When I was a child, my family planned out our meals for the coming week. I was involved in this to varying degrees: For a stretch of my youth, each of us made breakfast for the other family members on a rotating schedule; at other times, I just had to take the chicken out of the freezer when I got home from school. But big shopping trips and weekly menus were a part of our lives.
I continued this in college. My first year out of the dorms, and well before I became the obsessive cook I am today, my roommate and I would pick recipes from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book (“new” despite being published in 1930), go to Safeway on the weekends, and cook dinner on weeknights.
But as time went on, I lost the habit. I lived further from the bone, with enough income to go out for lunch and decide on a whim what I would make for dinner. And who wants to meal-plan on Friday night when movies and take-out beckon?
Then we bought a house.
As we adjust to our new budget, meal planning has re-entered my life. On Friday nights, I curl up on the couch with a stack of cookbooks — old favorites, new favorites, and books sent to me for review — and plot out my strategy for the week. What sounds good? What will make use of a seasonal ingredient? What will use up the rest of an ingredient I buy for a different dish?
It became a pleasure rather than a chore when I realized that meal planning is just the same as dinner party planning. Instead of five or six courses over a few hours — our normal dinner party — I’m serving 13 or 14 courses — lunch and dinner — over one week. I figure out what will work and what won’t. I figure out how the meals will fit into the week’s work schedule. I even make a list, with daily shopping and prep tasks, analogous to the one I use for parties. Yesterday, for instance, I had to buy polenta, ricotta, and Parmiggiano for a few dishes: I grouped the ingredients based on our ability to go to Oakland’s Market Hall, a small collection of gourmet stores. Tonight, I have to soak beans for tomorrow’s dinner and roast vegetables for tomorrow’s lunch.
I worried about losing spontaneity. There is no more, “What do I feel like making tonight?” though I leave slots on Saturday nights for “market inspiration.” In fact, I have more flexibility now, not less. It’s hard to decide at 6:00 pm that you’d like to make a stew for dinner. But if you plan for it over the weekend, you can set up the stew in the morning. A whole range of dishes has become available, including every fifteen-part recipe in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
I’ve also come to realize that planning out meals creates anticipation for each one. This weekend I bought a petit jambon from Fatted Calf, and Melissa keeps wanting to know when I’m using it (tonight, in part, for the polenta). She says that I should have a chalkboard and write out, brasserie-style, the week’s meals.
Finally, meal planning has put me back in touch with old cookbook favorites. I’ve rediscovered new sources of inspiration in the cookbooks that have been on my shelf for years. Some that I had lost interest in, such as Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book, are now frequent guests in my pile of books. Others that I had forgotten about, such as Anissa Helou’s Mediterranean Street Food, have come back onto my radar.
I’m sure, at some point, that we’ll adjust to our new budget and return to our former lives. But I think that now I’ll keep meal planning, even when I don’t have to.
Labels: Culinary Explorations, Miscellaneous