Friday, October 19, 2012

How I plan my weekly menu

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary
I have been very fortunate to have spent a lot of  vacations in Europe since my early childhood - my first visit being at the age of 4. I’d spend weeks, if not months, visiting aunts, uncles and cousins, seeing much of Germany and its neighbors. Over the years, as my interest in food and cultures developed, I grew to want to see the markets that the natives shop at in the countries I visited. One thing I noticed was how the Europeans grocery shop much more frequently than we do in the States. 

Mercato Centrale, Florence, Italy
One of my favorite markets was in Hungary, the Central Market Hall, where I could have spent a few days! Stall after stall of family run businesses selling everything from spices and liquor, fruits and vegetables, to baked goods, cheeses, meats and flowers. At one stall I had some of the best strudel I have ever had, made fresh by what appeared to be a brother and sister rolling out dough by hand and working it, filling it, and cutting it as if they had done it a thousand times before (and likely had). Another such monster market was the central market, or Mercato Centrale, in Florence, Italy, equally fascinating in the enormous variety of foods offered. These huge everything-under-one-roof markets are incredible, but what's most charming are the mom and pop markets at the corners of everyday neighborhoods. Many cities in America offer the same thing, clearly transplants from the Old World.

Regardless of market size, I think the Europeans shop frequently for food because they are sticklers for freshness and because they simply can. Many of my relatives (i.e., the women) were stay-at-home moms and had time to. Maybe it also helped that they had  markets close by, often within walking distance, so it was easy to pop in if they needed something. My one aunt, for instance, had a butcher across the street, and a grocer and baker around the corner from her. She didn’t have far to go on foot and never bought more than she could carry. 

When you shop more frequently, you can plan your menu day-to-day, getting whatever you’re in the mood for. But I can’t imagine going to the store every day or even every other day myself – even if I had the time. Stores are too far from home, and most of us work and have too many other errands to run. So I plan my meals in advance, as I’m sure many of you do, to avoid multiple trips and to save time.

But creating a weekly menu rather than a daily one requires organization and planning. I have a rough framework I always use. With 7 dinners to plan, I nearly always include 2 chicken or turkey dishes, 2-3 fish, 1 egg, 1 pork, and 1 vegetarian (tofu or bean) night to keep it interesting. Then I think about what’s in season vegetable-wise, what I’m in the mood for, and most importantly, what’s left in the pantry and refrigerator that needs to be eaten! Then I start looking through my recipe collections and from there start make my shopping lists.

A typical weekly menu at my house will look something like this one:

Monday – A good day to go vegetarian as we usually had meat over the weekend. It might be something simple like a Frittata with a plethora of vegetables bought at the farmer’s market. Or maybe a Bean and Veggie Soup I may have made on Sunday when I had more time

Tuesday – Turkey meatballs in tomato sauce or turkey “burgers” wrapped in lettuce leaves, big mixed green salad with veggies and sunflower seeds or nuts

Wednesday – This has to be a fast and easy dinner because I bike ride after work. Pistachio-crusted tilapia with sautéed spinach with garlic and butter is quick to whip up and oh so delicious. If it’s asparagus season, I like to cook some and then drizzle over a little (ok, a lot) of ready-made Trader Joe’s Hollandaise sauce. It goes really well with the fish, too

Thursday – I do Yoga weekly and I’m always inspired to eat something Indian on those nights (I know, I’m funny like that).  Chicken Tikka Masala, cauliflower florets sautéed with ginger and onions, and either basmati rice or poppadum (lentil crackers) alongside some mango chutney or tamarind paste, and then either some ready-made Bharta or Palak Paneer that just needs to be heated. It’s a lot of food, but then we've got enough for lunch the next day

Friday – I get home a little earlier on Fridays, so I have a bit more time to spend in the kitchen than on a regular “school night” so it might be Rosemary and fennel-crusted pork tenderloin, with boiled or roasted red potatoes, and a veggie puree, all of which actually doesn't take that long to prepare

Saturday – This has to be a fairly easy meal since Saturdays are busy with bike riding, grocery shopping and housecleaning. Maybe something that can be grilled, like Salmon with a spice rub or chipotle raspberry BBQ glaze, along with something like steamed green beans or sautéed Swiss chard

Sunday – Usually a big cooking day. I make stuff to take to work for lunch, I might make dessert or cook a soup. Dinner will usually be something that takes a while, too, like Pulled Pork or a whole roasted Chicken with roasted vegetables and a big salad.

Does this take effort? Absolutely. 

But then, everything in life that is worth anything, takes effort.

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