Sunday, September 12, 2010

Something to Chew on

All really good plans are either completely winged or well researched. We've chosen the third approach. Thursday we went to our local library and picked up cookbooks that seemed to line up with the kinds of meals we'd like to start serving, and whatever nutritional books we could find that weren't promising to help you loose weight in just ten days. We lugged them on home and started to read. So far I've skimmed  through The Flexitarian Table, which has gorgeous photography, and helpful links to places like Local Harvest. The author, Peter Berley, also organizes his recipes by season, which is something I love, and has his dishes grouped into meals. The idea of having meals in a cookbook is pretty radical, I think, because the essence of having a dinner versus any-old-thing-slapped-on-a-plate is that all the components go with each other. Another plus for Berkly is that, as his title implies, all of the meat/fish in his recipes have a vegetarian alternative provided right there, and quite a number of his dishes don't use that much meat anyway. Now, we are nowhere near vegetarians, but Theo and I both agree that too many of our meals rely heavily on meat to pull them through. Learning how to make delicious, filling combinations of rice, beans, vegetables, and nuts that don't leave us longing for steak is one of our many goals.
                  This position is echoed, if I may segue into another book, by Marion Nestle's What to Eat. While the title is a bit off putting, Nestle's basic philosophy is "If you eat less in quantity but more in variety you'll be healthy." Her writing style is superb, and she is open and un-defensive of her own stance on certain political, rather than economic or nutritional, decisions that must be made by the cook.
Her book is cleverly arranged like a supermarket, taking you from produce, and concepts like COOL (country of origin labels) and Organic, to dairy, meat, eggs, frozen foods, and so on.  Each section gives you things to think about – like the origins of certain foods (margarine was invented in France under Napoleon III's orders) and how they're made – and she provides explanations of the scientific mumbo-jumbo that often causes our eyes to twitch when we're shopping. It was very encouraging from an "eat healthy" perspective, since I know my family has a pretty varied diet already, and Nestle firmly believes that, apart from portion size, "it's the mix which is most beneficial and most protective"(pg. 54), not any single wonder food. The flip side of this is that there nothing in the grocery store is going to kill you as long as your overall diet is healthy. This was an interesting book to read (I'm only on page 180 of 500), and a nice follow up to Food Inc., which my dad had us watch a week ago. Between these two sources, and because, let's face it, I'm shopping with my parents money, I think I'm going to try and shop politically and then economically. After all, when it comes to eating, it's probably best to put your money where your mouth is.
       Also on the nutrition theme, my sister skimmed Feed Your Child Right and Nutrition for Dummies, and was unimpressed with either of them. She did enjoy the Redwall Cookbook however, and the wine guide in the back of Easy Menus for Dining In (though she thought that the overall effect of this book was a bit much). I haven't flipped through the latter two yet, but I'm looking forward to them. We have a week or two to read them, because half of the family is evacuating to Ocean City for a fortnight. It'll be interesting to see if we're motivated to cook when it's just us at home.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where we've been

Hello, Theo here. As Sixer wrote yesterday, we actually did an experiment last month where we planned and cooked dinner for a week. There were a lot of factors involved in the decision but mainly, we wanted to eat on a regular schedule, and we wanted to feed 9 people. To that end we formed a working 'meal template' that looked like this:

Monday : Pasta ( With red sauce / Green spaghetti )
Tuesday : Meat with a veggie side
Wednesday: Pasta ( Green spaghetti/ White sauce )
Thursday : Meat with a veggie
Friday : New recipe

The idea was to have a set list of easy-to-prepare meals that everyone would eat. I personally don't cook much, and spaghetti is generally my go-to dinner option. I like the idea of having a set pasta day and spicing it up each week by simply changing out the type of sauce used. I'm hoping we'll continue to keep 'pasta day' in our new schedule this month, but I'm ready to admit that twice a week - while convenient - might not be too appealing on a long-term basis.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are 'meat and veggie' days, this way we can go down a list of meats and sides and mix and match to make an endless verity of meals. I'm partial to combinations of steak and mashed potatoes, chicken and steamed broccoli, and pork and corn, myself.
While continuing to cook a set rotation of meals that are tried-and-true, that we know will taste good and that every one will like, (or at least eat), We knew we wanted to constantly expand our repertoire of culinary feats, so we decided to make Friday 'experiment day', where we could try new things without having to worry about either completely failing, or making something so unusual that the kids refuse to touch it. The beauty of doing this on Friday's is that, if it turns out inedible, we can fall to our back-up plan: "leftovers."

For me, the highlight of our week of experiments was definitely Thursday. We had breaded pork and roasted vegetables. The vegetables were mostly a failed experiment. At the time our oven was broken, so I tried to roast turnips, potatoes, & sweet potatoes, on the stove in our cast iron skillet. In addition to salt & pepper, I also added in some chicken stock which turned out to be a mistake. The chicken stock made all of the vegetables soggy. The vegetables also didn't all cook at the same rate, and cutting them to be the same size didn't really help much with that. Even though they weren't perfect, they turned out well enough that I'll want to try them again for sure.
I didn't used a recipe for the breaded pork, or write down what I did, but it was very simple. Basically I just coated the pork chops with flour & salt and fried them in a skillet for 3-4 minutes on each side. Yum!

The other meal I wanted to mention was Wednesday's Green Spaghetti.
To make this dish, you put chopped spinach in a blender with some garlic, parmesan cheese, and 1 cup of either milk or stock. (I used chicken stock), and then pour it over the pasta. The family liked it, so I have to view it as a success, but I thought the flavor was very bland. I'm thinking about tweaking the recipe in the future, either adding more garlic, or maybe some vinegar or lemon juice to give it an extra twang.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Mission

It started last month. Theo got this mad look in her eye and I knew I was in for something crazy. Theo is the oldest, which naturally makes her more insane, but this time her idea turned out to be pretty logical. We, being two recent college grads, are still used to having dinner – and the rest of the refrigerator – on our own terms, but living at home makes this rather difficult. However, my sister hypothesized, if we made dinner for the family we could serve whatever we wanted (well balanced meals) at whatever time we wanted (five-ish). I had to agree this sounded, well, sound, but it wasn't until my sister mentioned that this might make mom more understanding when we spent our mornings knitting and watching Doctor Who that I really saw the genius of her plan. We did one test week and it worked out great, now we're ready to try it for real.

The Goal: to plan and prepare a tasty, well balanced meal every weekday for nine people.

The Perpetrators: I, the English major with a love for division and a weakness for baked goods, and my sister, Theo, the knitting linguist who frequently forgets to eat – yes, even baked goods.