Tag Archives: Menu Planning

Recipes: Butternut Squash

6 Sep

One of the issues with meal planning that I run into over and over again is that of leftovers. Sometimes the problem isn’t even with the prepared food itself but with the uncooked portions I have leftover in the fridge. In this case, the food in question is butternut squash.

My friend Jake has been helping us with our garden and thanks to him we have both pumpkin and butternut squash plants in our yard. Gardening is way harder than I believed it to be, particularly so because we’re not using pesticides and all the local garden centers stopped carrying ladybugs months ago. Aphids are really kicking our ass over here, and Jacob finally came up with a solution involving spraying each goddamn bug with a magical, organic substance that will shred the critter and knock him to the ground, thereby preventing anymore identical bastards to pop out of his pooper, and, as Anthony put it, “ruin Halloween.”

All that aside, Jake’s plants have managed to produce butternuts, and they are awesome. He gave one to me and I immediately set about the task of slicing it into rounds and baking it. I was originally trying to make steamed disks of butternut so that I could slather them with goat cheese, honey and toasted pecans and feast thusly until my husband returned home from sword practice.

Of course I forgot about them in the oven so that didn’t happen.

I ate them anyway and realized that as divine as steamed squash could be, these were chips, and they were even better. I really think that Jake raised a superior squash because I’ve recreated this experiment a few times since then and while the results of have been delicious, that first squash I used was far and away superior. Perhaps the defining factor was the way that squash was made: it was small, had a very small globe end and a very long cylinder end. When I sliced it the squash divided into perfect disks. Squash I bought from the farmer’s market was too large, so I had to resort to slicing it into half-moon shapes.

After they were sliced I brushed them with olive oil and set them on a foil-lined baking tray. This is about the thickness I was going for.

As you can see from the photo, they weren’t all perfect and some were thinner and some were thicker. I divided up my squash moons into a thinner and a thicker pile so I could cook them in batches. This really wasn’t extra work because I couldn’t fit them all in at once anyway.

Some received a dusting of spices, including cinnamon, cumin, curry, and five spice powder. These were all very good, especially the cinnamon and curry powder, and just by adding the slight addition of powdered spice you could completely change the character of the chip. My favorite is still probably a sprinkling of sea salt, but don’t bother adding that until the chips are out of the oven. If you add it before baking the salt will pull the moisture from the chips and they will steam instead of bake.

I threw leftover chips in a large zippy bag and toasted them throughout the week. They suffered no ill effects from this treatment and could probably survive five or six days like that. Squash are hardy.

They come out like this, though I had quite a few burn and quite a few remain soft and stick. The handy thing about cutting them into rounds is that the skin helps the squash retain its shape and there’s less burning and steaming because you don’t have that bit of squash flesh at one end.

I roasted them for about 35 minutes at 400, but you really have to watch these guys carefully and will almost certainly have to adjust the time and temperature of your oven for their temperament. Mistakes will still be delicious, even if they aren’t chips. The burnt parts are almost completely caramelized plant sugars and they taste like toasted marshmallows.

If they end up too soft, break out the honey and the goat cheese or feta and enjoy them that way.

Chips aside, you are going to have leftover squash. The globe-like ends are not fit for chips, but scoop out the seeds, rub with oil and roast all the same.

After roasting these I mashed them with a fork, discarded the peel, and added them to shiitake risotto (made by adding dried shiitake mushrooms to the stock while it heats, then adding the sliced mushrooms and butternut puree to the plain risotto at the end) and Oh. My.

It was so good I nearly cried when I ate the last bowl. I served it to Anthony in these wooden bowls I salvaged from my bestie’s yard sale. The color of the squash mellows in the creamy whiteness of the risotto and Anthony thought the color came from cheddar cheese, but the pale orange is actually the squash. I threw a squash chip on top for garnish and added a dusting of cheese and for the next ten minutes my life was complete.

Other things I made with the leftover squash include a butternut squash puree which I later realized would have made a perfect baby food. I roasted and mashed the squash then added butter and crumbled feta along with salt and pepper. I decided then and there that all babies should eat so well.

I stirred the leftovers of the puree into a black bean  and bell pepper hash that I had in the fridge and it was so very good. If Jake gives me anymore I’m going to make soup. Do you have a favorite way to prepare butternut or other winter squash? I’d love to hear it. As the summer winds down I expect I’ll get a few thrown at my car when people are at a loss to deal with them.  I’ll point them this way for ideas.

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The Summer Market

22 Jun

One of my goals for this summer is to do as much of our weekly shopping as locally as possible, either at fruit stands, the Tuesday Remate, or the downtown Farmer’s Market. Last Friday Isobel and I stopped by the Farmer’s Market because Anthony’s vacation had ended and Isobel wanted to see “the people.” You can see our glorious bounty in the photo above. In fact, if you click on the photo it will take you to my flickr where I’ve labeled everything for the curious.

I only brought one large tote with me but I could have used two. Toward the end of the trip I managed to pick up Isobel with one arm and hoist her onto my hip while holding an armload of produce in the other hand. I was so impressed I would have wifed myself right there if it were legal.

Going to the farmer’s market has really jump-started my menu planning for the summer. I’m really getting into it again and I think it’s because it’s so inspiring to see everything laid out and to talk with the people who grew it. Most of the stuff on the counter came from 30 miles away. I pick up stuff that looks interesting and plan my protein and meals around that. The combination of spontaneous and interesting, in-season and fresh really speaks to my desire to eat well and plan for my family.

That Friday I used the eggs, the garlic, and the portobello mushroom to make a killer omelet for dinner. Anthony has been making classic Greek salads for about a month now so I bought him a cucumber and those unusual-looking Italian torpedo red onions. They are really sweet and delicate and I like that in an onion that I’m going to eat raw. I think it makes it more appealing for children, too, as I’ve yet to find a kid that adores raw onions (though I’m sure they’re out there). When Isobel was about six months old she delighted in chewing on raw onion rings, but she liked many unusual things at that age. Staring at ceiling fans, for example.

I’ve eaten most of the cherry tomatoes pictures already.They were like tiny bits of candy. The larger ones I’m saving to split in half for salads. I hesitantly bought two smallish zucchini. Hesitantly because it seems like zucchini is the White Elephant gift of summer. It explodes in backyard gardens until strangers are throwing them at your car as you drive by in an effort to rid themselves of the overabundance. I’m going to try shaving them thin and drizzling them with oil and feta, but if I don’t care for that, there’s always zucchini fritters.

I’ve never eaten wax beans, aside from those regrettable canned three-bean salads everyone in America has had forced on them at some point. But this is the kind of thing I like about going to the market: I see something unusual and it inspires me to try it. My favorite instance of this ever occurred when I happened upon some zucchini blossoms. It was also the first (and sadly, only) time I’ve ever deep-fried something. As much as I love fried food, it intimidates me.

The fruit is nearly gone, now, too, and it hasn’t even been a week. I’ll probably be hitting a fruit stand soon.

I even bought an Anaheim chili pepper to pusue my goal of increasing my tolerance to spicy food this summer.

I also instantly bonded with another mother when I went to sit down and eat some soup and I heard her toddler shout a familiar “NO!” my way. Her son was mere weeks apart from Isobel and we commiserated over the stranger danger and the subsequent unsociable behavior it brings. While we ate and talked our kids took turns waving and shouting, “NO!” at each other.

Isobel looks really serious in this photo, and that’s because she is serious–about her food. If you get between her and her hummus she will cut a bitch. Actually, she will just throw a tantrum, a fact I found out when I tried to dip my carrot in her hummus. No, Mama, no. That’s my Isobel’s hummus. Also, she insists I call pita bread tortillas. We’ve been having hummus and ‘tias every day for breakfast since.


Lunch, Menu Planning, and Eating Healthily

17 Mar

Before I make good on the promise I made few days ago, I wanted to point you in the direction of this post by MK. It is an excellent resource to ways you can donate to various charities assisting in the relief effort in Japan. As days go by and the situation becomes even more grim and horrible, all I can do is sniff my daughter’s head as I sadly watch the news. Of course, it feels that way, but it’s not true: I can help by donating. And you can, too.

It’s been nearly a year now since I first discussed my meal planning goal, and meal planning in general is something I still work on and think about several days a week. As a family we are much closer to my ideal of eating a home cooked meal together every night, but we’re not quite there yet.

Weekly meal planning  got me through that time when I was fighting to come out of post-partum depression. I needed a set menu plan to tell me exactly, precisely what to do without any thought on my part. When you’re depressed you need help putting one foot in front of the other to soldier on. While I didn’t stick to the set weekly menu plan for very long, I use ideas and meals from it frequently as a backup plan. When we get busy, or when our plans fall through, it is always there, reliable and easy and comforting.

So I thought, maybe I’m going about this backward? I like variety at dinner, I like to improvise and cook based on mood and energy level. But I eat the same breakfast everyday (oatmeal, coffee) and am content. Lunch is more difficult, since I tend to rely on either leftovers or a soup and a salad.  I’m one of those people who work through lunch unless I have to stop. I enjoy food immensely, obviously, but if my head’s all wrapped up in a project I tend to ignore things like eating or sleeping—you know, the details. I seldom care about variety at lunch; I just want to get fed so I can go back to what I’m doing.  I also noticed that when I go out to eat at lunch I don’t try new things on a menu—I stick to my favorites, what I know I like.

The past few weeks I’ve been making variations on a turkey sandwich, inspired by the delicious sandwiches at Leland Tea Company. My current fave is a turkey and Swiss cheese on whole wheat bread with mayo, honey mustard, arugula greens, alfalfa sprouts, scallions, and thinly sliced tomatoes and pickles.

I realized I could eat essentially the same (with room for variation) breakfast and lunch everyday, and this fit in perfectly with my desire to monitor my calories. I could calculate the calories for lunch and breakfast once and be done with it, giving myself flexibility—and a calorie reserve—at dinner.  The next step is planning four or so different lunch and breakfast items that I love and working out the caloric intake for each so I always have healthy options for the first two meals of the day.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dinner with a little help from my friends

28 Apr

I received an abundance of wonderful ideas for getting dinner on the table every night in the comments of my previous post. I wanted to gather them all, organize them, and present them here because 1. I’m a librarian; it’s what I do and 2. I’m hoping this will help some other poor soul who, like me, turns to the internet when they are fed up with making dinner. See the comments in the original post here.

GREAT MINDS

I noticed some themes that came up over and over again in the comments. Roasting a whole chicken, for example, then using the leftovers throughout the week, reinventing it or adding it to salads. Using the carcass for stock. Basically, you know an idea is sound when several people in different circumstances come up with it. Buying a whole chicken is much more economical than buying the bird piecemeal. Using the whole thing is healthy, saves time and money, and, in my opinion, respects the bird. Erin suggested roasting it using Belinda’s Kafka method which I tried awhile back. It worked out beautifully, even though I roasted the bird upside down. Elizabeth pointed out that if you didn’t want to go to the trouble of roasting the bird yourself, buying a rotisserie option from the grocery store couldn’t be easier.

Planning, shopping, and prep work were recommended across the board. I can’t manage to get dinner on the table without some sort of preliminary thought and neither can other people, it seems. I can’t tell you how reassuring this is. Julie’s comment about doing the shopping and the meal prep together as quality time spent with loved ones really opened my eyes. Instead of viewing that time as a chore I need to realize that is quality time spent with my husband, plus it’s a healthy habit to introduce to my daughter. Time spent together, plus the mindset of making healthy food for our bodies, is a vital lesson that as a parent I need to pass on. I couldn’t agree with her more.

A stocked pantry is essential. Fortunately, I developed a pretty kickass pantry in my childless days. It’s taken ten years but my pantry rocks and I can say from experience that a well-stocked pantry can save many and evening. Dingey had the wonderful suggestion of stocking up on bulk grains at Co-ops and to have a variety of spices and condiments on hand. Cooking for yourself is only worth it if you like what you make so investing in flavor makes perfect sense. Peter thinks a well stocked pantry goes a long way towards improvising meals on the fly, and I agree with him. April recommends keeping these items on hand: pasta sauces, cheese, prepped veggies, salad dressings and marinades.

Don’t forget your freezer as an extension of your pantry! Julie sometimes makes extra of something to freeze when she knows her routine might get interrupted and Erin buys organic chickens when they are on sale and freezes them to make her purchase last.

The crock pot is a friend of both April and Bonnie. April makes soups in hers once a week and Bonnie likes that she can prep her meals the night before and set them up in the crock pot in the morning. Erin loves Kalua pork from the crock pot that can usually stretch to fit more than one meal. I’ve heard you can roast a chicken in one but I’ve yet to try it.

RESOURCES

Peter suggested this link that I absolutely love. It’s great for meal inspiration.

Elizabeth recommends Bon Appetite’s website particularly their Fast Easy Fresh column.

Erin suggested two blogs and and I must say that I highly recommend simply recipes as well.

Several cookbooks have been recommended and as someone who has a soft spot for cookbooks, I could not be more pleased. Bonnie recommended “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” and I have heard so much about this cookbook that it’s already on my wish list. Elizabeth highly spoke of “Jamie’s Dinners” for its foundational recipes particularly. Dingey suggests “The Flavor Bible” for learning about how flavors complement each other and I think I’m going to put this on reserve at the library immediately. Bonnie recommends a collection of books available in Canada that I might have to search for in the states called “Jean Pare’s Company’s Coming.”

SUNDRY TIPS, TRICKS, AND COOKING ADVICE

April

  1. Grill up burgers on the weekend to have on hand for lunch during the week
  2. Make casseroles on the weekend to round out your week’s meals
  3. Take a pack of chicken and marinate each piece in a different marinade
  4. Prep and marinate vegetables on the weekend. During the week lay them on the grill or sauté them on the stove.
  5. Save the dishes that have a bigger time commitment for the weekend.

Julie

  1. Shop and cook together on the weekends for quality time
  2. Keep healthy snacks on hand for grazers and frequent eaters
  3. Make your meals to double-duty by reinventing leftovers
  4. Make extra to freeze as back up
  5. Create meals assembly-line style to breakup the workload.

Peter

  1. Improv meals from a well stocked pantry

Omar

  1. Prep your vegetables
  2. use your gas grill to create fast, flavorful dinners

Erin

  1. Stock up on expensive, organic chicken when on sale and freeze
  2. Use frozen pizza dough to create fabulous, healthy, inexpensive gourmet pizza
  3. Roast a chicken to last a couple meals
  4. Use your crock pot to get multiple meals from one meal’s work

Elizabeth

  1. Roast chicken goes far. Rotisserie chicken from the grocery store is a good value.
  2. Frittata and other egg dishes is a quick way to get a lot of healthy protein inexpensively
  3. Keep good-quality sausage in the freezer for lots of meal options
  4. Learn the basics of foundation recipes

Dingey

  1. Stock up to keep stuff on hand for improved meals
  2. Stock up in bulk to save money
  3. Make grain salads ahead of time – they last, are healthy, and filling
  4. Learn to pair your flavors

Bonnie

  1. Prepping the night before with the crock pot turns into something delicious the next day
  2. Keep track of recipes you’d like to try and ingredients you’ll need
  3. Have a stash of recipes that you can go to when you need something fast
  4. Stir fries are delicious and healthy
  5. Frozen pizza dough only needs toppings and you have a delicious pie for the oven

There you have it, folks, a wealth of information on how to answer the one inevitable question in life: what’s for dinner?  I think we just might have the answer.