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Book takes pain out of planning

Author of ‘Dummies’ cookbook takes guesswork out of food

Joe Bonwich St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Susan Nicholson understands reluctant and otherwise kitchen-averse cooks.

“People don’t hate to cook nearly as much as they hate to plan,” she says.

So Nicholson has made a career out of doing the planning for you. Since 1995, she’s written a column called “The 7-Day Menu Planner,” starting at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now syndicated in more than 40 newspapers.

Having created weeklong menus for more than 15 years, it was only a slightly epic task to compile a full year of menus for her new book, “7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies” (Wiley, $19.99).

The book has menu suggestions, in chronological order, for 364 days – plus 10 suggestions for when you’ve forgotten to shop or when you just want something different.

One organizational technique Nicholson uses is dividing each week of menus into seven “theme nights”: family, kids, express, budget, heat and eat, meatless and easy entertaining. These aren’t intended to be hard-and-fast categories for all families; some of Nicholson’s whimsical suggestions include “Susie cooks night” (assuming, of course, someone in your family is named Susie) and “bring it from the deli night.”

The latter category reflects Nicholson’s approach toward serving premade food: You can do it sparingly, as long as you stick with a plan.

Talking by phone from her home in Atlanta, she notes that each week’s menu doesn’t include recipes for every dish.

“It’s not just recipes,” Nicholson says. “Sometimes it’s just an idea for what to have for dinner.”

Although her menus do not specifically address budgeting or healthy eating, those are intended to be side effects of the planning process. One of the recipes included with this article, for example, is for lamb chops, but they’re intended to be the “splurge” meal (or meals, since they’re reheated for another evening’s menu) of the week.

“My target readers are families who are neither rich nor poor,” Nicholson says.

A registered dietitian, she devotes a chapter to choosing healthy foods, paying attention to nutritional labeling and increasing fiber, vitamins and minerals while decreasing fats, cholesterol and sodium. All the recipes include nutritional analysis (done by a different registered dietitian.)

Nicholson continued to write her weekly column during the year she was working on the book.

“I’d be on a different season with the column versus what I was doing in the book,” she says. “I was two people trying to keep separate from each other.”

All the while, she maintained her blog, makingthemenu.com. The process was exhausting.

“My brain is now empty,” she quips. “I’ve had to do some refueling since then.”

But she’s proud of the outcome.

“There really isn’t any book like this,” she says. “There are 10 zillion billion recipe books, but this is the only one that tells you how to plan, then gives you a plan, then tells you what to have for dinner for an entire year.”

Buttery Cajun Shrimp

From “7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies”

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1/8 teaspoon ground (red) cayenne pepper

1 pound medium peeled and deveined shrimp, thawed and patted dry if frozen

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine lemon juice, Cajun seasoning, parsley and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl; mix well. Add shrimp and toss to coat.

Arrange shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish. Dot with butter.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or just until the shrimp turn pink.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 140 calories, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated, 45 percent fat calories) 18 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 183 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 353 milligrams sodium.

Mushroom and Brown Rice Soup

From “7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies”

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 (8-ounce) package sliced white mushrooms

1 (4-ounce) package assorted sliced wild or crimini mushrooms

1 cup shredded carrots

1 clove garlic, pressed or minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 cups vegetable broth

3/4 cup quick-cooking brown rice

2 cups water

Heat oil in a 4-quart or larger pan on medium-high heat. Add onion; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add mushrooms and carrots; cook 8 to 10 minutes or until golden and tender, stirring occasionally.

Add garlic, salt, thyme and pepper; cook 1 minute, stirring.

Add broth, rice and water; cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; cook, partially covered, 5 minutes or until rice is tender.

Yield: 9 cups

Approximate nutrition per cup: 64 calories, 2 grams fat (no saturated fat, 28 percent fat calories), 2 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 496 milligrams sodium.

Lemon-Garlic Marinated Lamb Chops

From “7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies”

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (colored portion of peel)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried oregano

3 tablespoons minced garlic

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 pounds lamb chops, trimmed of all visible fat (see note)

In a small bowl, stir together oil, lemon zest and juice, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper.

Put chops in one or more resealable plastic bags; add marinade and turn to coat. Seal and marinate for 20 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature, turning occasionally.

Heat broiler, grill or grill pan over medium heat. Remove chops from bag and discard marinade.

Grill or broil 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare or to desired doneness.

Note: For easier serving sizes, ask your butcher to cut lamb chops about 4 ounces each, for a total of 16 chops.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 215 calories, 10 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated, 42 percent fat calories), no carbohydrate, 91 milligrams cholesterol, no fiber, 226 milligrams sodium.

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