Archives for posts with tag: menu planning

There gets to be a point when it is just weird to still have vegetables growing in the garden.

I mean, it’s November already. My thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving—only a few weeks away—and its menu of turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers seem completely out of place.

And, of course, there is the weather. It was warm much later than usual this year but it has finally turned cold and frost will be here soon. It’s time to clear things out.

Thanks to the late fall and the crazy growth that came with it (see October 17, 2014), we have many green tomatoes. There are probably as many green cherry tomatoes now as there were red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the entire season up till now. I’m not exaggerating.

And I’m not complaining, either.

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We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Another reason to eat dinner in a restaurant occasionally, besides the expertly-prepared food, quality wines and convivial atmosphere (i.e., the fun of it) is that it is a good way to glean menu ideas and learn about unfamiliar ingredients (or familiar ingredients used in unfamiliar ways).  Tonight, at The Dutch in New York City, Rachel and I enjoyed a delicious spring dinner that highlighted the season’s early vegetables and provided inspiration for future meals at home.

We started with “Stracciatella Toast, Artichoke, Broccoli Rabe” (the menu employs the trendy practice of naming dishes with a terse list of components), which was basically a version of crostini or bruschetta (I think only native Italians know the difference).  A slice of rustic bread was grilled, topped with melted mozzarella and a jumble of fresh and sautéed vegetables.  It seemed both hearty and light at the same time.

We followed that with “Snap Pea Salad, Poppy-Tarragon Dressing, Green Garbanzo”, composed of the named vegetables as well as a mixture of leafy greens.  I’ve never seen green garbanzo beans before but will have to track them down.  They were like a cross between fresh peas and fava beans and added a similar bright green color, texture and flavor to the salad.  I suspect that they would make a tasty variation on hummus.

We could easily have stopped there.  We’ve been finding lately that after starters and/or a salad, our appetite is almost sated, especially if there has been wine and a bread basket.  The main dishes (which tonight were “Skuna Bay Salmon, Pastrami Spice, Crispy Potato, Beets” and “Colorado Lamb, Farro, Asparagus, Favas, Sweet Birch”) almost become superfluous and often end up in a doggie bag (although not this time).  And forget about dessert.  If we were to recreate this meal at home—and this is likely—we would limit the menu to the crostini and salad.

Restaurants, like food magazines and the fashion industry, are a bit ahead of the actual season.  For instance, our Sugar Snap peas are only at the seedling stage.  Professional kitchens may source their vegetables from southern suppliers or, if procured locally, patronize farmers who grow crops in greenhouses.  However they do it, I can’t say I mind getting an early taste of what is coming.  It extends the season and gives us time to prepare before our homegrown vegetables are ready for harvest.

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.