Just before the green peas and snappy asparagus line produce stands, I like to “spring clean” my meal plan by organizing my cupboards and giving ingredients a fresh look. After becoming a mom, I learned how meal planning can keep schedules, maintain budgets, and limit trips to the store, especially important in these pandemic days. Being a chef helps when preparing my family’s meals, but, like every parent, I often draw a blank when menu planning. “Menu planner’s block” seems to happen very frequently these last weeks of winter-y weather when I. Can. Not. Look. At. Another. Winter. Squash.
How to Refresh Your Weekly Menu
Cooking local and seasonal food in my restaurant life has caused me to anticipate spring menus more than any other season. With a little adjusting, tired menu items can be a fresh, new meal for your family. Adding a few new ingredients can give you just the cleanse everyone appreciates with the arrival of spring. Here are some ideas:
Toast items for nutty, complex flavor
Try toasting nuts and seeds and adding toasted spices for a topping called dukkah. I like this one from Chef Yotam Ottolenghi. You can apply this technique to different and endless combinations of nuts, seeds, and spices and add them to marinades, on top of salads, and even to top pastas or grain dishes.
Similarly, you can toast rice, farro, quinoa, barley and freekah in a touch of oil or butter and salt for the richest, toastiest flavor. I usually toast in a 350 degree oven stirring every 7-8 minutes until the grains smell like popcorn. Once toasted, you can add your cooking liquid to the toasted grains and bake as you would normally. I often roast my dinner vegetables in the same oven at the same time as I bake my toasted grains. This accomplishes two things: items cook more evenly, and I am free to do other things while dinner cooks.
Always have “big flavor” ingredients on hand
“Big flavor” includes such items as miso, pickles, tahini, sesame oil, sun-dried tomatoes, and dried mushrooms. These are the flavors I source when I have empty spaces in my meal plan. I like to grind the mushrooms and stir into soups, grains or polenta. I always keep the pickling juice from my pickles and use in salad dressings, or in marinades for meat, mushrooms, and vegetables. Similarly, I use sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil so I can reuse the oil to dress greens, marinate meat and fish, or finish pasta noodles.
Give the farmer’s market a fresh look
Usually, I shop the farmer’s market like I shop the grocery store – with a plan and a list. During the winter, I hurry my four-year old along trying to minimize time in the cold. As the weather warms and more springtime vegetables appear, we stroll more and can chat about new foods and what we should make. Involving my son in the market makes him more eager to eat dinners and even to help cook. Recently, we zipped around the Portland Farmers’ Market and my son spotted some bright pink oyster mushrooms. Not normally a mushroom lover, he really wanted to help prepare and then try them.
As the weather dries and days lengthen, we see less mushrooms and more radishes, pea shoots, and spring onions at the markets. Sprinkle these with dukkah and serve over toasted rice and you have one meal planned for your week. Planning the weekly meals can provide comfort and alleviate guessing, giving you more time to tackle items on your to do list. Like spring cleaning!