(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