This recipe and story first appeared in the June 3, 2013 edition of “From Tali’s Kitchen,” my biweekly cooking column in Binah magazine.
I didn’t always menu plan. But I sure didn’t wait too long to start.
In the early weeks of our marriage, it was all I could do to sauté an onion without burning it. I was far more concerned with getting the basics right than with having a list of what I would cook on which days. If my husband was full, I was happy. As far as planning our meals, I did what I imagined most people did — choose a recipe for dinner at some point during the day, and rush out to the store for the inevitable missing ingredients. Three or four trips to the grocery in the course of a single week became normal for me. But let’s be honest: I was a newlywed with a part-time job that allowed me to make my own hours. I had time to wait in grocery lines four times a week.
When we had been married for all of six weeks, though, I started hearing about the wonders of menu planning. The reasoning is that if you plan your meals in advance, you’ll make one shopping list, one trip to the store, and be done with the stress of cranking out a decent meal at the last minute. Although dinner prep wasn’t a real source of stress for me, I was immediately sold on the idea. It sounded so much more efficient than what I was doing, and you know how I love to make lists. I starting making weekly meal plans on Sunday mornings, adding notes throughout the week, and emailing it all to myself for future reference. I felt uber-organized. Was I the best balebusta ever, or what?
It’s fun to look back at those menu notes. After all, it’s how I know that I must have discovered couscous’s quick cooking powers on January 9, 2011, and that the whole wheat pizza dough I made that January 12 was far too thick. I still revel in the magic of couscous, but my pizza dough has long since reached the right thickness. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from playing around with the proportions and ingredients.
Menu planning has gone from being cool to being absolutely essential. I still make my own work hours, but between a slew of freelance clients and the baby — my #1 client — there’s no way we’ll eat a normal dinner if I don’t plan in advance. Seriously, not planning tends to translate into oatmeal cookies (my husband’s specialty). Or just finishing off the pretzels.
Some people find it most helpful to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time (here’s a sample from Life in the Married Lane), but for me, a week is just right. At the beginning of the week, I can plan based on the odds and ends already lying around, which ultimately saves us money — it’s always best to shop your pantry first. Doing it this way also allows me to plan based on events happening that week. If I’m cooking for a neighbor, I”ll choose something that can be delivered in an aluminum pan and then make the same thing for us. If my freezer stock is running low, I’ll replenish by choosing dinners for the week that can be easily doubled and frozen. The start of a week is also a good time to think about Shabbos guests. (The beginning of a month, not so much.)
My best menu plans are complete ones. Aside from the five weeknight dinners, I include Shabbos meals, breakfast and snack items like muffins and granola, and any recipes I’ll be testing for work purposes, with enough ingredients for two or three trials (if I’m organized enough, we’ll just eat that stuff for dinner). When yom tov is coming up, I try to finalize the menu an extra week in advance, even if I won’t be cooking that early. I like it just for the peace of mind.
But no matter how complete, no menu plan can be completely rigid. If I walk into the store (or more likely, my husband walks into the store) and tomatoes are on super sale, that’s my cue to make a big batch of sauce and replace one night’s plan with something in the Italian family. Or maybe sweet potatoes are double the price of zucchini that day (entirely possible). I’d rather change Shabbos’s sweet potato bake to a zucchini kugel than pay twice as much.
What goes on the menu? It changes all the time (you can check out my weekly menus every Sunday), but my formula these days is something along the lines of: two nights of soup and bread; one night of pasta, one night featuring grains or beans, one “breakfast for dinner,” and one miscellaneous, which might be fish or fritters of some sort. (In the summer, soups are either cold or replaced with something else.) The individual meals go in and out of rotation — which reminds me, it’s been ages since I made shakshuka — but one thing always stays the same: the basic salad.
This all-purpose salad dressing is designed to go with any vegetable salad, basic or not. The ingredients balance each other nicely, with the honey tempering the sharpness of the mustard and garlic, and the oil and vinegar serving as a classic backdrop. Sure, you could buy bottled dressing and be done with it. But it takes less than five minutes to do it yourself, and this way, you also skip the preservatives.
Not that there isn’t a place in a menu plan for preservatives…
Yield: About 1 cup
- ½ cup olive oil
- 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp honey
- 1½ Tbsp mustard
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place all ingredients in a glass measuring cup that holds at least two cups (so you have room to stir). Whisk until evenly incorporated.
2. Refrigerate in a sealed bottle or container for at least 1 hour before the first use. Store in the fridge, and shake or stir before each use.