What Do I Cook Tonight?

(Menu Planning Tips from the Monday Night Chef)

Have you ever invited friends for dinner only to find yourself  in a panic later over what to cook?  It can be a challenge.  What  will  your friends enjoy? What’s in season now?  Which dishes go with which? How much can  you afford to spend? Do you have the proper equipment? Is there time? Do your friends have allergies?  Yes, cooking for people can be a minefield, but it can also be amazingly gratifying.

It may comfort you to know that James Holloway and I and the other chefs for our Monday night dinners, although  we’ve been cooking for decades, face most of the same challenges you do when putting menus together. It’s a matter of scale, but we do have limitations of time, space, money and availability of ingredients.  Alas, not everything our fertile minds can conceive is doable in the kitchen!

Happily, we have a framework which makes it easier.  By agreement, our  menus are vegan, based on seasonal  whole foods (organic as much  as possible), begin with soup, go onto a main course of four or five dishes and conclude with dessert and tea.  And the main course itself is structured  around a whole grain (or whole grain product), a protein (beans, tofu, seitan), vegetables, raw or cooked leafy greens and sometimes a pickle or sea vegetable.  And so it isn’t too difficult to slip  something  into each slot.

Let  me up the ante.  Suppose you have  to compose eight different menus to  serve over two months. It gets  more  interesting, doesn’t it? You don’t want to serve rice every week or cook only bean soups or end with cake each time.  Also, even  in our moderate climate, presenting a cold soup in January or a hot casserole in August may raise questions about one’s sanity.

Sane or not, we cooks must plunge ahead. So where do we get ideas? From cookbooks, for sure.  I especially like well-researched ethnic ones.  Tradition offers clues  as to what goes with  what: quinoa, corn, squash and beans in Latin America, miso, aduki beans and short grain rice in Japan, chick peas, tahini and bulgar in the Mediterranean, collard greens, cornbread and black-eyed  peas in the American South,  beets, cabbage  and kasha in Eastern Europe.  Ever on the look out for ideas, we cooks peruse restaurant menus, watch TV cooking  shows, dredge up childhood memories, mine holiday traditions. Shopaholics, we are ever shopping for the next  great idea.

As  in many endeavors, it’s a matter of balance.  Inspirations from Europe and the  Americas contrast with those from Asia.  When I write a two-month menu, I try  to research at least a few dishes I’ve never made before to augment favorites which I cull from an archive  of our menus going back to the late 80’s. Comfort foods (neatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy) contrast with foods we  know to be good for us (kale and millet, anyone?). For Thanksgiving I like the tried and true: cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes.  And in most every cycle I plan a menu which honors the Japanese tradition many of us learned early on in this journey.

And so, when  we write menus, how do we know what you’re going to feel like eating two months  from  now? We don’t really, but it helps to imagine  what  it’s going  to be like on  the plate.  Will there be contrasting but complementary aromas, flavors, colors, textures? Will it suit the occasion? Will you feel better for having dined  with us? Most of all, will you come back  next week?  We don’t know  for sure, but after  22 years we kind of hope so.


In a future post I’ll write about what makes a good cook book, but here are the ones I consulted while writing menus  for the October-November 2009 cycle:

“The Real Food Daily Cookbook,” by Ann Gentry, Ten Speed Press, 2005.

“Vegan Fusion World Cuisine,” by Mark Reinfeld  and Bo Rinaldi, Beaufort Books, 2007.

“Veganomicon,” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, Marlowe and Co., 2007.

“World of the East Vegetarian Cooking,” Madhur Jaffrey, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

–Gary Alinder, September 26, 2009


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