Monday, May 10, 2010

No-Worries Menu Planning

When I started this blog, my intention was to demonstrate that it is easy to cook in college, to balance one's schedule, shop on a budget, etc. I seem to have strayed pretty far from that goal, giving you, instead, a Mondrian cake, chicken that takes two hours, etc. So now (and with my last post on the quickest, most delicious fried rice--have you made it yet?) I'm trying to get back to that original idea, with a guide to planning a week's worth of menus.

The title, by the way, is a lie. I always worry about menu planning, but I am crazy. Because I am crazy, I developed a careful method for planning weekly dinner menus, grocery shopping, etc. Because I am crazy, it starts on the Wednesday before the week in question. It's the only way I get by. But I bet that you, sane reader, can take some tips from my system and make it your (less obsessive) own.

Wednesday: My Fresh Picks order is due Wednesday night for Saturday delivery. My neighborhood farmer's market starts up this week, so I might be eliminating this step soon. Anyway, when I order Fresh Picks, I tend to just get whatever suits my fancy, plus a box of mystery vegetables.

Saturday: Fresh Picks arrives. (Or I go to the Farmer's market.) I take everything out, decide what goes in the freezer, and try to make a list (at least in my head) of what I have.

This Week: crimini mushrooms, lettuce, carrots, mixed greens, arugula (!), green garlic (!!), ramps (!!!), bread, and short ribs. This was the best week ever for Fresh Picks. It's not always so exactly suited to my tastes, and I frequently have to try new things or find new recipes, which is one of the cool parts of the service.

Sunday: On Sunday, I make lists. First, I make a list of everything that we have. This includes the Fresh Picks order, plus stuff like eggs, cheese, milk--whatever is in the fridge, and frozen meats and seafood. I also try to take stock of the pantry staples (beans, rice, pasta, canned goods, etc.). I'll discussing stocking a pantry in a later post.

Next, I make a list of meals I've been craving, that David has asked for, that I've seen on blogs or read about in cookbooks or magazines. Then, I try to fit the two lists, together, trying to use up as many ingredients from Fresh Picks or the fridge as possible. After I've chosen 5 meals, I put them in order. I try not to have two starch-based meals (with less protein) in a row, or to eat meat two nights in a row.

Here's what this week's menu looks like:
Sunday: Spring Risotto with Ramps and Crimini Mushrooms, Arugula Salad
Monday: Fresh Pasta with Ramps, Green Garlic, and Fried Egg, Salad
Tuesday: Braised Short Ribs, Green Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Roasted Carrots
Wednesday: Chili-Lime Tofu, Cinnamon Quinoa, Braised Greens
Thursday: Leek Fried Rice with Egg

With this menu, I will get though everything from the Fresh Picks box, except for some of the carrots. I also try to make things easier for myself. For example, on Tuesday and Thursday I work at the cafe in the afternoons, so I'm pretty tired when I get home. Tuesday's meal will mostly come from the slow cooker, and Thursday's (as you've seen) is super easy.

After I've determined the menu, I make a grocery list. This week, it looked like this:

-sandwich supplies (whatever is on special at the deli)
-brown rice
-salad dressing

The grocery store has so many options, that I find it much easier to base my menus around my Fresh Picks box, or what is available at the Farmer's market. Then, shopping at Treasure Island is under control, and I have less of a tendency to impulse shop. Having not just a grocery list but also a meal plan makes it easier to get everything that I need for every meal. If I just go through the store stocking up on everything I usually buy, I will inevitably forget the leeks for the fried rice or the limes for the tofu.

For Honesty's Sake: I frequently stray. Usually at least one meal a week gets axed or drastically changed. If I've had a horrible day at work or I have a paper to write, we usually end up getting sushi or thai or something. If it's unexpectedly nice out, we will end up grilling sausages or hamburgers. Also, despite my system, I do end up forgetting things at the grocery store, which is when David makes himself indispensably by running out when I realize halfway through a cake that I've got no eggs.

I know that this is a little crazy and complicated, but it's what works for me. It helps me to spend less, waste less, and eat better, all of which are noble goals.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Comfort Food = Carnitas.

Carnitas. So delicious, so easy. Since moving to Chicago, I have been in a carnitas drought. There are good mexican restaurants here, but none of them serve carnitas that are up my high (Boca Grande) standards. So I made my own, and it was unbelievably easy. Also, cheap. Pork shoulder is really inexpensive, and the slow cooker does most of the work.

Slow-Cooked Carnitas

-3 lb pork shoulder
-2 tablespoons cumin
-2 tablespoons chili powder
-2 tablespoons salt
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-orange juice
-oil, for frying

For serving:
-flour tortillas
-chopped white onion
-lime wedges

1. Combine the spices and salt. Rub the pork shoulder all over with the spices and garlic, and place in the slower cooker. Fill about halfway with orange juice. Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4.

2. Shred cooked pork with two forks. Meanwhile, heat a heavy skillet on the stove.

3. Add oil/fat and shredded pork to the skillet in one layer, and let cook, undisturbed, until a nice crispy crust forms. Then flip and cook on the other side.

4. Serve!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fried Rice. Wow.

Stop the presses, stop your diet, stop everything and make this rice.

Before today, I had never made the same dish twice in once evening. This rice, from Mark Bittman, forced me to. Seriously, it FORCED me. I absolutely could not not eat it again. "Let's have it again tomorrow night" suggested the ever-reasonable David (who, I might add, ate this faster than I have ever seen him eat anything). But waiting was just not going to happen. I ate the last bite of the first incarnation, and immediately put the rice on to boil for the second.

I know that I'm a little (a lot) late to this party, that every blogger and home cook worth their salt (including Smitten Kitchen and Sarah) has made it and raved about it. It has been on my "to cook" list since it was published back in January. The problem: we don't have leftover rice. You see, after a childhood of watching my mom throw away half a cup of leftover rice almost every night, I was determined to always cook the exact amount of rice--to get it down to a science. And I did! Which was great for my conscience, but bad for fried rice. Finally, last night, I remembered to make a couple of extra cups of rice, specifically for this dish. And now, I will probably never make exactly enough rice again. David says that he could happily eat this every night for the rest of his life, and I'm inclined to agree.

Ginger Fried Rice (adapted from Mark Bittman)
This recipe is perfectly adaptable to any kind of rice. The first time, I used leftover brown basmati rice, and the second time I used fresh sushi rice. Mark says not to use fresh rice, that it must be day-old, but I just stuck my fresh rice, uncovered, in the freezer while the leeks softened, and it turned out just fine. I originally halved it, but, obviously, making the whole thing should be just fine for two.

1/2 cup peanut oil

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced ginger


2 cups thinly sliced leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed and dried

4 cups day-old cooked rice, preferably jasmine, at room temperature

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons sesame oil

4 teaspoons soy sauce.

1. In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp and brown. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels and salt lightly.

2. Reduce heat under skillet to medium-low and add 2 tablespoons oil and leeks. Cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very tender but not browned. Season lightly with salt.

3. Raise heat to medium and add rice. Cook, stirring well, until heated through. Season to taste with salt.

4. In a nonstick skillet, fry eggs in remaining oil, sunny-side-up, until edges are set but yolk is still runny.

5. Divide rice among four dishes. Top each with an egg and drizzle with 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Sprinkle crisped garlic and ginger over everything and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sausage and Beans, Two.

Another sausage+legume combo, which is a favorite of mine. This is a really great winter dish, which manages to feel hearty while still being quite healthy. It also makes great leftovers. The remains of this particular casserole were living happily in the freezer over spring break when the electricity went off. For almost a week! It was with a heavy heart that I returned to Chicago and threw out frozen shrimp, a stash of good sausages, and many leftovers. (Not to mention two gallons of homemade chicken stock...)

Anyway, this dish is so easy and cheap to make that the leftovers weren't too much of a loss, and if this chilly weather keeps up I might make it again soon. Any kind of chicken sausage should be fine; I used hot italian, but only because it was the most interesting type to be had at Treasure Island.

Chicken Sausage and White Bean Casserole (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Note: the original recipe calls for fresh bread crumbs to top the casserole. I had no bread, which meant no fresh bread crumbs. However, I'm sure it would make this even better.

-2 tablespoons olive oil
-25-30 fresh sage leaves
-1 medium yellow onion, diced
-6 cloves garlic, minced
-3/4 chicken sausage, casings removed (in my grocery store, chicken sausage comes in 1.25 lb packages of 5 links. For this, I use 3 links and save the other two for grilling)
-1/2 cup white wine
-2 cans cannellini beans
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. When hot, add sage leaves and fry until crisp, then remove to a paper towel.

2. Add onion and garlic to the pan and saute until translucent.

3. Add the sausage and fry until no longer pink, breaking up with a spoon/spatula. Add beans and wine to the pan and cook about 3 minutes, until everything is heated through. Season with salt and lots of pepper.

4. Transfer sausage/beans to a casserole dish and top with the fried sage leaves. Bake 15-20 minutes and serve with parmesan and a vegetable of some kind.

Photography note: These pictures are better! They might even be good! All credit goes to the sun, which, these days, is sometimes out when I finish cooking. I've been taking pictures on the back porch, see.

<- Bike and Beans.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I'm Back.

Hello! Did you miss me?

It has been over a month since I last posted, and I'm pretty embarrassed. I'm sure that some of you gave up on me (or at least on my blog) entirely. But, here I am, back from an eventful spring break and a painful transition into the new quarter. I started off this quarter fully intending to cut myself some academic slack, but four days in found myself having promised to sit in on an extra class, write an extra paper, and take on some extra hours at work. This isn't a personal blog, so I will (try) to keep the whining to a minimum, but I just wanted you to know that I haven't been spending all this time twiddling my thumbs, or whatever.

Today I'm back with cake, and in the next few days I will posting meals from the past month that I managed to photograph, but didn't manage to write up.

This cake. Oh man, this cake. I made for a party that I threw on Friday, for the Art History majors, obviously. This is by far the best chocolate cake that I have made, and it might just be the best one I've had. It is moist beyond belief, and the inclusion of cocoa powder AND melted chocolate... mmmm. I'm eating a slice of the leftovers right now, and it might just be even better after a day in the fridge.

The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen, of course, with no modifications, and the frosting is basic cream cheese. As for the successful decoration, that's thanks to SK as well. In one of her many, many helpful cake posts, she explains that smooth frosting is achieved using the "crumb layer" technique. A thin layer of frosting is spread on the cake, and the cake is then refrigerated/frozen until the frosting is solid. Then, a second, SMOOTH layer goes on. It works fantastically well.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What to eat after a final.

A final for a class called "Plagues", no less.

It's no secret that I'm crazy for legumes. At the moment, my kitchen contains four types of canned beans, two types of dried beans, dried split peas and five types of lentils. Five types of lentils! I never claimed to be sane. But of all the uses for all the legumes, this might be my favorite.

The French green lentils are key here. I made this once with black beluga lentils, which are gorgeous and worth trying, but this dish is worlds better if you use the real thing. The quality of the sausages is key too. I use hot dogs, but not just any hot dogs. They come from my absolute favorite place in the whole city of Chicago--Gene's Sausage Shop. Seriously, this place is over an hour away and if it weren't for school I would go every other day. Actually, if I didn't go to school in Hyde Park I would move to Lincoln Square just to be closer to Gene's. They make their own meat everything, and stock awesome (and amazingly priced!) Eastern European beer, liquor, and groceries. Actually, my lentils came from here too. Anyway, if you're lacking a place like Gene's, use some kielbasa or other high quality smoked sausage.

We ate this with roasted brussels sprouts (probably the last of the season!), but it makes a pretty good meal on its own, and is also good cold. I've tweaked the original recipe quite a bit, adding more sausage, decreasing the lentils by a third (the first time I made it, we never got through the leftovers) and upping the mustard in the dressing.

Warm French Lentil Salad with Smoked Sausage (adapted from Use Real Butter)

serves 4

-1 cup French green (de Puy) lentils
-1/2 lb smoked sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
-3 sprigs fresh thyme
-2 smashed garlic cloves
-2 bay leaves
-black peppercorns
-1 small onion, peeled and halved
-1 small carrot, halved
-1 and 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
-1 tablespoon dijon mustard
-1 tablespoon olive oil
-1 tablespoon walnut oil (or replace with more olive oil, if you don't have walnut oil around)
-1/4 cup chopped parsley
-2 scallions, chopped
-salt and pepper

1. Put the thyme, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaves into a cheesecloth pouch or spice bag. Place in a saucepan with the lentils, onion, and carrot and cover with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, and simmer 30-40 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, brown the sausage in a cast iron skillet, and make the dressing. Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, and oils. Add salt and pepper and more of oil or vinegar, to taste.

3. When the lentils are tender, drain and discard the spice pouch, onion, and carrot.

4. Mix together the lentils, sausage, parsley, scallion, and dressing. Serve!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chicken, Bread, Cookies

Yesterday, I woke up to some very sad and unexpected news. I took off work but figured that I'd best keep busy, so I did the only thing that I knew would distract me--I cooked and cooked and cooked. There are unfortunately very few pictures in today's post, as I was too busy cooking, stuffing my face, and cooking more things to stuff in my face, but I do have three fantastic recipes to share.

Chicken in Milk (adapted from Jamie Oliver)

The idea of this sounds kind of gross, and to be honest, the result looks pretty gross too. The milk curdles with the lemon peel, making a strangely chunky, yellow sauce. But I promise that it is delicious. In order to make it more visually appealing, I took all the meat off the chicken and pureed the sauce with my handy immersion blender (thanks, Mom). I made a few changes to the original recipe, including stuffing the chicken cavity with the skinned lemons and leaving the lid on the pot. This was my first time cooking a whole chicken, and it was surprisingly stress free.

-3.5 lb chicken
-1/4 stick of butter
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 lemons, zested
-a large handful of fresh sage leaves
-1 pint of milk (I used 2%)
-10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
-small cinnamon stick
-salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Wash and season the chicken on both sides, and stuff the cavity with pieces of the skinned lemon. Heat olive oil and butter in a large, oven-safe pot with a lid, and brown the chicken on both sides. I needed a third hand to turn the chicken over in my deep pot.

3. Remove the chicken to a plate, and pour off the excess fat. Return the chicken and all of the other ingredients to the pot. Cook in the oven for an hour and half. I took the lid off for the last half hour, but next time I'll leave it on, as the breast got a little dry and the skin wasn't great anyway.

4. Tear the cooked chicken into small chunks and serve, topped with the sauce. I pureed mine, but it's completely optional.

This was great with some fresh bread to spread the garlic over and dip in the sauce.

Reliable, Homemade Bread (adapted from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day)
Making bread is easy, especially on Sunday. The rising times can be adapted to suit your needs--if you have to be gone all day, just put the dough in the fridge for the first rise. A long, slower rise will actually make the bread even better. This recipe makes four small loves, which are an ideal size for two. I baked two (one for the neighbors) and put the others in the freezer. To bake the frozen dough, thaw it overnight or all day and then proceed to step 5. Please don't be intimidated by the number of steps! Most of this is inactive time, and really, there's only about five minutes of kneading in the whole thing.

-6 1/2 cups flour
-2 3/4 cups water, at "body temperature" (I always microwave bread water for 20 seconds)
-1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
-1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
-1 tablespoon salt

1. Combine water, yeast, salt, and sugar in a large bowl, and add flour a cup at a time. If your dough seems too wet to work with (mine often does), add another cup of flour by half-cups.

2. Stir/knead until the dough in moist throughout and completely uniform. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 2 to 5 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.

3. Punch down the dough and knead it a few times, then divide into three or four portions. To freeze some, form into balls and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.

4. Form the dough into loaves, and let rise another 40 minutes, or an hour if using frozen dough. If making pan loaves (my preference), roll the dough out to a large rectangle, and roll the rectangle up into the shape of the pan. Pinch all the seams, and tuck the ends under.

5. Let rise another 40 minutes to an hour, and turn the oven on to 450 degrees.

6. Here's the trick. A few minutes before you are ready to put the bread in the oven, place a roasting pan on the bottom rack. After you put the bread it, pour a good cup of cold water into the hot pan (which should be below the bread), and immediately shut the oven door. The steam helps a good crust to form.

7. Bake for 30 minutes or so. Check halfway through--if the crust is already browning, lower the temperature to 350 degrees for the duration of baking. The bread is done when the bottom sounds hollow when tapped (I grab it with an oven mitt and tap it with a wooden spoon).

Austrian Raspberry Shortbread Bars
The only change I made to this recipe was halving it (which I'm now regretting), so I'll just link you to the original post by the fantastic Smitten Kitchen. All of her cookie recipes are great.

Coming up on The Off-Campus Gourmet:
-Finals week! Finals are coming, but, hopefully, the blog won't go silent. I intend to share some of my most trusted (and FAST) last-minute recipes, as well as one or two huge dishes that can be frozen in anticipation of a busy stretch.
-More in organization and time management. I have a few days between the end of finals and a trip to New York, in which I hope to share more about my kitchen, the way that I plan meals and organize a pantry, and my general approach to cooking.
-Some recipes with these exciting new ingredients! Thanks, Mom & Tim.