes because they didn’t like a component of the recipe. They would turn to me for advice, expecting some technical answer to their question. In turn, it always shocked them when I told them my answer “You don’t like it? Leave it out.” Most recipes can survive omitting an ingredient. Seriously, it really is that simple.
Let Me Upgrade You:
Here is a secret that I don’t tell a lot of people. I know how to cook about twelve things really well. Seriously. Cross my heart and hope to die. BUT….. (you knew there was one coming) I know at least three variations of each of those dishes so in reality I know how to cook about a month’s worth of meals. It’s one of those dirty secrets your chef friends won’t tell you – recipes are merely a riff of a classic item. If you know how to roast a chicken, you can morph it into 6 different dishes. Can you braise a pot roast? Then by default you can make at least 3 unique dishes. Simply change the spices or braising liquid and you have a different meal. A simple roast chicken can be morphed by stuffing it with fennel and thyme and applying a rub of herb de province while a pot roast can be braised in beer to create a dynamic spin on an old classic.
Menu planning isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it. To help you with this, I have included a sample menu of dinners for 5 nights for an average grocery bill of approximately $40-$50 depending on where you live. With a little effort, you can feed your family delicious meals that don’t cost a fortune and keep you out of the kitchen!
Courtney is the writer behind the design and lifestyle blog, Courtney Out Loud (www.courtneyoutloud.com). When he isn’t scouring thrift and fabric stores, he can be found in his home in Oakland, CA forcing his partner to try his culinary creations.