What To Cook? Coming Up With A Plan For Your Meals Can Be The Hardest Part
New year, same old question: What’s for dinner?
If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, odds are you may not know yet.
In a recent survey for Campbell’s Soup, 61 percent of the people polled said they decide their dinner menu earlier the same day - including 36 percent who plan three hours or less before eating, and 11 percent who make up their minds as they’re peering into their refrigerators.
Not only can the last-minute meal maneuvering be stressful, the results are often less than nutritious.
“We’re brain dead, tired and hungry, and in the absence of a plan, we’re going to opt for fast food or frozen dinners,” says Seattle cookbook author Don Collins. “Forget nutrition! At that point in the day, people will eat anything.”
Actually, some cooks are comfortable doing the 6 o’clock shuffle.
“I have more fun coming home, opening the fridge and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to have,”’ says Robert Jasperson, a Spokane letter carrier who does most of the cooking at his house.
Others quickly learn that being organized is a necessity.
“I buy what’s on sale, keep it in the freezer, and plan dinners two days before,” says Sharon Pearson, whose job as a supermarket deli clerk makes shopping more convenient. “Otherwise, we’d be eating Hamburger Helper.”
Each week, Catherine Greer scans the grocery ads for bargains, then plans menus around that. There’s always a soup, at least one pasta dish and a single meat-centered dinner, rounded out with such goodies as Mexican food or pizza.
“I like to keep ridiculous amounts of food around, but I still have to run out to the store at the last minute” - a schedule made more difficult by her new baby, the graduate student says.
Shayne McCaslin, an administrative assistant with a 5-year-old daughter and another child on the way, hopes to get a better handle on meal planning during her maternity leave.
“It’s hard when you’re working, trying to juggle all that,” she says.
When you get down to it, the strategies are simple: Figure out menus ahead of time. Make shopping lists and buy groceries once or twice a week, instead of stopping at the store every day. Rely on leftovers, sometimes disguised in new dishes. Prepare meals in batches and freeze some.
But while planning saves time, there are some people who just don’t have the time to plan - or, at least, the discipline.
That’s where the professionals, like Collins, come in.
“If you want to eat well, you have to plan to eat well,” says Collins, who keeps busy as a singer/actor (former resident baritone with the Seattle Opera) and sales executive with an office interiors firm. “It’s not difficult, but most people don’t get it, or they don’t care.”
His “Cookbook of the Year” (Hara Publishing, 1997, $21.95) features a full 52 weeks’ worth of menus, Monday through Friday, complete with tear-out shopping lists.
Collins, who learned to cook while growing up in Montana, credits his second wife with forcing him to write down his recipes. As they piled up, he decided to write a cookbook. And one day, while tearing a leaf off his “Far Side” calendar, he came up with the idea for a daily guide.
The 30-minute recipes are more healthful variations on the meat-and-potatoes cuisine of his youth, relying on lots of pasta and grains, yogurt-based “cream” sauces and little red meat.
“I use poultry to create the essence of a lot of those comfort foods,” Collins says. For example, his putanesca and bolognese sauces include an easy homemade ground turkey sausage. “People say it’s unbelievable, it’s so satisfying,” he says.
Some recipes are repeated every once in a while, often with variations. Leftovers - “free food,” as Collins calls them - are woven throughout the week, with Monday’s spare red sauce showing up again in Wednesday’s dinner and the extra fish fillet cooked Tuesday appearing again in Thursday’s recipe.
A few nights are set aside for smorgasbords of leftover dishes. “My wife and I often open up a nice bottle of wine and turn it into a 10-course meal,” Collins says.
The key is to relax and enjoy your time in the kitchen, says Collins. “If you’ve planned for it, know you can be out of there in half an hour, it can be a real release,” he says. “Then the meal is celebration time.”
Collins is collaborating with his daughter on a vegetarian cookbook, “Meatless in Seattle,” that will follow the same format. A World Wide Web page is also in the works.
The Internet is the only way to access another Seattle meal-planning service, Food Etc. (www.foodetc.com). The “personal kitchen manager” e-mails weekday menus and a shopping list to subscribers each week for an annual $24 fee.
“I love to cook and entertain, but I hate everyday cooking,” says co-founder Frances Costigan. “I always figured if someone would just tell me what to cook, I could go to the store and get the ingredients. Then I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?”’ As for offering it online, she says, “Living in Seattle, you have to have blinders on not to be aware of what’s going on with computers.”
Food Etc. recipes are a bit more upscale, including such delicacies as pecan-crusted halibut with a lime/ butter sauce and chicken with goat cheese and garlic. But all can be prepared in 30 minutes to an hour, Costigan says: “You can make a nice meal from scratch without spending hours cooking.”
More unusual ingredients, like shallots, are incorporated into more than one recipe during the week so they get used up.
“We get caught up in ruts,” Costigan says. “If nothing else, if people follow the shopping lists, they will have an interesting pantry. They may not follow every one of our recipes, but they’ll have new foods they can create something with.”
By popular demand, Costigan and her partner, Elizabeth Swanson, are developing companion plans for diabetic and heart-healthy menus. Their Web page also includes cookbook reviews, restaurant and wine information and links to other Internet food sites.
But even computers have some limitations. “People ask us if we deliver,” laughs Costigan. “I say, ‘No, we’re still working on that.”’
In the Seattle suburb of Renton, print shop owner Kelly Machel relies on a relatively low-tech device - her freezer - to assemble a month’s worth of meals at a time.
It’s all explained in her selfpublished book, “Month of Meals: One Day to a Freezerful of Entrees” (available for $17.95, plus $1.54 tax for Washington residents and $3 shipping, from KRM de la KRM Publishing, 323 Williams Avenue S., Renton, WA 98055; (425) 228-9104).
Machel started stockpiling frozen dinners after her daughter was born five years ago. The initial results were lukewarm at best.
“I ended up not eating most of it,” Machel says. “It took a long time to do, and I wasted a lot of money. That’s when I started doing my research.”
Her book includes such tips as freezing dishes quickly to keep ice crystals small (meaning a better texture when thawed), and undercooking vegetables, rice and pasta before freezing so they don’t turn out mushy.
Moisture also matters. Even stir-fries freeze well and come out crisp when coated with water and soy sauce, says Machel.
Another simple, but useful, suggestion: “Labeling does help.”
Her recipes run to the traditional - soups, stews, casseroles, meatloaves - including some low-fat versions. Machel typically prepares 15 to 20 dishes at a time and doubles them, with slight variations; for example, making one pan of lasagna with meat and another without.
She also freezes plenty of small containers of macaroni and cheese for her daughter. “She can have that on nights when we’re having something she doesn’t like,” Machel explains.
Sounds like a lot of work? It is. “I tell people it will be an eight- to 10-hour day,” Machel says. “You’re really tired when you’re done.”
Still, she says, “It’s almost as much work to (freeze) food just for a week. You end up spending four or five hours in the kitchen. If you spend just a few more, you can have meals for a month.”
Given restaurant visits and dinner parties, Machel finds that her 30 to 40 meals last closer to two months. But she always tries to stay ahead of the game.
“I feel terrible when I don’t have meals in the freezer,” she says. “That means I have to cook.”
This “carbo-load” recipe is one of the mainstays of Don Collins’ “Cookbook of the Year.”
8-10 baby red potatoes or 1 large russet potato
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, smashed and chopped
1/4 cup white wine
2 slices medium onion, quartered
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
3 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 cup plain, nonfat yogurt
1 tablespoon prepared pesto
Dash of Tabasco sauce
1-1/2 cups cooked brown rice
2 Roma (plum) tomatoes, chopped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Wash and halve potatoes. (If using russet potato, wash and slice, unpeeled, in 1/2-inch slices). Place potatoes, flat side down, on cookie sheet greased with 1 tablespoon olive oil and put in oven.
Saute mushrooms and bell pepper in remaining tablespoon of oil with garlic, wine and onion, about 4 minutes. When done, remove mixture from pan with slotted spoon; set aside.
Add broth to pan. Return to boil. (If cooking russet potato slices, turn them over now.) Slowly stir cornstarch mixture into boiling liquid. Reduce heat to low. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often. Add mushroom mixture. Return to boil and remove from heat.
Stir yogurt, pesto and Tabasco together until smooth. Microwave 30 seconds on HIGH. Stir again.
Warm rice for 2 minutes on HIGH in microwave on individual serving plates.
Remove potatoes from oven. If using baby reds, push them into rice on individual plates. If using russets, chop into 1-inch pieces before sprinkling over rice.
Stir yogurt mixture into thickened mushroom sauce. Pour sauce over potato/rice mixture and garnish with chopped tomatoes.
Yield: 2 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 596 calories, 21 grams fat (32 percent fat calories), 14 grams protein, 94 grams carbohydrate, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 542 milligrams sodium.
An easy but sophisticated sample entree from the Food Etc. meal-planning service (www.foodetc.com).
1-1/2 cups pecans
1/2 cup pistachios
4 (6-ounce) halibut fillets
Lime/Butter Sauce (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Finely chop nuts, or place in food processor for 1 minute. Spread nuts on a plate and press the halibut firmly into them, coating both sides.
Carefully transfer the fillets to a buttered or oiled baking dish. Drizzle with a small amount of the melted butter and lime juice from the sauce recipe below.
Bake the halibut for 6 minutes (for 1/2-inch-thick fillets), or until done. Meanwhile, prepare Lime-Butter Sauce. Transfer fillets to warm plates, spoon sauce over them and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving, without sauce: 577 calories, 42 grams fat (66 percent fat calories), 42 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrate, 54 milligrams cholesterol, 166 milligrams sodium.
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons white wine
Juice of 2 limes
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
In saucepan, melt butter; stir in wine, lime and lemon juice. Simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 163 calories, 17 grams fat (94 percent fat calories), no protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, 47 milligrams cholesterol, 176 milligrams sodium.
Spicy Artichoke Sauce
Kelly Machel, author of “Month of Meals: One Day to a Freezerful of Entrees,” likes to freeze big batches of pasta sauces like this one for quick dinners.
1 pound fresh tomatoes, or 2 (14.5-ounce) cans, chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, crushed
1 (13-3/4-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon pepper
In a large pot, combine all ingredients; simmer for 30 minutes. Freeze in a rigid container or freezer bag.
To serve, thaw and heat slowly on stovetop or in microwave. Serve over pasta and top with Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Yield: 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 66 calories, .5 gram fat (7 percent fat calories), 3 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Bridget Sawicki