Monday, July 25, 2011

Bulk Buying & Berries

We pay for convenience in this society. It is no secret. However, it is a sentiment that comes with a definite abundance of wealth. Currently, a lot of us (myself included) are feeling that wealth is no longer something to be counted on. So I am of the mind to rely more on my own hard work than someone else's. Mine: I can control what goes into my food, guarantee its healthiness and minimize my overall expenses.

So while grains are the most common bulk foods, what do you do when you have perishables? And how hard is it to preserve fruit, veggies and such?

My favorite option is freezing.

As we plug on toward the end of berry season here in Northern California, my favorite bits of summer will vanish from the farmer's market. However it is the best time to buy berries in bulk at your local market, or right off of the farm.

To freeze berries I use plastic ziplock baggies. I cut up strawberries, measure them into 1 cup portions, and place in the freezer. They keep very well this way.

Rinse blueberries in warm water. Portion out appropriately, and store in baggies. Make certain when you close the bags, you have eliminated as much air as possible.

Blackberries, raspberries can be kept the same.

If you bought a lot of berries, save this task for a day you have at least an hour free. If you have to wait a few days for this, make sure that your berries are rinsed well and stored in the fridge. Do your best to freeze within a week of purchasing them. Realize that if you buy from a grocery store, your timeline is much shorter as your berries have been off the plant for a longer time and so have less life in them.

Plop frozen berries into a touch of water and add seasonings for a quick pie or fruit tart. Defrost in the microwave just enough that the berries can be pulled apart and add to a smoothie. Berries + water + cinnamon, sugar (or honey), nutmeg, vanilla = perfect topping for pancakes,french toast, crepes, granola, yogurt, cottage cheese.

Defrost, drain, and toss with sugar to dry before using frozen berries in baking: breads, muffins, scones.

Berries also make a good topping for ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet and gelato.

To turn frozen berries into fruit juice, cook in water until your pan is full of liquid only. Then allow to cool, store in fridge.

You can add juice to a liqour and drink--or freeze and turn into a granita, a frozen dessert that chases away a hot day.

To use frozen fruit to make creaming popsicles, cook in vanilla and honey then add to vanilla yogurt, and freeze in cups with popsicle sticks in the center. If you keep the fruit just a bit chunky, it adds texture to the treat. However, you could just make it a strawberry frozen yogurt pop by combining fruitjuice and yogurt, as well.

I love the diversity of dishes I can make with berries. They are small so generally very easy to work with. They are among some of the healthiest of fruits, loaded with antioxidants, and some even help to fight depression. So if you are working on obtaining more fruit in your diet, berries are a good way to go.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Identifying What you will Eat: Food Families

--Picture: Helen Lam

"Food Families" is a term I use to indicate Food-from-region-of origin. I feel that "ethnic" doesn't fit, because...well...look at Chinese cuisine. When you say "Chinese cooking," what regional (or ethnic Chinese) cuisine are you referring to?

"Family" references the relatedness between different regions without lumping groups into an "ethnic" category they don't belong to. (Anthropologist-in-training showing here :P)

After you have maintained a food diary for two weeks, you should start to notice that your choices fall into broader categories.

For instance my own are: Asian, Mexican, and Italian-Mediterranean.

Now that's a wide variety, but it informs me what oils, seasonings, sauces, and grains I need to keep at hand.

Each "Food family" has different-but-related base seasonings. (This is a result of geography, trade, Imperialism, etc) Basically, you have an array of tastes for each of your food families, and "ethnic" options underneath that umbrella.

So you have key items that you keep stocked, because these will allow you to construct meals from any of your "food families."

How do you find out what these ingredients are?

Start with your favorite dishes. Pull up their recipes. Set the recipes side by side. Now take a pen or pencil to the list.

If you have repeating ingredients that show up in at least 2 of your recipes, circle them. These are your stock items, and some of the first things you should buy before meal planning.

Obvious ones are soy sauce for Asian cooking, olive oil for Italian cooking, wine for french cooking, cream and salt for American cooking...

But there are more seasonings and spices than the "obvious" ones. And sometimes these even "cross" families. Like basil, sherry, honey, garlic, onion, salt, sugar, and canola oil.

If there is a seasoning option that you can use "in place of" another ingredient, and the replacement ingredient is in line with other dishes--use the replacement. This means that you keep that "replacement ingredient" on hand, and maintain you "stash" effectively.

Effective management of these base ingredients makes all meal planning possible.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Identifying What you will eat, Part 1: Keeping a Food Diary (+ Challenge & Giveaway)

If you’re new to meal planning, the 1st thing you need to do is nothing. I know this sounds counter-intuitive. But before making a change, you need to know what you are changing. Remember what we think that we do and our actual patterns of behavior are quite different.

***So for two weeks, keep a food diary. The challenge will be to maintain the diary for two weeks and then on 6/20/11 share in the comments your Food families (ethnic food categories, "American" for anything common to your home growing up, unless you identify with a cultural subset) and what items you must keep stored to meet your scheme. Also, share 3 links to the sites you found most informative. The first person to post all details in the comments will receive a Modern Menu Recipe-holder and my top 10 go-to dishes with pictures and instructions, as well as plenty of room to add your own. The 2nd person will receive 5 spices (my choice) and Modern Menu Notebook, the 3rd person will receive a Modern Menu bookmark and notebook.***

When keeping a food Diary, write down the following:

When you eat
When you eat
How quickly hunger returns

When you wake
When you sleep
What you do (energy-wise: do you walk to the grocery store, or take the car?)

If you snack, what do you opt for?
How do you make your food choices?
How much unused food makes it to the garbage can?

(In two weeks, I’ll ask you to share your findings --not the whole diary but what you *learned*)

I’ve done this, and what did I learn?

There are a number of things that I bought, planned to use and they stuck around. If my Guy doesn’t tell me he’s hungry, I’m more likely to snack on leftovers than make areal meal. I cave on Pappa Murphy’s and Subway when PMS-ing. If I don’t get enough protein I’m a grouch for 2 weeks out of the month, and my emotionalism runs higher.

Perhaps, for some that’s too much info..but you have to know what your body is doing to treat it properly.

So carry a notebook around with you, and this will help you make decisions going forward.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Meal Planning For 2 + : Adjusting Cooking Concepts to Shop Effectively

When Meal Planning for more than just yourself, you must take more than your own food preferences into account. This can easily become a juggling act. It grows easy to fall back on "what mom made" even if you didn't like opening your lunchbox in elementary school to see yet-another PB&J and Tang.

If you’re sending your significant other, child, or other (and yourself) off to work, school, daily-life with lunch in hand, the nature of the job might inform you how and what to cook.

My guy, for instance, spends his day behind a desk. He’s concerned about the recent studies about the dangers of sedantism, and abhors the very idea of weight-gain. So I’m making him a series of “snacks” to take to work.

Breakfast for my guy consists of: fruit salad (strawberries, blueberries raspberries + almond slivers) orange slices (from my parent’s tree!) 1 Blueberry muffin & 1 Strawberry muffin.

Lunch is the remaining Enchilada, from last night’s dinner.

However, being home all day, I can be more active: walks, housework, and errand-running intersperses the job-hunt, writing and blogging. So I eat three meals:

2 Starwberry muffins and fruit salad

Carrot Pseudo-Frittata with spinach salad

Dinner: Curry
(Not yet made)

Look--we’re eating differently! How is this meal planning for 2?

Enchilada: last night’s leftovers (they are turkey enchiladas made with the seasoned ground turkey used for tacos the day before)--containing mushrooms, spinach, ¾ of a tomato (left over from a sandwich-lunch eaten over the weekend), frozen bell pepper, green onion, cheese, the remainder of the tortillas ( a few days prior we had had quesedillas, and so opened the bag).

The carrot-rice pseudo frittata was made of leftover carrot rice that was going uneaten. The salad has two greens: spinach (of course) and the leftover sliced lettuce from the tacos, plus sliced mushrooms, carrots and pickled beat.

Strawberry Muffin, and strawberries in fruit salad come from the same place.

Curry: Chicken + spinach + mushroom + green onion.

Taking into account different nutritional, caloric and other needs leads to looking for veggies that you can get a lot of life out of. What these veggies are will be determined, in part, by your preferences. It can also be influenced by the way in which you get your produce.

Since I rely heavily on a Farmer’s Market, the season plays a big part in our eating choices. But I know there are a few that I love above all else, and integrate year round.

Knowing your eating preferences allows you to buy seasonings accordingly. Seasoning your veggies when you cook them, will lead to much more veggie-eating. Just...go gently with the salt...

And remember, the meals that you are picking week-to-week should be using overlapping ingredients. that doesn't mean the same things go into every dish, but overlap reduces how much money you spend shopping, and cuts down on waste.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Meal Planning for One: Buying Guide

So Meal planning feels like a lot of work when you’re just cooking for one person, right? But it really makes even more sense. How does it feel going home and cooking just-for-you every night? Would you prefer to pop in a microwave-dinner? Or order take out on the way home?

You will save both your health and wallet by meal planning. However, you don’t want to over buy for just one person. So how do you know what’s enough?

1) Generally humans, like all animals, go for the highest calorie per least effort foods. This is a biological drive designed to guard the body against starvation. That means, that when we “shop lazy,” we will consistently order foodstuffs that are high in protein, carbs and sugar. The amino acids in both can be broken down into store-able fat. Whether or not this is good for you, your body desires this stuff, unchecked. When shopping for one, it is harder to police your own buying decisions and the fact that these items proliferate in our grocery stores does not make it easy to adjust these buying patterns.

(Easy-Peasy Chicken Pasta Salad--noodles, chicken, pickle, mushroom, spinach and greek yogurt)

2) Gravitate to dishes--no matter their region of origin--that combine veggies with bread and meat (unless, of course you are vegetarian, in which case you should research what you need for complete protein). These dishes are like: pizza, pasta, stir fry, soups, burritos, enchildadas, salads, casseroles, crepes, sandwiches, pitas...

(Polenta snack--baked polenta discs topped with marinara and leftover balsamic artichoke chicken. Chicken dish can be added to a variety of meals: including pasta salad, salad, pizza and couscous)

3) Select a series of mini dishes--veggie, fruit or meat-centered that can be versatile. That is, seasoned and cooked veggies (or other) that can be tossed into different dishes when you are cooking, baking, or otherwise preparing food.

(Carrot Rice pseudo-frittata)

4) Strategize leftovers--play with dishes that take a long time to eat. If you are afraid they will be going bad soon, try to add them to something, or bake them in a way that turns the dish into something else entirely. Or, pawn them off on family and friends with a last-minute: “Wanna come over to eat?” invite. Just reheat (and perhaps re-season depending on the item) and serve in a pleasing manner.

5) Remember-- ⅔ of what you eat should be fruits and vegies and ⅓ meat, dairy, and everything else. Let that govern how you shop and how you cook.

6) Gage how well you accomplish these things, and then adjust your shopping accordingly. A fruit and veggie-heavy diet should be very cost effective.

Monday, May 30, 2011

7 Things to Know about Yourself before Meal Planning

1) What do you like to eat?

This sounds silly, right? I mean, we all know what we like to eat! You can list meat, veggies, cheeses, fruits, and brands. Now take a step back, what “ethnic” category do these foods belong to?

“Food Families” if you will are regional cuisines. If all you eat is “asian food,” perhaps you could split them up into country-of-origin. Or, if you like “Asian Food,” generally speaking and “Italian/Mediteranian cuisine,” and “French food,” you have three distinct “Food Families.”

This is important to identify because it will influence what you stock your kitchen with, in order to then decide what meals you will make nightly.

2) When are you hungry?

Some people want to eat right when they wake up, others wait a few hours. Some people prefer dinner at 7 and others eat as early as 4. Knowing when you’re hungry will determine when you cook, or when you pop something into the microwave. If you are so hungry that you need to plop a meal in the microwave right when you get home from work, you will know that that is a meal you will have to make ahead of time so that it can fit seemlesly into your routine.

3) Are you a snacker?

If you love to snack, know when you snack and on what. If you want not only to lead a Greener and more affordable life, but also a healthier one, you might need to identify night-time snacking habits you want to alter. However, snacking tendencies will also have to be planned. You need to know what you snack on and when so that an alternate snacking choice can be made ahead of time.

4) What is your buying habit?

How often do you go to the grocery store? Weaving and adjusting your current habits into your meal-planning structure are integral to knowing how and when you will be cooking. There are a variety of ways to meal plan successfully, but knowing what sort of time you spend shopping will help you to determine which ones you are best suited to.

5) How much do you know about cooking?

If you rely on pop-in-microwave meals, how much do you know about what goes into a dish?
If you boil water, add pasta, dump bottled marinara on top and call that dinner--you might want to start with a few very simple dishes. If, on the other hand, you know how to cook holiday meals, and just think that’s too much work on a daily basis, you might want to scale down the fancy and pick up some easier dishes.

6) Do you follow recipes?

If you follow recipes, then keep it up. If you don’t, and you want to switch the cuisine you are creating, then you might want to try following a few recipes first. You can improvise after you have the proper feel for taste in the dishes you are creating.

7) How many people are you cooking for?

Knowing how many people you are cooking for will decide a few things about your tactics. See Meal Planning for One, if you are cooking for just yourself. There are also Family guides, and Cooking for Two.

Friday, May 27, 2011

5 Reasons to Consider Meal Planning

1) Cost--

It takes an initial invest to stock an empty kitchen with the right implements to institute a meal planning regimen. However, long term, the cost is lower. When you meal plan correctly, your week-to-week expenditure on food is reduced. You buy some items in bulk, and others on a weekly and seasonal basis.

2) Budget--

Spending less on food allows you to budget better, squeezing in vacations, or expensive indulgences that otherwise would have been out-of-reach, but with a little put away each month--that no longer is spent on food-you can use budgeting techniques to improve your quality of life.

3) Health--

Planning what you are going to cook gives you more control over what you are eating. That means, integrating more fresh ingredients and lessening your dependence on pre-packaged and restaurant bought meals means that you can control fat, sodium/msg to better affect. Eating food that does not require preservatives, and be certain you eat not only as you ought to, but what tastes good leads to richer, healthier and more enjoyable meals.

4) Environment--

Planning, inventorying, and using what you have to create meals on a daily and weekly basis leads to less waste. Generating less waste is always better for the environment. On average humans generate more waste than the Earth can sustain. See “The Story of Stuff,” if you haven’t already. Becoming more conscious of the excess we produce is the first step to leading a Greener life.

5) Learning and Exploring--

The more disciplined you become about Meal Planning, the more exotic dishes you can try. It is fun to allow yourself to buy one odd fruit or vegetable which you have no idea what to do with, and then take it home and choose a dish from a blog or cookbook featuring said item. It is a cooking education, as well as a learning experience for your taste buds. The adventure of experimenting while cooking is simply fun.