March 10, 2011

Planning Ahead for When Menu Planning Fails

I've written a fair bit about menu planning in the past (like, here and here).  I've even written a bit about what to do when menu planning goes awry (here and here, for example).  That's pertinent to our cooking of late, because menu planning hasn't worked out very well for us lately.

We are very busy at our jobs, working long hours, and by the time we get home, we're both often dead-tired.  In one of the older posts linked above, I noted that thorough menu planning can take a fair bit of time - consulting cookbooks and other resources, checking what we've got in stock, writing a grocery list, etc.  Lately I've been too tired to put that much time into planning.   Often I've found myself planning out maybe two meals in detail, having a rough idea for another meal, and otherwise relying on our reserve of staple items to let me toss together something at the last minute.  Thankfully, we keep a lot of things in stock, so I can make lots of different things with ingredients I've got right at hand.

Some of what we consider "staple items" probably differs from a lot of people's ideas of that concept.  That partly reflects our love of Indian and Asian cuisine.  We stock up on common American kitchen items, but things like coconut milk, ground lamb, Asian vegetables and fresh ginger root are just as much staples for us as are items like flour, butter, sugar and onions.  I keep lists of staple items that are running low and pick them up any time I go shopping.

It helps that we have two refrigerators (one in the kitchen, the other, older one downstairs) and a deep freeze.  This lets us keep around a supply of items that need to be kept refrigerated or frozen.   Some of our basic refrigerator items include milk (usually skim and whole), cream, plain yogurt, sour cream, butter (regular and unsalted), some jams and jellies, a couple types of fruit juice, eggs, carrots, green onions, jalapenos, bacon and some basic herbs (rosemary, thyme, cilantro and parsley, plus basil whenever possible). 

Our main fridge also contains a wide range of sauces (soy, tamari, hoisin, Worcestershire, fish sauce, oyster sauce, hot sauce, taco sauce), seasoned oils (Asian dark sesame oil and hot chili oil) and condiments (everything from ketchup and a couple types of mustard to black bean and garlic paste), plus jars of baking yeast.  Finally, we keep on hand a pretty good variety of cheeses (sliced American, brick and shredded sharp and extra-sharp cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella, cream cheese). 

The main part of our downstairs fridge isn't very full right now, but that will change once we start getting fresh produce through our CSA in the spring.  Right now, all it regularly holds is beer, but I also use it to defrost frozen meat or to hold things that have to be refrigerated for periods of time (something I'm marinating, for example). 

Our freezers - the deep freeze and the two fridge ones - are kept pretty full.   The freezer of the main fridge and a good chunk of the downstairs one are full of frozen leftovers, which Juli and I take to eat for lunch (and dinners, on Tuesdays and most Wednesdays).  We also keep a fair bit of meat on stock, usually things I buy in bulk when I see a good deal.   Right now that includes some pork loin roasts, a couple racks of ribs and some steaks, plus a couple freezer bags full of individually-packed boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a couple packages of ground beef and some Graziano Bros. sausage.  I also stock up on lamb (usually ground or stew lamb, occasionally chops or even a leg of lamb) whenever I see some at a reasonable price, because there's nowhere around here that carries lamb often enough, or in large enough amounts, to rely on it being available when needed.  Other than that, our freezers contain some frozen produce, frozen naan, ice cream and "fallback" foods such as Graziano Bros. ravioli and meatballs and the every-trusty Tombstone Pizzas. 

Compared to our refrigerator/freezer space, our kitchen doesn't have a lot of cabinet space, but we've made up for that by buying a big steel shelving unit for pantry items and some hanging shelves we use to hold spices.  We keep in stock a wide range of dried pastas, wine and other alcoholic beverages used for cooking, syrups, oils, rice (long grain, basmati and jasmine), dried beans and lentils, dried mushrooms (I buy porcini, wood ear and shitake in bulk through Graziano Bros.), panko crumbs, different types of sugar and flour, unopened boxes of chicken and beef broth/stock, baking staples, nuts, salt (table, sea and kosher), dried fruits, plus a wide range of canned goods.

 Canned goods I try to keep always in stock include coconut milk, straw mushrooms, baby corn, black and pinto beans, chickpeas, plus several types of canned tomatoes (crushed, peeled/whole, diced, puree, plus tomato paste and sauce).  I also like to keep a couple jars of good commercial pasta sauce on hand, to go with the meatballs or ravioli or pasta when I don't really feel like going to the trouble of cooking up something from scratch, but want something better than a frozen pizza.

Aside from that, we try to keep some fresh produce in stock at all times.  It's rare we don't keep in stock several heads of garlic, some shallots, white and yellow onions, one or more types of potato (almost always including Yukon gold), fresh ginger root, lemons, limes, oranges and a few Granny Smith apples.  We stocked up on winter squash last fall, but at this point all we have left is a single carnival squash. 

Plus, we have a really, really good stock of spices, including several I buy in bulk and grind myself. 

The advantage of staying so well-stocked is that I can toss together a lot of different things with ready-to-use ingredients, and with a little more time to defrost some meat, I can make a really wide range of dishes.  In fact, I'm guessing I can make at least 50% of the recipes we've featured on the blog whenever I want, without having to go to the store.  I'm pretty certain of that because a good portion of the original recipes I've featured (including several of the curries and most of the stir-fries) are ones I made up on the spot to take advantage of ingredients I had on hand. 

If you find that you often don't have the time to plan out a menu, you might want to try to adapt our stocking strategy to your own cooking, taking into account your own cooking preferences as well as budgetary and storage considerations.  Although I prefer to come up with a more detailed menu plan, and to be more organized in general, it's nice to be able to fall back on something when that level of organization just doesn't work out.

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