Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How to create your own meal plan system

I feel like I post about meal planning way more than any normal person should, but I get so many questions about it! I started doing the family meal planning and cooking when I was 15 and at this point it's mostly second nature. There are all kinds of complicated systems you can set up (I used to coordinate all our meal planning with the grocery store sale flyers) but I don't have time for anything complicated right now. Here's how I set up our current meal planning system, step by step. It might take an hour or two to get everything in place (depending on where you're starting from) but the payoff is barely spending any time meal planning on a weekly basis.

You will need: 
A 3-ring binder (I'd recommend a 1.5")
Page protectors
Tab dividers (~5, make sure they stick out past the page protectors - like these)
The ability to do basic arithmetic

meal planning on sunday
{meal planning on sunday}

Figure out how many servings you need each week. I only meal plan for the weekdays, because our weekends are generally crazy and we aren't at home much.
Ask yourself - Are you planning for just dinners? Dinners with leftovers to take for lunch? How many days a week do you buy yourself lunch? Now do the math. 
D and I eat in almost every night most weeks, so I count on 10 servings minimum (5 nights x 2 people). I take my lunch to work most days, but probably one day a week I eat soup or something instead, so I count myself for 3 - 4 lunches. D always eats out on Tuesdays and usually at least one other day during the week so I only count him for 2 - 3 lunches. This gets us to about 16 servings of food needed during the week.

Decide how often you're willing to cook and how high your tolerance for leftovers is. I love leftovers and D is perfectly happy with them. We also have limited time and there's no way we are going to cook every night. Right now I plan to cover our 16 servings with 3 meals throughout the week. If you hate leftovers, you are going to have to cook more often. There isn't really any way around it. In that case, I'd recommend having a good supply of quick meal recipes on hand.

Choose your meal categories. This will just depend on what you eat most often. We have a big salad (usually grains + veg), one meal with either meat, lentils or pasta and one quick meal (burritos, quesadillas, eggs, etc). You might want one meat, one pasta, one fish. Or whatever. Don't get overly fussy about the categories. Soba noodles are pasta, obviously, but I count soba noodle salad in my large salad category. Because it's cold, so to my mind it is salad. You can also cook more than one meal from each category, if you want pasta 2x per week or something. Having this structure can be really helpful for keeping yourself on track if you have specific goals. When I lumped together meat/lentils/pasta into one weekly category, our meat consumption suddenly went down because we now eat meat every second or third week instead of weekly, without even thinking about it. I just keep meat, lentils and pasta in three separate tabbed sections, which helps me use them more evenly. If I had lentils the week before, I'll tend to pick a pasta or meat dish this week.

Figure out what your goal servings are for each meal, based on your weekly needs. I usually aim for a 6 - 8 serving salad (which sometimes means I need to double the recipe), a 4 - 6 serving meat/lentils/pasta meal and a 4 serving quick meal. I use this spreadsheet right now (previously used this one) but you can easily customize your own.

Gather up your base recipes. When I did this I had a ton of recipes floating around. The more superfluous recipes you have, the longer your meal planning takes. Just flipping through them eats up time each week. Strip out just the ones you are likely to make on any given weeknight. I kept my huge recipe binder for special occasions, holidays, desserts, etc. My weekly binder is much slimmer and only has meals I'm likely to make during the week.

Type up your quick meals (if you're using this category) on a single page and add it to the front of the binder. These aren't recipes, they're reminders. Think about what you cook when you don't have time for anything complicated. I made quick notes about what ingredients we needed for each meal and that was basically it, along with a short description of how to cook a frittata.

Organize your binder. Label your tabs with your categories and start dividing up your recipes. I keep all my recipes in page protectors so they are slightly less disgusting. When I did this I noticed that our big salads category was a little skimpy, so I specifically searched around for some recipes to fill out this category, printed them out and put them in the binder. After I make one for the first time we decide if we want it again, if not, I toss it out.

Do your meal planning (see old post for details). Look over your schedule for the week to see if you need to plan low (going out during the week) or high (guests coming over for dinner). Check your fridge to see if you have leftover ingredients you need to use up. Choose the specified number of meals from each category. Pull those recipes out, make your grocery list and then put them back in the front of the binder, before the dividers. This will make it faster to pull them out as you cook during the week. Check your grocery list against your pantry. All of this should take no longer than 20 minutes, once you have the system set up. I don't agonize over choosing meals. You're going to eat every single day of your life and there are no wrong choices. Once you've got your lists, shop. D and I usually split up the shopping based on convenience and when we need the items.

Roughly schedule your cooking nights based on your schedule that week. Lately I've been designating one free evening and cooking two meals. The grain salads are usually better the next day, so I'll make our salad and stash it in the fridge. At the same time, I'll make our other big meal for the week. This saves me a little time because I'm only washing the knives, cutting boards, mandoline, measuring cups, once. Bulk cooking is not my favorite thing to do. I'm having to juggle two recipes, make sure I'm not mixing anything up, there is a lot of chopping and washing vegetables. If I had shorter days, I would absolutely make dinner almost every night, because I enjoy cooking, but this works.

Have a back up plan! Sometimes we have a week where we end up eating more and Friday night rolls along and we're out of planned meals. Or we don't feel like eating leftovers. I keep a couple frozen meals from Trader Joe's in our freezer for those situations or, rarely, we'll order takeout or, more frequently, we'll decide to have an impromptu meal out. I have a relatively low tolerance for take out because I love it if it's an indulgence but it bums me out if we're doing it because we don't know what else to do. Then it doesn't feel exciting, it feels depressing.

Stop trying to be perfect. Sometimes I don't plan correctly and we run out of food. Sometimes I overplan and we have too much food and get sick of it. Sometimes I try a new recipe and it isn't that great but I feel like I have to soldier through the leftovers anyways. This is the fastest route to a week of takeout and guilt. If you make something you really don't like, toss it out and change your plan. (I have a really hard time doing this and will instead attempt to avoid the fridge - I hate waste, but delaying it doesn't change it)

week 2

The upside to meal planning is that you save time and money. Quite a bit of money, actually. When I'm being good about meal planning, our grocery spending is shockingly low (compared to our usual, at least). It's because I don't buy on impulse and we're better about using everything up. Our weekly grocery needs aren't huge, which makes the shopping way easier. And it just doesn't take as much time or effort as you might think. This sounds insane when I write it all out but I promise you that I usually spend 15 minutes max thinking about our meals and writing up our grocery list.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


If you want a cookie that is basically chocolate, straight up, this one's for you.

chocolate cookies
{chocolate cookies}

I've shared these cookies before but it was years ago and I think they deserve a second go-round. I almost always make a double batch (the recipe below is the double batch - you can cut it in half easily) because the dough freezes well and I think cleaning up a bowl of chocolate dough is such a pain that you should really maximize the number of cookies you get out of it.

The only changes I've made are to increase the salt (I still think it might be a little low but I'm reluctant to advise you to increase it further without testing it myself - I do sprinkle a couple flakes of sea salt on each cookie as well) and swap out the white chocolate chips for peanut butter chips from Trader Joe's. These are great with white chocolate but I think the peanut butter is even better.

Chocolate cookies (makes a TON of cookies but the dough freezes well, can be cut in half  if you're not ready to commit - original recipe here)

2 pounds bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use chocolate chips)

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon. baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
8 eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
20 oz. peanut butter chips (can substitute white chocolate chips)
4 cups chopped walnuts
Flaky salt for finishing

::  Melt the chocolate and butter over hot water. You don't have to have a double boiler. I just take one of my aluminum mixing bowls and rest it over a pot with boiling water in it and it works well enough. If you have a microwave, use it. Just stir every 30 seconds or so. Once the chocolate is melted set it aside and let is cool slightly.

:: Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. 

:: Beat the eggs with the sugars until light and stir in the melted chocolate. Add the flour mixture, peanut butter chips and nuts. Refrigerate the dough for at least a couple hours (it will be way too sticky until it cools down).

:: OPTION 1 - Shape the dough into rolls, like refrigerator cookies. This is a little tricky. Keep your hands well floured and don't worry too much about the mess. You'll have to experiment to see how thick you want the logs to be. Wrap with saran wrap, and then wrap with aluminum foil and put in a ziploc freezer bag if you plan to store them for more than a few days. Wrapped up well, they will last for at least 2 months in the freezer (probably longer, but they usually get eaten quickly). Let them sit in the freezer for at least a day before you try to cut them - it works better if they are really frozen solid.

:: OPTION 2 - Scoop and bake. This is what I've been doing lately and it works perfectly well. I think the extra large cookies bake better but the smaller ones are more socially acceptable. This last time I made both sizes, using a 1/3 cup cookie scoop (#12) for the enormous cookies and a much more modest one (#50) for the smaller ones. The dough is thick so it can be hard on your cookie scoops. I was careful to clean them out with a small spatula after every few cookies. You can freeze the scoops too, as I describe here

:: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or Silpat - they will absolutely stick to the sheet if you don't. If you made rolls, slice the cookies 1/2 inch thick. Sprinkle each cookie with a few flakes of sea salt. 

:: Bake until they lose their sheen. It's hard to tell when these are done but when the top seems dry and is no longer glossy you're usually good to go. Let them cool fully on the cookie sheet. They'll fall apart if you try to move them while they're still warm. They should be moist and chewy inside once cooled. 

Baking time estimates: 
                  Sliced cookies (1/2" thick) - 10 - 12 minutes
                  Scooped cookies (small #50 scoop) - 10 - 15 minutes
                  Scooped cookies (large #12 scoop) - 15 - 25 minutes (check every 5 min)

big ones
{big ones}

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sage simple syrup

Clevelandia sage is my very favorite. It's native to the southwest and it is STRONG. Once you've had it, the regular grocery store sage just feels tame by comparison.

When we moved to our new apartment I tried sneakily planting some in the front yard but it died (possibly because I procrastinated so long that it was already dead before it went in the ground). Then our manager went on an improvement tear and planted lilies in every empty patch of ground around our building, which basically rules out my chances for trying again.

The other week I noticed that one of the houses near us has an enormous clevelandia bush right next to the sidewalk, so I tucked my scissors in my pocket and took a few clippings home with me.*

clevelandia sage
{clevelandia sage}

Just 20 minutes later, this was happening.


I play a lot with infused simple syrups because it's such an easy way to get any flavor profile you can dream up. This sage simple syrup gives a really gorgeous scent and finish to a simple cocktail.

Sage simple syrup
1/2 cup sage (might want more if you're using milder sage)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

:: Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow the syrup to cool fully. Once cool, strain into a jar and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

And then I needed to make a drink with it. I used the cocktail base I posted about yesterday and messed around a bit. I'd just restocked our St. George terroir and it paired well with the sage syrup. St. George comes in three varieties and the terroir is the piney-est. I was worried the sage would just get lost but you still get it in the finish and it complements all that pine very nicely. Because I know St. George isn't available everywhere, I re-tested the cocktail again later with a less flavorful gin and the sage stands out much more. I can't decide which version I like more. Rest assured, you'll enjoy it either way.

gin and sage
{sage and gin}

Sage and gin cocktail - serves 1
2 oz gin
1 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz sage simple syrup

Shake well with ice, pour.

And just for good measure (or non-gin drinkers), the drink pictured yesterday, which is similar but with Bulleit rye whiskey. I upped the simple syrup a bit here but you could reduce it if you find it too sweet. I love the play of the rye and the sage together.

Rye and sage - serves 1
2 1/2 oz rye whisky
1 oz lemon juice
1 oz sage simple syrup
2 dashes bitters (added in a post-napkin notes round)

Shake well with ice and pour.

You guys, I am the WORST at thinking up good cocktail names. I need to come up with better ones but my mind just goes blank. I think the appropriate time to start working on that is really two drinks in. Will report back soonest.

*I am deeply conflicted about this because I grew up in a house with a fruit tree in the front yard and it was beyond frustrating to have a stranger come over and strip your tree of fruit without so much as a by-your-leave. In general, I will never take fruit from anyone's yard (they care for the tree and water it!) although I will sometimes make a small exception if I pass a kumquat tree that is clearly going unappreciated, because seeing all those beautiful kumquats languishing on the ground makes my heart hurt. BUT, I felt pretty comfortable taking the sage because the bush is so well established and it grows like a weed. I was careful to take just a few sprigs from areas where it wouldn't make any aesthetic difference.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Build your own cocktail

I am not any kind of mixologist but I do like messing around with cocktails and simple syrups. I used to come up with flavors I wanted and then google like crazy, hoping to find a recipe that used exactly the ingredients I had in mind. Look at enough drink recipes and you'll realize that there's a fairly standard ratio you can use as a cocktail base. Now when I want a simple drink and have flavors in mind I just start with this base and adjust from there.

sage and rye
{rye and sage}

Basic cocktail recipe - serves 1
2 - 2 1/2 oz liquor
1 oz citrus juice
1/2 oz - 1 oz simple syrup
2 - 3 dashes bitters, if they make sense

Couldn't be simpler. I usually start with the lower volumes of everything (2/1/0.5)and then adjust on the next round. (If you need a third round to adjust, I really recommend waiting until the next evening)

Once you get good enough at it, you can combine multiple liquors, juices, etc. I'm not quite there but I can see the potential. I was going to write that I would never be able to create something as fabulous as, say, The Rooster with this formula but then I double checked the recipe and what do you know, it's a 2/0.75/0.5 ratio, not too far outside my starting points.

Instead I will say that I'm never going to come up with, say, a crazy ten ingredient tiki drink via this method, but I can make a pretty respectable cocktail out of whatever I happen to have on hand.

Make sure you jot yourself some notes as you go along, even if they happen to be scribbled on a napkin.

Tomorrow - the sage simple syrup I've been obsessed with lately.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter weekend

Eggs, mimosas, pastry dough. Pretty standard issue Easter stuff.

cinnamon rolls
{cinnamon rolls}

rolling out
{rolling out}

paint options
{paint options - we may have a problem}

halfway done
{halfway done}

eggs to smash
{eggs to smash}

mick's egg
{mick's egg}

puppy love
{puppy love}

confetti egg explosion
{confetti egg explosion}


I have no idea what I did wrong this year but my cinnamon rolls collapsed in the oven. Okay, I do have some theories. I was working with an overnight brioche dough and there are some transition issues with moving to overnight doughs (which don't rise as much) vs. early morning risers. The structural integrity, it just wasn't there. They still tasted pretty good, especially after I smothered them with cream cheese frosting.

D has been plotting the cascarones project since last year and it was totally his labor of love. I was in bed by 10 pm the night before Easter but he was up until the wee hours, taping off and spray painting eggs. They turned out gorgeous (and fun). We even let the dogs get in on the action but we confiscated their winnings. (Circe was on time out because of the dog juggling situation at my parents' house)

And naturally, we geeked out with the Game of Thrones special edition by Ommegang. They had it at Costco and there was no way we could have turned it down. It was pretty solid.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


This is not revolutionary but I don't think I've ever discussed it. A couple years ago I made vanilla extract as part of our Christmas gifts for family (and apparently never posted about it) and I haven't purchased any since then.

more vanilla extract
{more vanilla extract*}

I researched all kinds of vanilla beans, got overwhelmed and just ordered these because it was easy and I got free shipping. (see my note below - do NOT order those!) The 8 oz bag has approximately 54 beans and it lasted me for about two years. For the first year or so the beans stayed pretty plump and I loved having them on hand to scrape directly into recipes (pudding is particularly good when you use fresh vanilla bean) and I also started making extract. I have a completely unscientific method that involves splitting a handful of beans and covering them with vodka and then waiting. I don't bother worrying too much about the proportions, but I've seen recipes calling for anywhere from 3 - 10 beans per cup of vodka, if you want a reference. I go heavy, using about ten per cup. Vanilla does contain some compounds that are water soluble, according to my internet research, so I always stick with vodka and make sure it's about 35 - 40% alcohol (70 - 80 proof). This ensures there's enough water to get all the flavor.

You do need to plan to wait at least a month to allow enough steeping time. I decant into a smaller bottle once it looks nice and dark (I bought these for our Christmas gifts that year and kept a couple for our use) and then I'll reup my stock by tossing in a few more beans and vodka. I don't bother taking the old beans out.

When I opened the bag of beans while reorganizing the pantry last week (er, last month) I discovered they'd finally hit their limit and were brittle and dry. Luckily they're still perfectly functional for extract, but I guess it's time to reorder. Edit - I wrote this draft a month ago and did, in fact, re-order. The beans were terrible! It was like a completely different product, even though it was the same seller, exact same item. They were mushy and weird and I was too scared to even open the package so I returned them right away. I'm leaving the original link in just in case anyone was thinking about ordering from that supplier. Don't do it! I've heard good things about Beanilla and might go that route this time even though they're much more expensive.

I'm honestly not sure if this saves a ton of money. It was about $30 for the bag and it lasted from November 2011 to January 2014 and made enough extract for our use and for sharing. I just like knowing I'll never run out of vanilla extract and I like having fresh beans on hand.

*This photo was taken on the top of my refrigerator and no, it wasn't staged there for any particular purpose. Every surface in my kitchen was covered with stuff  because I was reorganizing the pantry but I didn't want to have to put away the nearly empty bag of dried out beans so I just put my cutting board up there and stood on the step stool. I am easily distracted while cleaning.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kale salad with dijon-shallot dressing

A few years ago we were having dinner with family at the Napa Valley Grille and the waiter asked if we were enjoying the salad. When we told him we were, he whipped out a stack of xeroxed recipes and doled them out to the table. It's since worked its way into regular rotation at every family get together. Even people who aren't completely convinced about raw kale might be persuaded to get on board here.

kale salad
{kale salad}

The salad is pretty dang simple to throw together but it tastes complex. Because the kale is thinly sliced and tossed with a bit of romaine, the texture is more palatable to raw kale haters (that's my theory - I love kale any which way so I've never totally understood the complaints). The dressing is the star of the show - the shallot, garlic and dijon give it some bite but it's mellowed out by the oil and the basil.

exposing the rib
{exposing the rib}

To "shred" the kale, I fold each leaf in half along the rib and then run the knife down to cut out the rib quickly. With the kale still folded in half, I cut ribbon-like slices all the way down.


I wash it all in the salad spinner afterwards, which is much easier to deal with than full leaves.

I play fast and loose with the recipe and don't worry too much about specific amounts. I'll usually make a huge bowl of greens using 2 bunches of kale and 1 head of romaine. This will give you enough salad for a large dinner party or two people all week. If I'm planning to use it throughout the week I store the greens by themselves and toss in dressing and toppings just before serving.

Napa Valley Grille Kale Salad

Dressing (makes about 1/2 cup - enough for 2 - 3 servings. I will double or triple this for a big batch)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup oil (I use good California olive oil)
1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese (can sub anchovy paste if you prefer)
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp minced shallots
1 tbsp minced basil
1 tbsp dijon mustard

Blend well. I use the mini blender so I don't bother mincing anything first. If you mince everything then you should whisk everything but the oil and then add the oil slowly to emulsify. 

Salad (amounts below are for a single large serving - I'll scale up without worrying too much about the exact proportions if I want a big batch)
3 oz shredded kale
2 oz shredded romaine
1 tbsp parmesan, freshly grated or chopped
1 oz golden raisins
2 oz cooked quinoa (optional - I often leave it out)
1 tbsp sliced, toasted almonds

Toss with 2 oz dressing. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


As you probably know from my incessant whining over the last three months, we moved to a smaller place in December and it was immediately obvious that our (not so insubstantial) cooking/baking supplies weren't going to fit in the new kitchen.

Luckily, D was willing to tackle the challenge. We added shelves first (p.s. - had our first decent earthquake a few weeks ago and everything was fine! but I'm still planning on putting in bars or something). The next project was a wall of counter height cabinets that would provide us with storage space and also give us enough counter room for more than one person to be in the kitchen at once.

We couldn't buy cabinets because the space was narrower than a standard cabinet depth. Otherwise we would have farmed this out to Ikea for sure.

Here is the progress over the last couple months ...

west wall
{west wall}

I don't have a picture of the space empty because moving was a blur. But this is what that wall looked like right after we moved in. We temporarily stacked a shelving unit and a bench there.


D built a false wall to temporarily* cover up the built in ironing board cupboard (I know, I know. In theory, it's a charming feature. In reality, it hadn't been cleaned since 1935 and I wanted the cabinets more) and put in the base.

{cabinet boxes}

After building the cabinet boxes and squaring them up, he put them in place.


We painted everything the closest match to our kitchen white we could find, including the false wall.

fully installed
{fully installed}

And then we added the cabinet doors and D built the most beautiful walnut top for it, to match our floating credenza.


In the area above we hung the old chalkboard and the dessert frame from our wedding. It's the only wedding related decor we let ourselves keep and we're planning to repurpose it at some point (photo collage? another chalkboard?) but for now we hung it as is.

We built a tiny shelf with a space for a plant, inspired by this post. D added a groove along the shelf so we could safely stash the iPad there, since it always lives in the kitchen.

The minute the cabinets were finished our apartment felt a million times more functional. Having the extra counter space means both of us can cook at the same time and our kitchen stuff finally has a place to live. I'm over the moon.

*Whenever I share projects like this I get questions about installing stuff in a rental. All I can say is, no, we usually don't ask for permission first and no, we've never lost a security deposit. I take the risk on it because the additions make our apartment so much more livable. We're always careful to remove anything we've added and then patch and paint properly when we move out, although it certainly makes the moving process more intense. We're pretty considerate in general and I think the bar is pretty low - our landlords always seem relieved if there aren't gaping holes in the walls and broken windows. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Around here ...

sunday pancakes
{sunday pancakes}


caffe vita
{caffe vita}


kale chopping
{kale chopping}


I've mostly been working. And working and working, which does not make for fascinating content. I've managed to sneak some good stuff in there as well. Pancakes on a Sunday morning, lots of Circe time, testing out all the coffee places in our area, making up for our complete lack of outdoor space with park time and even cooking every once in a while.

Coming up soon - kale salad, cocktails and kitchen cabinets (aka - a functional kitchen, finally!). Not all in the same post, but you know, spread out a bit. Also have some more budgeting + meal planning posts in the works, but those take a little longer to flesh out so god knows when that will happen. Soon, I think.