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How do you decide what to cook?

s
schmaltz Sep 23, 2010 10:39 AM

One of my biggest problems as a home cook (I admit, there are several) is trying to decide what to make. I spend way too much time reading recipes and blogs and stories about food, but when it comes down to choosing what to make for say, a weeknight dinner, a small dinner party or a batch of something baked, I'm often struck with major indecision. By default, I look for recipes that are a) quick, b) call for most ingredients I already have in my fridge/pantry, and c) don't involve too many pots and pans to clean afterward. (Okay, I'm kind of a lazy cook). Once in a while I'll try something that takes time and effort, but then I'll just make that one thing and nothing else. ("Hi, honey, we're having sourdough bread from the starter I've been feeding for weeks! If you put some peanut butter on for protein, it's dinner! Bon Appetit!")

So, my question is part a plea for advice on getting over my indecision and part just curiosity. How do you choose what to make with so many freaking recipes out there?

  1. m
    mrsgreer Sep 23, 2010 10:53 AM

    I begin in the store or market, and choose whats fresh, in season, and reasonably priced. If chicken is on sale for weeks, I pick something that is more pricey, but will be worth it (scallops, crab...yum)
    From there, weeknight meals I try to prepare simply, yet concentrate flavor thru rubs, grilling, braising, etc. I love recipes where i throw everything in my 14in skillet, or all on the grill.
    For dinner parties, I choose a menu that features fresh seasonal items, and prepare them in ways I am proficient at. You don't want to be scrambling to make something you are unfamiliar with.
    For me the exact recipes are last. I browse thru EPI or books, and read what recipes will work for my ingredients and timeframe. "Shopping for specific recipe ingredient lists " is IMO a pain in the neck. The store may not have it, it may be expensive, and/or you may forget it!
    When you do narrow down a recipe, getting 1 specialty item you may not have in your pantry is not a big deal..
    As for something baked...I'm with you. How can you not want to make them all!!?? ;)

    1. Aravisea Sep 23, 2010 10:55 AM

      For me it's almost exclusively about what we're craving. This doesn't always jive nicely with what I have in the house - the grocery store that's less than a block away does much to enable this inefficiency. :)

      1. pikawicca Sep 23, 2010 10:55 AM

        I cook dinner 6 nights a week. (We eat out the other night.) I usually stick to: 2 seafood, 2 vegetarian, 1 poultry, and 1 red meat dinner per week. I usually choose the veggies first, selecting from my farmers market loot, then decide what to do with it. For instance, today I'm eying a Kabocha squash that's sitting on my kitchen counter. I have some Italian sausages in the fridge, and some fennel. I think I'll make a stuffing of the sausage, fennel, and onions and bake it in squash halves. An entree like this only requires a salad to round out the meal, so I'll use up the lovely salad mix I bought at the market.

        I have lots of cookbooks, and I'm finding the eatyourbooks.com website extremely useful for menu planning. If you cook from books a lot, I suggest you check this out.

        For parties, I keep a log of all dinner parties, what I served, who attended, and how the food was received. This comes in handy for planning.

        I write a food column for my local newspaper, so I end up reading about food for 2 or 3 hours a day. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. I find it helps me to focus if I stick to cooking from 1 book per week. (This week it's "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners." My baking book right now is "Good to the Grain."

        9 Replies
        1. re: pikawicca
          The Dairy Queen Sep 24, 2010 05:58 AM

          pikawicca, I love your "1 book per week" approach. How do fit COTM into that?

          As for me, when its CSA season, I am slave to the box of vegetables. I try to prioritize the vegetables by which are the most perishable, and use those first. Like pikawicca, I've found EYB tremendously helpful in finding recipes in my cookbooks. My backup to EYB is epicurious. It's true that there are a zillion recipes on the internet, but I prefer cooking from my books because I know I can trust them. Epicurious is pretty reliable, too, especially if you pay attention to the star ratings from other users. None of this is foolproof of course.

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen
            pikawicca Sep 24, 2010 08:05 AM

            If I'm cooking along, I'll do the COTM for a week, or so. If it's a particular cuisine (e.g., Mexican, I'll dip into it throughout the month. My husband starts to complain if I serve up "exotic" dishes night after night.)

            1. re: pikawicca
              The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 05:35 AM

              pikawicca, I know it's been more than a month since you posted this, but, I've been thinking about adopting your meal planning approach once CSA season ends later this month. It love the orderliness of your approach. Question: what is your shopping strategy?

              Thank you,

              ~TDQ

              1. re: The Dairy Queen
                pikawicca Nov 3, 2010 11:43 AM

                My shopping strategy is a bit different these days, as I pay very little attention to the price of anything, unlike in days gone by. (And some of it, like the Wagyu steak I bought a while back, I can write off as a business expense.) Great food is what I choose to spend a lot of my disposable income on, so my freezer is stocked with local, pastured beef, lamb, pork, chickens, rabbit, bison, and elk. Fish (cryovaced and portioned for 2) from a seafood market in Seattle. The freezer is in the basement, so I keep a list of its contents on the fridge in the kitchen, crossing off items as I remove them.

                We now have a year-round farmers' market (twice weekly in the warmer 6 months of the year), so I shop for produce either once or twice a week. I usually don't have a particular dish in mind when I buy produce, I simply buy what looks particularly appealing that day. (And I'm a sucker for exotic produce of any sort, so I sometimes end up with totally unfamiliar stuff.)

                Things I always have on hand: Parm, arborio rice, chicken stock, frozen peas, dried mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, a hunk of great cheese, a good imported salami, wine, chocolate, and fresh fruit. A small army could drop by and I could feed them well. (Plus, we love rissotto and if I'm not in much of a cooking mood, a can have a tasty one on the table in less than half an hour.

                I generally make one trip per week to the supermarket for staples.

                Oh, and Friday is usually Soup Day. Any unused produce gets cooked up, and if I have any leftover meat or pasta, that might go in, as well.

                Any extra meat of fish gets turned into my Mom's Meat Spread: Put hunks of meat into food processor, toss in a little chopped onion, mayo, mustard, and S&P. Whir it around until it's a consistency that you like. This always gets gobbled up on lunch sandwiches. I've gotten very good at not wasting anything.

                1. re: pikawicca
                  The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 12:02 PM

                  Thank you, pikawicca! I am not a fan of soups, but my husband is, and you make it sound so appealing and easy to have soup day on Friday. And, even I can be a fan of soups this time of year! I pick up my CSA on Thursday, and so am accustomed to having frittata day on Thursday. But I like your soup day and Mom's meat spread idea.

                  I always plan to keep an inventory of what we've got in our freezer, but, with two of us adding to and subtracting from it, somehow, the discipline gets lost. But, I think I might be able to rein that in if I start doing a real weekly meal plan. We'll see how it goes.

                  Thank you for the wonderful ideas, everyone. These are all of the things I should have learned in Home Economics class, had we had one, right?

                  ~TDQ

                  1. re: pikawicca
                    m
                    milkyway4679 Nov 4, 2010 05:38 AM

                    As a poor college student, I hope that I can one day have your pantry!! I could just sit in there and eat!

                    1. re: milkyway4679
                      pikawicca Nov 4, 2010 06:35 AM

                      As a poor college student in Berkeley, CA, I once spent an entire quarter eating only hot dogs and artichokes. (Bought on the farm, artichokes were dirt cheap.) Took me a long time before I could again love 'chokes.

              2. re: The Dairy Queen
                decolady Nov 4, 2010 09:48 AM

                +1 for eating seasonally. I'm a member of a CSA and I garden. Like TDQ, I prioritize by what is ripe and most perishable. I also can and freeze things for use in the off season. This week I got a lot of radishes in the box as well as fresh buttercrunch lettuce. Even though I typically think of it a spring dish, I'll be making my grandmother's wilted lettuce salad for our dinner tomorrow night. During winter I try to make good use of the foods I "put by" in the summer.

                I fix old favourites or look for new recipes using my fruits and veggies. I blog and I participate in some of the cook-alongs going on in the blogsphere. Also, I have a family. If they request something in particular, I fit that into the weekly menu.

                I copy and paste recipes that interest me into a cookbook folder on my computer. Some days I browse those recipes and I love reading cookbooks. Between my computer folder and my books, I keep a list of recipes to try and will sometimes go through the list to see what matches my veggie box or what looks good to me.

              3. re: pikawicca
                cassoulady Sep 24, 2010 06:18 AM

                pikawicca, I just checked out the site Eat your books- what a cool idea! Thanks for sharing this site. I often find myself at work, thinking of a recipe in one of my books at home but cant remember all the ingrediants

              4. d
                Dan G Sep 23, 2010 11:02 AM

                I don't use recipes. I read them to get ideas (about techniques or what ingedients might go together), but never follow them when actually cooking.

                Every Saturday morning, we go to the local farmers market and buy whatever produce and meat looks good. Throughout the week, just open the refrigerator, see what is there and figure out how it goes together.

                The biggest decision is usually the basic where to start. The two main factors that influence that are:
                1) what interesting ingredient is there that should be eaten asap. Lately, it has been corn on the cob fresh from the market that I want to eat within a few days of purchase, and chantarelles and other interesting mushrooms.
                2) let weather dictate that: is it nice enough to grill outside, if so, what meat do we have in the fridge, what might go with it... Weather not conducive to outdoor cooking: do we have pasta, if so what can go with it? Do we have ingredients for a good risotto? Really, no thought goes into it until it is time to start cooking and then it is a hit and miss, lets try something situation.

                For dinner parties, it is usually "those steaks/that chicken/etc look good...lets buy that" then wander around the market finding things that complement it. Since my market day is Saturday and most of my parties are either saturday or sunday, everything is still fresh and crisp and wonderful. Same procedure though - decision is made last minute.

                That said, my cooking style is based on simple preparation of quality fresh local ingredients, so not a lot of planning goes into it.

                1. LaPomme Sep 23, 2010 11:07 AM

                  One thing that's really expanded my repertroire this past year is belonging to a CSA. I'm fortunate enough to live in California, where the CSAs deliver all year. I get boxes of whatever produce is in season on this particular farm, and I go from there. Prior to belonging to the CSA, I never would have considered buying or cooking chard, kale, napa cabbage, or turnips. But having them delivered to my doorstep forced me to figure out what to do with them.

                  If a CSA isn't an option for you, farmer's markets are also a great source of inspiration. Buy whatever looks good, and then find some recipes that incorporate them.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: LaPomme
                    s
                    schmaltz Sep 23, 2010 11:32 AM

                    These are great tips. I definitely need to become more comfortable and confident not using a recipe (if I had a kabocha squash, I'd look through every recipe on epi for what to do with it). One thing that's enabled my indecision problem is that I just started a job across the street from Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, which sells pretty much everything: produce, meat, fish, poultry, hard to find ingredients, spices, etc. I'm not complaining. I love it, but it's totally overwhelming.

                    1. re: schmaltz
                      LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 09:42 AM

                      Lucky you on the access to the Reading Terminal Market! Perhaps centering in on ONE shop/booth (not sure of the set-up) per week might help you narrow what you'll be cooking. Or perhaps several booths - say you're going to one specific fishmonger, and then the spice market booth. Work with those two and make something that utilizes just those ingredients (with appropriate side dishes). A few days later, choose two other booths and go from there.

                  2. Jay F Sep 23, 2010 11:46 AM

                    I usually decide when I get to the store, choosing things according to what's fresh, what I'm craving, what I feel like cooking. The very best advice I ever got from a cookbook was not to be enslaved by a shopping list, from Marcella Hazan's first or second cookbook, instead shopping according to what's good at the market.

                    It took me awhile not to use recipes -- years, really -- but I'm now able to go the market (I'm a ten-minute walk to either Whole Foods, or the "gourmet" branch of our local supermarket chain) and throw a meal together with no effort.

                    However, my memory isn't perfect, and I carry little shopping lists I've written out for things I make a lot and for which you need specific amounts of something (stuff for lasagne, macaroni & cheese, stuff I bake). I forget things sometimes. I went to the store the other day because I'd run out of meat to make Bolognese from, and instead bought all these other things. Completely spaced on the meat. Had to go back the next day.

                    Oh, well.

                    1. Perilagu Khan Sep 23, 2010 11:55 AM

                      I've created a very extensive (a few hundred recipes) recipe index, and I cook whatever has cycled to the front of the index. This method ensures variety, scrumptiousness and obviates the need to make a decision.

                      1. greygarious Sep 23, 2010 12:30 PM

                        How a person answers your question depends upon skill, finances, and flexibility. If your decisions are guided by cost concerns, as mine are, you start with the weekly circular and the mark-down shelves. I always use a shopping list, with the obvious needs like salad greens and dairy, supplemented by the weekly sales. But I look at the reduced for quick sale racks as soon as I get to the store, and the game plan changes accordingly. Last week I got three 1# packages of sliced button mushrooms for a total of $1.50. They needed immediate cooking. There was also a markdown package of sirloin tips so two meals were steak with smothered mushrooms and there's now two more meals' worth in the freezer, plus several smaller containers of sauteed mushrooms. That means I'll make cream of mushroom soup and stroganoff sometime soon. Neither of those are things that I make regularly.

                        I don't work from recipes very often but shopping by price doesn't preclude recipes. You can always bring home something unplanned and look online or in cookbooks for inspiration. I do have a very well-stocked pantry of staples. (Just got 12 big cans of tomatoes - crushed, whole, pureed, etc - on sale; enough to last till spring.) I even keep a small supply of powdered eggs and canned milk, in case a baking whim strikes during a blizzard!

                        I envy you your opportunity to shop at such a great venue. That fits better with picking up what appeals to you that particular day than wish making out a weekly menu or working your way through a recipe file. If you make a point of keeping a good supply of canned, boxed, and dry staples on hand, you'll have an easier time complementing the ingredients you buy on the way home.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: greygarious
                          shanagain Nov 3, 2010 10:08 AM

                          Goodness, I was afraid I was the only bargain shopper left on Chowhound these days. My plan is the same as yours - start with the flyer, see what makes sense to buy for this week, what makes sense to buy as I'm stocking my pantry, and then, what makes sense based on our schedule and weather forecast. Something sounding particularly good usually falls under that umbrella along the way. This method of shopping helped me to branch out in my early cooking days, as I would occasionally be at a loss for what to do with a meat that was on sale. (Goodness... I think I've been a chow member for over 10 years. I wonder if that's what led me here?)

                          I'm actually incredibly anal-retentive about my lists (I kid you not, I write a detailed grocery list based on how I walk the store - less backtracking that way and as such, less chance to hit an impulse buy), and for a while had a truly ridiculous database created on my old computer with which I'd update pricing for staples, so that I could get an immediate idea if those cans of broth are a good deal compared to the normal boxed that I buy, or whatever. Yes. I know. The funny thing is that I enjoy it - there's something comforting to be able to know that everything adds up the way you expect it to add up.

                        2. y
                          yanz Sep 23, 2010 12:53 PM

                          I think it gets easier as your cooking experience grows. When I first started cooking, it was a relatively big ordeal to cook a meal - I needed to pick a recipe, make a list of ingredients, go to the store to buy them, follow the recipe to the dot, and hope that I don't mess up. Over time, though, you start to become more comfortable with the recipes you've done a few times, and so it's not as big a deal to cook more regularly. You also start to develop some household staples - like "the fish dish", "the pasta dish," "the 10 minute dish" and so on, that are no longer intimidating and can be whipped up pretty quickly.

                          I've only been cooking for a few years, so I wouldn't say I'm all that far along, but I can definitely see how far I've come. I'm now at the point where I eat home cooked meals 5 nights a week (though only cook 2-3x per week...leftovers!). I have a series of staples which I'm comfortable enough with that I'll do 1-2 a week with various variations based on what's at the farmers market or what I'm craving or curious to experiment with (subbing different veggies, grains, cheeses, nuts, etc), so I'm not actually making the same thing each time. And then I also target trying a new recipe/idea at least once a month. That's what I'm constantly scouring the web for...
                          For entertaining, I ask my husband what he thinks I should make, and he usually has good input (his personal faves or items I've experimented with that turned out "very professional").

                          1. h
                            HillJ Sep 23, 2010 06:49 PM

                            Every member of the family takes a turn cooking and has input in the meal planning. I may do most of the shopping but even my youngest child writes on the shopping list. Like many posting here, the specials of the week, seasonal produce and market buys dictate most of our grocery list but the cooking & baking is a shared activity.

                            1. ursy_ten Sep 23, 2010 07:49 PM

                              If I really get stuck and can't decide, sometimes I look through the "What's for dinner?" threads in the Home cooking forum to see if anything grabs me. It's a great way to get out of a rut because others post things that you might never have heard of or used to love but somehow forgot about.

                              1. g
                                gordeaux Sep 24, 2010 07:59 AM

                                First and foremost - what's on sale.
                                Second - craving
                                Third - what haven't we had in a while.
                                Fourth - is there time to make it? Usually, fancy dinners are limited to weekends. On the days during the week that I work from home, I try to do fancy meals like sushi, or bbq*, or a long braise item.

                                Usually, we'll have takeout once or twice a week, but the standard home meals are:
                                stir fry (this is a blanket term for when I bust out the wok, the oyster sauce, chili garlic, and whatever other chinese ingredients strike my fancy that day, It might be with fresh chow fun noodles or dried rice flakes, or rice sticks)
                                fajitas
                                thai cocnut milk curries
                                roasted chicken
                                sushi
                                BBQ: Jerk chicken, ribs, smoked chicken, pulled pork
                                grilled meat tacos
                                enchiladas
                                red sauce pasta
                                pasta primavera
                                garbage salad with leftover meats
                                Grilled fish at least once a week
                                tinga de pollo (crock pot)
                                Indian (usually palak paneer, aloo gobi, and a chicken dish)
                                fried rice two days after any meal we have rice with.

                                * real bbq, not throwing a steak or piece of meat on a grill for a few minutes

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: gordeaux
                                  JuniorBalloon Nov 3, 2010 11:30 AM

                                  I was going to post but this is what I would have said. Almost word for word. I cook 6-7 nights a week. I shop every day on my way home. I sometimes forget if I have an onion at home. Sometimes we end up with 3 or 4 sitting in the onion bowl. :) About once every two months I get "Store Stun" This happens for most people at the video store (does anyone still go to video stores?) This is where nothing looks good, no ideas are coming and you just stand in the meat dept with a slack jaw.

                                  Weekends are where it gets more interesting. More time. I will either cook something that I love, *bbq, lasagna completely from scratch, Carnitas. Or I'll try something new. The new stuff is where I have trouble finding inspiration. Reading here helps.

                                  jb

                                2. Hank Hanover Sep 24, 2010 08:11 AM

                                  What works best for me is to get the store sale papers out and use those to do the weeks dinner menu planning. I don't have the same meat twice in a row. I do try to make sure I have leftovers for a second meal or lunch. The sale papers usually coincide with what is in season. If the menu is already planned, I don't spend time agonizing over it.

                                  That is the way it works when things go well. When they don't, I find myself looking in the fridge and trying to think of what I could make with what I have in the time constraints I have. A rice pilaf with chunks of meat dujour and veggies dujour or a stir fry with chunks of meat dujour and veggies dujour usually win on those nights. If all else fails, it's fast food.

                                  1. s
                                    schmaltz Oct 5, 2010 09:30 AM

                                    Based on all of this advice, I ventured out of my comfort zone and bought a bunch of empress plums-- a fruit that I wouldn't have otherwise tried, but it was new, in season, and on sale at Reading Terminal. I did an epi and google search and found a Plum Torte recipe:
                                    http://events.nytimes.com/recipes/378...
                                    Ridiculously easy and delicious and something I never would have made if not for this advice, so thanks!

                                    1. j
                                      jcattles Nov 3, 2010 08:13 AM

                                      I make a weekly list of meals, then comes the shopping list. I determine the meals we have by a couple different means.
                                      1. What's on sale
                                      2. What sounds good
                                      3. How much time do I have for each given night (each night is different at our house, either sports, appts, just plain tired)
                                      4. Each member of the family can request a meal
                                      I have a ton of cookbooks and recipes printed out so I pick one new recipe a week. I have a list of different main course, sides, salads, appetizers, desserts that I know we like, so I'll choose a couple of those. One night we may eat out, another we may all just fend for ourselves-sometimes a bowl of cereal is the perfect thing for dinner. You can always have breakfast for dinner or a simple salad, soup, sandwich, or baked potato. I do like to make meals that use some of the same ingredients, that way I'm not wasting food. You can make extra of pretty much any protien and use the leftovers for another meal.
                                      Just whittle it down to a couple new recipes you REALLY want to try, and work the others in as you can or want to.

                                      32 Replies
                                      1. re: jcattles
                                        The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 08:25 AM

                                        So, jcattles, do you do just one big shopping trip per week then? I've been thinking about doing that, but I just worry my proteins might go off before I get to cooking them... How do you manage that?

                                        ~TDQ

                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                          g
                                          gembellina Nov 3, 2010 08:53 AM

                                          I usually do a fresh meat early in the week, fish on tues or weds when the fishmonger is open, and then defrost something like sausages or chicken thighs from the freezer if i'm doing meat later in the week. Often the dinner later in the week are the ones where I have less time to cook, so I'll do something like a stir-fry using the frozen prawns I ensure are always in the freezer. I find the bf is more accepting of having cheese or eggs as the protein later in the week if he's had a decent meat feed a few days earlier!

                                          1. re: gembellina
                                            The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 09:02 AM

                                            Makes sense as a strategy. So, you do your big shopping on Sunday, then? I am currently shopping every other day, or even daily when I'm super disorganized, for meat, poultry, or fish, but am trying to get myself down to just one "main" shopping trip per week, if I could. Your strategy sounds similar to the way I was thinking I'd arrange it.

                                            Thanks for this!

                                            ~TDQ

                                            1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                              g
                                              gembellina Nov 3, 2010 09:16 AM

                                              well i used to do it on a monday, but now i do an evening class then, and i often miss the very short shopping hours on a sunday so I'm back to shopping every other day like you! Ideally I'd do it on a Sunday, and Tues for the fish. I often pick up stuff for weekend breakfasts on a Friday night or first things Sat: a whole week's worth of food for two people is a lot to carry by hand as I don't have a car!

                                              1. re: gembellina
                                                The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 09:29 AM

                                                This is so helpful, thank you!

                                                ~TDQ

                                                1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                  c
                                                  cheesecake17 Nov 3, 2010 11:54 AM

                                                  I shop once a week for fruits/vegetables and once a week or once every other week for groceries.

                                                  I buy fruits and vegetables that are on sale or in season and every so often something that looks appealing but is a splurge. If there's something that looks exotic or I'm not sure how to cook it, I'll buy a small amount and test it. If I like it, it'll go my future go-to list. I spend *a lot* on fruits and vegetables-- maybe $40+ a week and we're only two people. When stable fruits/veg are on sale (butternut squash, apples) I'll buy a lot and save them. Typically, I buy fruits and vegetables at a fruit store rather than a large supermarket. Cheaper, fresher, better selection. I get milk and eggs there too. (We go thru a ton of milk- 1 1/2 gallons a week)

                                                  Every so often, husband will shop with me. I try to go to the supermarket when lots of heavy things are on sale so he can help me carry things. Canned beans, dry beans, tomato products, boxed broth, pasta, grains- all things I keep lots of in the house so that I don't need to drag these things home often. Otherwise, I keep a running list throughout the week on my blackberry so I have it with me when I shop on Sundays.

                                                  Proteins- there's always tofu packages in the fridge- I get them from the Chinese supermarket for $1/package. I go to or phone order from the butcher once a month or so. Everything gets portioned into ziplock bags and labeled and frozen. I'm not fancy when it comes to meat- chicken cutlets, veal cutlets, rib steaks, ground turkey, and ground beef are always in the freezer. If I have plans to cook something else like a roast or short ribs or chicken thighs I call the butcher and pick it up fresh. The supermarket I go to has fresh fish on Sundays, so I'll buy my husband a piece and cook it that night or Monday night for dinner.

                                                  Whenever I'm in a specialty store or a market I don't always shop at, I pick up different or unusual items. It's important to me to get all my shopping done on Sunday mornings- since I work full time and cook dinner when I get home from work.

                                          2. re: The Dairy Queen
                                            ChristinaMason Nov 3, 2010 09:02 AM

                                            I'm not jcattles, but I do the same and freeze any meat I won't be using within 2 days. Haven't had any problems. Does require a freezer, though, and a microwave makes defrosting easier.

                                            1. re: ChristinaMason
                                              The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 09:05 AM

                                              Good idea, Christina. I have a freezer, I've just not been good about remembering to take stuff out of the freezer to defrost in time. I should probably have another look at my microwave instruction booklet so I'm "defrosting" things rather than cooking them... Do you lean towards freezing the things that are pretty quick to defrost, such as seafood, or do you freeze all meats pretty equally?

                                              ~TDQ

                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                ChristinaMason Nov 3, 2010 09:48 AM

                                                I think I'd be more likely to cook the fish and freeze meat and poultry, as the quality of seafood might suffer (becoming mushy) after freezing and thawing. I don't really put too much thought into defrosting except for whole chickens, which I usually start in a bowl of cold salt water on the counter and then move to the fridge when partially unfrozen to brine for a few more hours or overnight. Everything else gets a quick defrost in a bowl of quick water, thaws in the fridge overnight, or I just microwave on "defrost" (watch it though, because it can cook the edges of meat and make it rubbery. Yech).

                                                1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                  LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 09:55 AM

                                                  TDQ, perhaps a weekly menu might work for you as well. Even a general idea. Meat sauces and hearty soups are easy defrosts (right in the pot they'll be heated in on low heat). But if you have a weekly menu, and know you are making stew on Wednesday night, you'll know to take the stewing beef out of the freezer at dinnertime on Tuesday, and a couple of hours on the counter and the remaining time in the fridge will have it defrosted in time for making stew on Wednesday.

                                                  1. re: LindaWhit
                                                    The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 10:08 AM

                                                    Linda, that's exactly what I was thinking. Maybe like this?

                                                    Sunday shop
                                                    Monday fish
                                                    Tuesday Poultry
                                                    Weds beef/pork/lamb/bison
                                                    Thurs veg or defrost
                                                    Fri veg or defrost.

                                                    Does that sound doable without compromising freshness?

                                                    ~TDQ

                                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                      ChristinaMason Nov 3, 2010 10:22 AM

                                                      Don't forget to allow for at least one or two nights or meals composed of leftovers. I made that mistake when I started meal-planning for weeks at a time.

                                                      1. re: ChristinaMason
                                                        The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 10:28 AM

                                                        Good point. We take our leftovers for lunch. So, if I cook "double" servings at each dinner meal, there should be enough for leftovers for lunch the next day. That's my plan, anyway.

                                                        ~TDQ

                                                      2. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                        LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 10:30 AM

                                                        Yes, except I *probably* wouldn't buy fish on a Monday, unless you have a reputable fishmonger you buy from where you know when the fish came in. I think with supermarkets some of the fish could be left from the weekend's delivery (but I could be wrong).

                                                        And personally, I'd stick the vegetarian dish in between the Tuesday poultry and Wednesday red meat, just for a break. Perhaps a "leftovers night" as well, depending on what you're cooking. The poultry / red meat nights would be appropriate for something larger where you could repurpose the leftovers into another dish (steak into stroganoff a few days later).

                                                        1. re: LindaWhit
                                                          The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 11:06 AM

                                                          Good ideas! Esp. the point about the fish. I was thinking that it would be first because it's the most perishable, but your point is a good one.

                                                          ~TDQ

                                                          1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                            LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 11:33 AM

                                                            I'd forge a friendship with your fishmonger, and see when fish gets delivered, how old it is (where it came from) etc. and perhaps make a special trip if/when he can tell you when something good is coming in that's ultra-fresh.

                                                            1. re: LindaWhit
                                                              The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 12:07 PM

                                                              My fishmonger reportedly has fish flown in daily, 7 days per week. (That's what's great about MSP being a hub, back when it was NWA's hub anyway before the Delta buyout.) But, I feel like I'm always too tired/busy/scattered/chaotic to swing by there, even though it's probably not even 5 minutes out of my way on any given day. But, I'm hoping if I'm more organized and disciplined, I'll feel less harried and focused and feel like I'm going to my fishmonger because I've made time for it. Hopefully, if I get into a routine I can, as you say, develop a good relationship with them.

                                                              ~TDQ

                                                      3. re: LindaWhit
                                                        j
                                                        jcattles Nov 3, 2010 12:35 PM

                                                        That's pretty much what I do. We're having Indian tomorrow night, so I took out the chicken this morning and will be putting it in the marinade tonight, I'll also make up the naan dough tonight. When I get home from work tomorrow there won't be too much to do.
                                                        Looking at my list & taking a few minutes to plan makes a huge difference for me.

                                                    2. re: ChristinaMason
                                                      j
                                                      jcattles Nov 3, 2010 12:29 PM

                                                      "I'm not jcattles" - that made me laugh. I'm only that organized because if I don't plan weekly, we'd be eating crap everynight. lol I HATE going to the grocery store after work and it's so much easier to just pick something off a list in the morning, pull the meat out, and know that when I get home I have to cook it.

                                                    3. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                      j
                                                      jcattles Nov 3, 2010 12:25 PM

                                                      Yes, of course I always forget a couple of items, but I either pick them up during my lunch hour or my husband will grab them for me.
                                                      When I buy meat, I try to pick a package that has the longest expiration date. That way I can keep it in the fridge. If I know that the week is going to be crazy, I'll pop the meat in the freezer just in case plans change & I don't end up cooking. My biggest thing is remembering to take it out to thaw in time. :)

                                                      1. re: jcattles
                                                        The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 12:40 PM

                                                        I never think to thaw it in time! But, again, maybe if I have a plan... Plus, I wonder if I can be smarter about freezing thinner cuts of meat or freezing them flatter or something. For instance, frozen shrimp is great because it's easy to thaw at the last minute, with virtually no forethought. Maybe if I froze strips of meat or poultry intended for stir fry, even pre-marinaded for stir-fry, if that would take less advance planning.

                                                        Does pounding meat thinner make it thaw more quickly? Or does it just become more dense?

                                                        ~TDQ

                                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                          pikawicca Nov 3, 2010 01:09 PM

                                                          I don't think that pounded meat becomes more dense, as it spreads out. Flattened chicken cutlets thaw in no time in a sink filled with cold water.

                                                          1. re: pikawicca
                                                            The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 01:14 PM

                                                            Hmmm., see? I just need to do a little more planning on this kind of stuff. And more recipes that call for flattened chicken cutlets!

                                                            Thanks, pikawicca!

                                                            ~TDQ

                                                          2. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                            LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 01:33 PM

                                                            TDQ, have you tried the cool water defrost? It won't work for something like a roasted chicken in the time frame that you're looking at (after work) but it does work for smaller pieces of meat like a small steak, pork chops, or chicken (the latter two being packaged individually).

                                                            Just submerge the Ziploc packages in a bowl or stockpot of cool water. Not cold, not warm - just barely tepid. You'll need to put something on top, as the packages will float. (A bowl on top of the larger bowl usually works.) Change the water out a couple of times, and it'll be defrosted without cooking in the microwave within a reasonable amount of time.

                                                            1. re: LindaWhit
                                                              The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 01:56 PM

                                                              Hi Linda, I've tried it for seafood on occasion and for small bison steaks (we have a freezer full of bison because we buy it from the producer), but I've never had the forethought to freeze cuts of meat or poultry individually.

                                                              Usually what happens is I buy something fresh with the intention of cooking it that day or the next. Then, something comes up, I realize I'm not going to get to it right away, and I just shove it into the freezer without much preparation of any kind. Then, when it comes time to cook it, I have to plan ahead two days to give it time to thaw in the fridge.

                                                              We used to get whole frozen chickens from our CSA. Those take days to thaw out in the fridge.

                                                              So, I need to get smarter about my freezer management. Also, with the bison, and sometimes pork or lamb, that we buy directly from the producer, I should ask if they will package it flat for us. They will cut and portion it to spec, but I've never thought to ask if they can portion four pork chops, say, flat, instead of stacked on top of each other.

                                                              Great ideas, thank you!

                                                              ~TDQ

                                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                                pikawicca Nov 3, 2010 02:22 PM

                                                                Talk to your meat producers and see if they'll sell to you fresh, right after they process the meat/poultry. This way, you can cut up your chickens and portion appropriately (saving the trimmings for stock, of course), bone and flatten port chops, divide ground beef up and flatten out to thaw faster, cut pork tenderloins into medallions, etc. (If you don't already have one, a Food Saver will save you from the heartache of freezer burn -- just freeze the meat in the bag before sealing after a few hours.)

                                                                1. re: pikawicca
                                                                  LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 03:48 PM

                                                                  And if you don't want to spring for a real Food Saver, the Ziploc vacuum seal bags work pretty darn good!

                                                                  1. re: pikawicca
                                                                    c oliver Nov 3, 2010 04:01 PM

                                                                    I just cooked a rib roast that had been in the freezer for close to a year. Thanks,Food Saver.

                                                                    1. re: pikawicca
                                                                      The Dairy Queen Nov 4, 2010 01:30 AM

                                                                      I don't know about the poultry producers (I don't really have a direct source for that anymore. Need to get one), but I'm hoping to get all the others to do all of that for me, except maybe pound things flat. What I really need to do is get ahold of the order sheet where you make all of your choices about how you want your meat cut and packaged. Usually, we go in with friends on these (we can't fit an entire bison, or even half bison, in our deep freeze!) and the specs for our order go back to my husband's bachelor days.

                                                                      ~TDQ

                                                                2. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                                  g
                                                                  gembellina Nov 3, 2010 03:07 PM

                                                                  if you do your shop on monday, having written your list at the weekend, you can check your meu then stick a note on your fridge door, or bathroom mirror, or wherever, that says "TAKE SAUSAGES OUT OF FREEZER!!!" It's essential. I went through a phase of never writing notes, and I ended up with huge amounts of sausages becuase I'd have to buy a new packet if I wanted them for dinner, but of course they were always BOGOF so I'd buy two, then the same thing would happen next time... I also need to write notes that say "DON'T FORGET YOUR PACKED LUNCH"

                                                                  1. re: gembellina
                                                                    The Dairy Queen Nov 4, 2010 01:35 AM

                                                                    I'm a big fan of strategically placing notes around the house for myself in the morning. Fortunately, grabbing my pre-packed leftovers-for-lunch before I leave the house is such a part of my morning routine that I no longer have to leave myself a note. I'm hoping that consulting my menu every morning will eventually become part of my routine, too. But until then, there will be post-its everywhere!

                                                                    ~TDQ

                                                                    1. re: gembellina
                                                                      c
                                                                      cheesecake17 Nov 4, 2010 06:43 AM

                                                                      I put notes on the fridge to remind myself to defrost meat or chicken for dinner.

                                                                      Also, since mornings are so rushed, I make 4 different piles on the kitchen table- husband's lunch, husband's breakfast, my lunch, my breakfast. Then I go thru each pile putting things in containers or ziplocks. I never forget things when I do it this way..

                                                            2. d
                                                              dyson17 Nov 3, 2010 08:41 AM

                                                              Almost always cook what is on sale at the supermarket. I cook Chinese/ Malaysian dishes and find that sale/specials pricing at the Chinese supermarkets can be really low compared to regular pricing.I find that sale items cover almost the whole spectrum of ingredients so that I am not confined to having the same meal everyday for the week.For example I bought 2 mackerels at 88 cents /lb( regular $2.99/lb) and at a bit over 2 lb for the 2 mackerels the total cost was $2.13.
                                                              I find that when I shop base on recipes or craving my shopping bill go crazy.
                                                              When planning for dinner parties,this rule is somewhat not adhered to as I need to vary my menu if some of the same people are coming..
                                                              I also have some" go to" dishes for daily dinners when I run out of ideas.Two of my favourites are steamed eggs and steamed meat patties. I have ground pork and beef stashed away in my freezer and I can call upon these to save the day.

                                                              1. k
                                                                Krislady Nov 3, 2010 09:23 AM

                                                                Clearly I put WAY too much effort into meal planning!

                                                                I visit our public market every other Saturday - where I always buy a ton of produce - mostly what's local and in season, but there are a few vendors who are more distributors than farmers, so every now and then, I score a great deal on artichokes or mangos. :)

                                                                My husband and I sit down together on Sunday morning and plan meals for the week. I consider the produce first - what's going to rot if we don't use it. We had a pumpkin-filled week last week! (Sugar pumpkins were 2 for $1!)

                                                                Then I usually pull meat for 2-3 meals out of the freezer and check the sale ads. I usually only buy meat on sale, using it for one meal right away (within 2 days of shopping), then the rest gets divided and frozen. I try to do a meatless meal at least once a week, and no more than once for any other meat.

                                                                We usually make soup during the weekend, and that's dinner one night - usually Wednesdays, as we have a standing appointment for the dog's swim class, and it's a simple matter to dump it into the slow cooker to reheat while we're off getting splashed. (Tonight is cream of parsnip soup - the parsnips had been in the fridge a couple of weeks. . . )

                                                                I find that rather than just sit down and say "hmm, what shall we eat today" it helps if I have at least some parameters, even if it's "what's been in the freezer the longest" or "what's on sale" - then I at least have somewhere to start.

                                                                6 Replies
                                                                1. re: Krislady
                                                                  The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 09:32 AM

                                                                  I think your approach sounds very sensible. I don't know if I will ever be that organized, alas, but I know I can be less haphazard than I'm feeling right now. I really feel like I'm a slave to my CSA box. I'm almost relieved that the season is over so I can get back to a little more normal a routine.

                                                                  However, I can never imagine my husband wanting to sit down and plan meals. I"m sure he would if I asked, but he would just rather I handle it. He is also (thankfully) good about eating whatever I eat or jumping in and cooking when I've run out of time.

                                                                  ~TDQ

                                                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                                    k
                                                                    Krislady Nov 3, 2010 09:38 AM

                                                                    Oh, we've refined the routine over the years!

                                                                    The main reason my husband "helps" with meal planning, I think, is because if left to my own devices, we'd be eating disgustingly healthy whole grains and vegetables, and probably something new almost every night - he wants to make sure he gets his "meat and potato" fix in!

                                                                    Fortunately (for me) he works Saturday mornings, so the only thing holding me back when I go to the public market for produce is the size of my wheelie cart. (What, I'm going to pass up 50 cent pumpkins?) LOL

                                                                    1. re: Krislady
                                                                      ChristinaMason Nov 3, 2010 09:51 AM

                                                                      This reminds me of yesterday. My husband met me at the grocery store, where I'd already gotten a head start. His cart had 2 boxes of mac 'n cheese, 2 boxes of rice a roni, diet soda, bananas, broccoli, and stuff for tacos/quesadillas. Mine had a crapload of veggies and lots of baking supplies. Different strokes. We tend to balance each other out, because without him I'd end up having a fridge/pantry full of things I didn't feel like eating when matter won out over mind.

                                                                      1. re: ChristinaMason
                                                                        The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 10:10 AM

                                                                        HAHA! Funny. Since my husband shares in the shopping and cooking and clean-up on occasion, I pretty much give him free-rein when he's stepping up, and he pretty much gives me free rein on mine. When he gets too junky, I gently protest. When I get too healthful, he gentle protests. I can usually alleviate his protests by adding more cheese or bacon.

                                                                        The dog's swim class made me smile, too.

                                                                        ~TDQ

                                                                      2. re: Krislady
                                                                        LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 09:58 AM

                                                                        I think I like the part about your dog's swim class best, Kris. ;-)

                                                                        1. re: LindaWhit
                                                                          k
                                                                          Krislady Nov 3, 2010 10:23 AM

                                                                          Aw, thanks. :) He does love his swim class, especially now that we won't get back to the beach for several months.

                                                                          My son is all grown up, so . . . now I guess we baby his furry little brother!

                                                                  2. LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 09:37 AM

                                                                    A couple of different ways. First, I like to rotate with what I'm using as the main entree - usually between chicken, pork, beef, pasta, and sometimes seafood (not often enough on the seafood, but I digress). So if I've just had pork and chicken, but don't feel like beef, I'll go with pasta. (It often works off a craving I have - so sometimes it can be chicken several days in a row, depending on how I'm making it!) So with pasta, sometimes adding chicken or sausage to it for a bit more oomph. So I've chosen what the meat will be - THEN I go looking for recipes.

                                                                    But sometimes, I just won't know. I usually then just look at the freezer contents list on the side of my fridge and see what strikes me. Then I open my cabinets and fridge and see what I have that "goes" with that. And then go looking for recipes that combine those items - chicken, orange juice, cashews....Oooh! Cashew Chicken - and hey, I have carrots and celery - perfect!

                                                                    Perhaps a weekly meal menu would help you out. Figure out something to have on Sunday night - say a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and peas (my favorite!). (I always use the weekend for "long cooking recipes" that can then be extended through the week as planned overs.)

                                                                    The next night, grilled chicken and roasted red pepper (from a jar in your pantry) with whatever cheese is in your fridge paninis (on that sourdough bread from starter!) with a small salad alongside.

                                                                    For Tuesday night, use the remaining chicken in a soup (use the carcass for the broth/stock!) with some of that sourdough bread from the starter. ;-)

                                                                    For Wednesday night, that's Prince Spaghetti Day, so spaghetti and meatballs from the freezer, with a quick sauce and a small salad and garlic bread (from that sourdough starter, of course!)

                                                                    Perhaps on Thursday you can make pork chops in a BBQ sauce on the stove top. Friday could be pizza night - either homemade using pizza dough from the refrigerated section in the supermarket or order in.

                                                                    Saturday - date night or go out with friends to a restaurant.

                                                                    And then you're back at Sunday. :-)

                                                                    2 Replies
                                                                    1. re: LindaWhit
                                                                      The Dairy Queen Nov 3, 2010 10:12 AM

                                                                      Oh, I replied to you above. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7360...

                                                                      You're like a mind-reader!

                                                                      ~TDQ

                                                                      1. re: The Dairy Queen
                                                                        LindaWhit Nov 3, 2010 10:35 AM

                                                                        If I'm a mind reader, what am I doing sitting in an office? I should have made a killing in the stock market and should be on a beach in Fiji with a cabana boy feeding me pieces of mango! ;-)

                                                                    2. c oliver Nov 3, 2010 10:42 AM

                                                                      Most of the time, for non dinner parties, my first stop is my freezer. I usually have pork, beef, chicken, fish, sausage, Bolognese sauce, burgers, etc. in there. That comes out to defrost (I live in a "magic house" so it just sits out). I rarely have to buy a startch as my pantry is loaded with those. And I usually have a "leafy green" vegetable available. If we happen to go to the grocery that day, I'll check if they have any "brown meat" on special. If so, that sometimes supercedes the original meat which can get eaten a day or two later. I find it interesting that some of you go to all the effort that you do, but that holds little appeal to me. I'm lazy :)

                                                                      1. Father Kitchen Nov 3, 2010 11:25 AM

                                                                        Generally, I do one of four things. I look in our fridge and freezer and see what is there, especially what needs to be used up. This will often suggest a meal. If it is my turn to shop, I'll see what specials are to be found. For example, a special on a boneless pork shoulder may lead to slow roasted pork, a braise with mushrooms, Caribbean pulled pork, or a pork stew. Or some nice fresh fish fillets may lead me in new directions, including learning new ways to cook fish. Sometimes I may simply ask what the others are hungry for. Finally, on a few occasions, I simply want to do something ethnic. When I'm really stumped, I ask myself, "What is something really disgusting that I can cook?" Then combining improbably ingredients in my mind (e.g. snails in a peanutbutter/mustard sauce) some flash of sanity illumines my thinking. For example, that bit of absurdity just suggested a West African stew with ground nuts.

                                                                        2 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Father Kitchen
                                                                          c oliver Nov 3, 2010 12:07 PM

                                                                          FK, is it too personal to ask how many you cook for generally?

                                                                          1. re: c oliver
                                                                            Father Kitchen Nov 3, 2010 04:21 PM

                                                                            A dozen people. I grew up in a family that size. It seems like a normal number to me. Today we were a couple fewer as several were away.

                                                                        2. r
                                                                          Raids Nov 4, 2010 07:39 AM

                                                                          My life-saving strategy is using the "shopping list" function on myrecipes.com. I've been using it for almost three years now, and I love it.

                                                                          I just use the same list every week or two weeks, delete off the things that are no longer relevant, and I'm left with my bi-weekly staples - canned tomato sauce, tomato paste, mozzarella (I make a lot of pizza), eggs, milk, cheddar, parmesan, pasta, garlic, scallions, onions, white wine, frozen, indivdually wrapped chicken breasts, etc. When I run out of other staples (flour, yeast, olive oil) I add them to the list on the wipe-off board on my fridge or add them immediately to the shopping list. I cook with Cooking Light recipes a lot, and you can import the entire ingredient list from the recipe to the shopping list, also, which is a great feature.

                                                                          Sometimes, I'm ridiculously organized and try a new recipe every night of the week (fun!) and sometimes I have moments where I have a bunch of carrots, broccoli, and orange and purple cauliflower left over from a crudite tray from a party and have to figure out what the hell to do with it (baked pasta with parmesean cream sauce). If you have a good pantry, it's fun to have a challenge. Some things lend themselves to a kitchen sink approach - chicago-style pizza, pasta casseroles, etc.

                                                                          My ultimate goal, always, is to not throw anything away. I will plan entire meals around produce that needs to be used. Parsley always defeats me - why the hell do they sell it in such enormous bunches?

                                                                          When I'm really craving something, then I'll make the extra effort. For instance, I've been craving a good chicken noodle soup for weeks now. So I'll be making my own stock and egg noodles this weekend.

                                                                          It also helps to have themes, so you use all your ingredients. It's going to be easier to use up that bok choy from the beef hot pot if you can throw it in some dumplings or something else where it works later that week, or that extra pancetta if you're doing a lot of italian, but really, who has a problem using up pancetta?

                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                          1. re: Raids
                                                                            s
                                                                            sheld Nov 30, 2010 03:33 PM

                                                                            Parsley-walnut pesto....use it for pasta or sandwich spread etc...

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