November 03, 2010

Menu Planning: When Life Gets in the Way, part 2

I had hoped that this week's cooking would end up more organized than had been the case the previous week, when being away from home Friday night and most of Saturday had forced me to leave some parts of the week's menu plan open until late Saturday.  That wasn't the way it worked out, though.

By Monday night, I already knew most of what I wanted to cook during the upcoming week.  I had a new chicken curry recipe I wanted to try out, and since it was going to be pretty quick to make, I figured I'd make it on Friday night.  I also knew we wouldn't be cooking dinner on Thursday night, as we were getting together with my son, but I figured we'd get back early enough for me to try out a new cookie recipe I'd been working on.  And during the previous weekend's shopping, I had picked up a frozen turkey breast which I wanted to make this weekend.  I'd seen a Thai chicken and basil stir fry recipe I wanted to try out as well, and figured that would be a nice, quick weekday supper for the next Monday night.  That left me with a few gaps in the schedule, but I had rough ideas what else I wanted to do.   Namely, I planned to make some other Indian dishes - including, possibly, my first try at samosas - for Saturday lunch, and do some grilling sometime over the weekend.  At that point, my menu plan for the upcoming week looked like this:

Thursday, Oct. 28 - Dinner - Eat Out w/ Alex + try out new cookie recipe
Friday, Oct 29 - New Chicken Curry Recipe
Saturday, October 30 - Lunch - Something Indian
                                  - Dinner - Roast Turkey Breast, Cranberry
                                     Sauce, Mashed Potatoes
Sunday, October 31 - Dinner - Grill Something (Steak and Squash?)
Monday, November 1 - Dinner - Thai Chicken-Basil Stir Fry + Coconut Rice

Right off the bat, things went a bit awry.  Juli wasn't feeling very well on Tuesday, so she stayed home, and I ended up coming home from work after a few hours as well due to a really dreadful sinus headache.  Thus, we were both home, and while neither of us felt very well, we still had to eat something.  I didn't feel well enough to focus on my work, but I figured I could throw together something simple, at least for lunch.

One thing I've learned is that sometimes life throws you a curve ball, and you end up not being able to cook something you'd planned for one reason or another.  Perhaps you get home too late, or the store is out of a crucial ingredient for whatever you were planning to make.  In any case, it pays to have some fallback options.  Thankfully, we've done a pretty good job of preparing for such occasions.

First, we keep on stock a pretty wide variety of pantry and refrigerated items - various sorts of canned tomatoes and beans, several types of flour and oil and sugars, nuts, dried beans, pasta, hot peppers, fresh herbs, various sorts of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, a range of sauces and condiments, and several cheeses - plus some frozen meat (usually a few chicken breasts, some lamb, maybe some ground beef).   We also keep our freezer stocked with fresh-frozen meatballs, ravioli and so forth, purchased at Graziano Bros., keeping these on hand for when I'm suddenly in a mood for some Italian.  That all ended up being helpful on Tuesday.  That prep, plus the fresh basil from our herb garden, made it a snap for me to toss together a Quick Marinara Sauce and cook some pasta and frozen meatballs to make up a batch of Spaghetti and Meatballs. 

As it turned out, after sleeping a good chunk of the afternoon, I felt well enough to toss together something for dinner as well, and by defrosting some ground lamb and pulling some ingredients out of the fridge and opening a few cans, I was able to toss together a quick and easy lamb curry.

We both felt well enough to return to work on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning I'd filled in the blanks for the weekend's cooking schedule.

Thursday, Oct. 28 - Dinner - Eat Out w/ Alex + try out new cookie recipe
Friday, Oct 29 - New Chicken Curry Recipe
Saturday, October 30 - Lunch - Pumpkin and Red Lentil Curry Soup,
                                                 Sweet and Hot Shrimp Curry,
                                                 Naan, Seasoned Rice (maybe Samosas?)
                                    - Dinner - Roast Turkey Breast, Cranberry Sauce,
                                                    Mashed Potatoes
Sunday, October 31 - Dinner - Steak, Grilled Squash, Mashed Potato Casserole
Monday, November 1 - Dinner - Thai Chicken-Basil Stir Fry + Coconut Rice

Plus, Juli was wanting to make a batch of homemade applesauce somewhere in there.

Thursday night threw a wrench in the plans, though.  The sinus stuff was still dragging us both down, and by the time we got home from dinner (we went to India Star again), I was too exhausted to want to make cookies, or do much of anything, really.  Then, the next morning we discovered we'd gotten a hard frost overnight.  That finished off our garden for the season, killing off my hot peppers, the cherry and grape tomato plants and - most pertinent for my cooking plans - did in the basil for the season.  Since the recipe I was planning for Monday requires a fair bit of basil and I was less than thrilled about the idea of paying a fair bit for the poor-quality stuff I've been seeing in stores of late, that would mean having to change my plans for Monday's cooking. 

And then Friday was yet another draining day - busy at work, plus still struggling with the sinus crud.  By the time we got home, I really, really didn't feel like cooking at all... which is where another of our fallback options came in handy.

For those times when we don't feel like cooking, or don't have time, we keep a few frozen ready-meals at hand.  Some frozen Indian entrees, for example... and Tombstone Pizza.  Now, I'm not going to claim that Tombstone Pizza is exactly great food... but it isn't bad, either.   In fact, as far as frozen pizza goes, I personally think it's as good as anything out there, and better than most.   Interestingly enough, the folk at Cook's Illustrated agree.  When they taste-tested frozen pizza in 2007, Tombstone tied with a couple other brands as "recommended," and the other recommended brands were somewhat more expensive.  To me, that makes Tombstone the best bargain of the bunch.  We tend to buy a few whenever it's on sale, which makes it even more a bargain.

It's been awhile since I've had any occasion to make a Tombstone Pizza, but it was quick and reliably good, as always.   It also gave me an opportunity to use the oldest piece of cookware I own.

Back in 1986, I took a year off college between undergrad and grad school.    Money was tight, and like many students before and since, I got by largely on ramen noodles, the occasional salad and - when I felt like really splurging - frozen pizza.  Tombstone was my pizza of choice, then as now.  In order to better prepare this culinary favorite, I bought the pictured below.  There's not much to it - a thin metal rim and metal mesh - but it does a great job of heating up frozen pizza.  I don't have any idea what brand it is - any distinguishing marks (if there ever were any) were long ago erased by more than two decades of frequent use and washing - but what I do know is that it is quite dependable.  

Saturday morning I was feeling a bit better, so I decided to make some Blueberry Pancakes for breakfast.  By the time I'd done that and then gotten lunch ready and done with, it was mid-afternoon and we were both, frankly, pretty stuffed.  Beyond that, it was a beautiful day out, and there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the yard and in the garden (pulling the deceased tomato and pepper plants, weeding, getting rid of some ground cover plants that had more or less taken over some of the flower beds, etc.).  So, by the time we did a few hours of yard work, it was getting late (and close to the time trick-or-treaters would start coming around), and I didn't have the energy to put into the planned meal (roast turkey breast, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, etc.), nor did we want to end up eating dinner at close to 9:30 pm. 

So instead I grilled up a steak, as I'd originally planned for Sunday and planned to make the turkey dinner on Sunday. That was a lot faster and easier.  In addition to a juicy steak and sweet, grilled kuri squash, this gave us leftovers of the Mashed Potato Casserole that would save us having to make mashed potatoes to go with the turkey the next evening.

The next evening we did indeed end up having roast turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy and some peas, and Juli did get her applesauce made. And on Monday night, I finally made the new chicken curry dish I'd been planning to make for awhile now, and which had originally been planned for Friday. I also gave a first try to the new cookie recipe I'd been working on. 

So, what we ended up making included the bulk of what we'd planned to make, though not necessarily in the same order or on the same nights.   My having planned ahead assured we'd have what we needed to prepare the meals, and kept us from wasting a lot of time wondering "What should we have tonight?" so it still paid off, even if things didn't go quite as planned.  Planning is good, but flexibility is crucial if you're going to deal with the obstacles, surprises and opportunities life throws your way.

The upcoming week is going to be a rather different one to plan for, as Juli is going to be gone for a good chunk of the weekend, doing some fun stuff with friends for most of Saturday and doing work-related and continuing education tasks until very late on Sunday.  Right now I'm not sure yet what I'll be making, but I do have some ideas.  I'll end up finalizing plans by Thursday morning, then we'll wait and see how things play out and roll with that.

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