Monday, October 27, 2014

Menu Planning for a Month in 10 Minutes

Menu Planning for a Month can be done in just minutes!

Many home cooks recognize that menu planning has huge advantages- it saves time, money & frustration:

1. Menu Planning saves time, because it saves unscheduled trips to the grocery store. It also allows the cook to do a lot of advance preparation for meals later in the week, thereby reducing time in the kitchen.

2. Menu Planning saves money because a well-planned meal that's ready to go at home makes it a lot less tempting to go out to dinner when we're tired just to avoid cooking. It also makes it a lot less attractive to just throw an expensive steak on the grill to make a quick and easy meal.

3. It saves frustration because, well, there's very little more frustrating than knowing that dinner time is an hour away and I have no idea what to cook!

But a lot of home cooks hate menu planning. 

It can take a lot of time to do, and it's a disruption to sit down once a week and have an undisturbed half hour or forty-five minutes to plan the week's worth of meals. So, it gets neglected, and we "wing it" until we've noticed that every meal for the past week has been fast food or that we've been eating the same "easy" meal day after day. Then, we make ourselves do it again . . . and the cycle starts over.

Well, I have a new system that makes menu planning for a whole month take just a few minutes. I clocked it at less than 10 minutes!

I have a monthly meal chart, with re-shuffle-able menu cards.  At the beginning of each month, I can simply "deal" the cards into the pockets in a sensible order, and I'm done : )

It takes a bit of planning to set up (about the same amount of time as planning a menu the old fashioned way), but then it works perpetually.

An Entire Month of Planned Meals

First, get your supplies:

A Package of Rainbow-Colored 3x5 Cards
A Package of White 3x5 Cards (optional - this is only to give you 6 colors instead of 5)
A Jewelry Organizer Similar to this one
A Marker to Write With.
A Pair of Scissors to cut cards with. 

This is what you do:

1. Make a list of the meals your family eats.

2. Organize those meals into categories. For instance, you could categorize by Ethnicity (Mexican, Korean, Greek, Italian, Indian) or by Main Ingredient (Beef, Pork, Pasta, Beans) or some other way that suits you. You can also sort by preparation method (Slow Cooker, Oven, Stir Fry or Grill, Simmering) Personally, I categorize my Vegan meals by texture (Soups, Stews, Casseroles, Pilafs & Pastas, Burgers & Wraps). I put meat-based meals on the white cards. These meals offer a variety of dishes and are a complete meal for Omnivore and Vegan alike.

3. Assign a Color to each category. This makes it much easier to see at a glance that your menu has a proper amount of variety.

4. Write Each Meal on a 1/2 of a 3x5 card in the Appropriate Color. (They sell pre-cut 1/2 cards if you really hate the idea of cutting them) You will need at least 28 cards. Many American families are said to rotate through the same 9 to 12 meals over and over again. If you're one of those families, you'll want to duplicate your favorite meals onto cards so that you have at least 28 meal cards.If you like, you can even put the names of favorite restaurants on some cards, if that's where you know you'll be going on occasion.

5. Sort your cards into the pockets of your Jewelry Organizer. The top row will be Sundays, the second row Mondays, the third row Tuesdays, etc. Put  Slow Cooker, Easy, or Pre-prepared meals on the nights when you are very busy. For instance, if you have Church on Wednesday nights, you might want to plan all Slow Cooker Meals for Wednesdays.Generally speaking, you'll just want to make every day a different color - the row for Wednesday might all be green, and the row for Thursday might all be pink.

6. Double-Check your family calendar, and see which cards need to be moved or removed. If you're going out for your Anniversary in two weeks, remove that card. If a Lenten Season Starts at the end of the month, move any meat-based menus you might have put there. (I know most people check the calendar first, but then they're trying to think of too many things when they first arrange their menu. I find it's easier to arrange it all, then just make a few small adjustments. I'm a sequential thinker : ) Put any extra cards in the bottom row of pockets, still sorted by color, for next month's planning. Check to make sure you don't have too many similar meals too close to each other (like if every meal all week involves chicken ; )

7. Don't leave any blank, to be decided, family's choice, etc. The purpose of menu planning is to have a plan for every day.  You can always take a card out & change it if your family really wants take-out pizza one night. Similarly, if you decide to try out a new recipe, you can easily move a card from its place. But, if you put a card in for every day, when the time comes to prepare dinner, you have a plan if nothing else came up.


 It's so easy to plan a month worth of meals this way!

Once I have the plan done, this is how I use it:

1. On Shopping Day, I can easily shop for 7 days worth of meals, and know just what to buy. (I'm considering writing a list of non-staple ingredients for each meal on the back of the card for ease of shopping). This doesn't mean that I necessarily have to eat at home for the next seven days, or that I have to follow my plan if I don't feel like it. It just means that I'm prepared.

The Jewelry Organizer - I found it at my Thrift Store : )
2. If plans change - say if a friend invites us over for dinner, I simply move cards around. I take the card out of the day it is not needed, and use it to "bump" a card for which I have not yet purchased groceries. The unused card goes back into the deck for next month's planning.

3.Similarly, if I have a lot of leftovers one night, the next night's dinner can be moved to another day while we eat leftovers. Alternately, the if we have enough leftovers to make another entire meal, then the meal can be frozen and scheduled as an "official" meal at a later date.

4. I glance ahead and pre-cook a few meals, or pre-prepare a few dressings or sauces to make life easy on another night.

5. I can do appropriate meal preparation at the right time this way. For instance, if an ingredient needs to be thawed, or the slow cooker needs to be set up the night before so that I can have an easy morning the next day - that's easy to do! I'm not left struggling to thaw a frozen entree with only an hour to dinner time.

6. For many meals, I just write the entree down - because I know that I serve things like Bread, Salad, Pickles, Olives, Crudites and Dips routinely, as well as fruit for dessert, without having to write that down.

7. Any time I find a new meal I like to cook - I just add it to the deck!

* If you like, you can involve your family on this one- having each family member choose a certain number of meal cards that they would like to see on the monthly rotation. 

 * If you like to plan three meals and one snack for each day, rather than just planning dinner, you can use this same system to make a week's worth of meals. 


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Monday, October 20, 2014

About Capers

A flowering Caper Plant
When you hear the word "Capers," you probably think of the Caper Bud. When American Recipes (including mine) mention Capers, they mean Caper Buds by default.

If you're like I was a few years ago, you never gave any further thought to where Caper Buds come from other than the tiny, overpriced jars at the grocery.

Or, perhaps you know of the more obscure Caper Berries, available from specialty markets here in the U.S. Or the larger, less overpriced jars of the Buds also available at specialty markets.

Caper Buds - When American Recipes say "Capers" this is what they mean.

But, when I went to Cyprus and asked for Capers, I was quite surprised when I was asked "What kind?" (What do you mean what kind? The Caper kind! ; ) Turns out they come in Bud, Berry or Leaf & Stem Varieties!

You see, Capers grow in Cyprus. They're not an exotic food there, any more than a Dill Pickle is an exotic food here in the U.S.

The Caper Plant & Blossom with several visible Buds.

Many Cypriots go out and forage for their own, and then pickle them. Each family has its own special pickling recipe. I'm not aware of Capers being cultivated (although perhaps they are) but rather most of them grow wild and are foraged. Foraging for and preserving them is a traditional craft, perhaps comparable to American customs like making one's own Jam. Some Monasteries also preserve their own, and sell the product to help support the monastery. And, like any other traditional food, they can be purchased from the grocery.
Preserved Caper Plant

But, do you suppose that Cypriots only preserve the buds or berries? Nope. they preserve the whole plant - thorns and all! And they're incomparably delicious! (the thorns soften and don't pierce your mouth, although they are a little pointy)

A Jar of Pickled Capers

Sometimes Capers grow in the strangest places - like weeds!

If you find a Caper Plant in flower, they're quite beautiful. But, be warned! You should always carry a large stick with you when you go to harvest them. For reasons I don't understand, the Caper plant is a favorite haunt of snakes!

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad
This is a simple, easy salad to make from ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in fall and winter, but quite tasty year round! I adapted it from the "Mediterranean Green Bean and Potato Salad" that I shared a while back. One day I wanted to serve Rosemary Potatoes AND a salad with these flavors, and I didn't want potatoes twice in the same meal. It turned out so well, that I anticipate that I'll seldom make it with the Potatoes in the future.

In our family, we like Green Beans tender. If you're a crisp-tender sort of person, that also will work well in this recipe (and, does make a prettier salad).

It's so simple to make - and so tasty.

Mediterranean Two Bean Salad
Cook to desired doneness & drain
1 1/2 Pound Frozen Green Beans
2 Cans (or about 4 Cups Home Prepared) Great Northern or other White Beans), drained
1 Can (15oz)  Black Olives, Sliced
2 Tablespoons Caper Buds
A little Scallion or Minced Red Onion may be added if desired.

Toss with Vinaigrette Dressing
Shake together in a jar, and pour over veggies:
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon Dressing
1/2 teaspoon minced Garlic
3/4 teaspoon Salt
Dash or two of pepper
Pinch or two sugar
A couple of pinches Oregano

Alternately, for an Oil Free Salad, you can use Simply Greek Dressing

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup
Here is another simple, nutrition packed, low calorie soup. It's easy to make, tastes good, adds variety to the diet, and helps us get enough servings of vegetables in our diet.

Mediterranean Zucchini Soup

Briefly saute (use a little broth, water or oil to saute - whatever you prefer)
1/2 Cup Chopped Onion (1/2 large Onion, or 1 small Onion)
1 teaspoon fresh Garlic

Add and simmer till tender
2-3 Medium Zucchini, Sliced
Water just to cover
1 Cube Vegetable Bouillon, broken up
1/2 teaspoon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Basil
Simmering the Zucchini with the other ingredients.
Dash Cayenne
Dash Black Pepper

Puree with Immersion Blender till smooth (alternately, carefully transfer in batches to regular blender to puree).

Add to taste
Dash Dry White Wine
Garlic Salt

Serve with your favorite toppings. I used Garlic Rye Chips here.

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From the Farm

Monday, September 29, 2014

What's Wrong with Halloween, Anyway?

Pumpkins & Candy - Traditional Halloween Fun
The observance of Halloween is a cause for endless controversy amongst Christians. Some love it, some hate it, and everyone gives reasons.

Members of the "love it" camp tend to make these arguments:
  • The kids enjoy it, and I don't want to take their fun away.
  • What's wrong with enjoying an American tradition?
  • Dressing up and eating candy - what's not to like?
  • This was the traditional way for Christians of the British Isles to denounce the Evil One, by pretending to "scare him away" on the Eve of All Saints Day (All Hallow's Eve)
  • What's wrong with dressing up as a Princess or a Fireman?

In response to the "love it" arguments, I think: If something is good, I want to do it. But I don't want to just "go with the flow" to fit into our culture if something is not good. I'm skeptical of the "Godly origins" argument for the holiday - it just doesn't seem consistent with the general aura of the day (or, month, really - since the observations start more than a month in advance nowadays). We can dress up and eat candy without using this for an excuse. 

And, as for the Princess and Fireman, I've noticed that these disappear in very early childhood to be replaced by things less innocent. They're rather like "gateway" costumes.

Members of the "hate it" camp tend to make these arguments:
  • Halloween has evil origins.
  • Creepy & Scary aren't Christian virtues.
  • Too much candy rots kids teeth out, and causes other health problems.
In response to the "hate it" arguments, well, every post I've seen on the evil origins of Halloween seems to indicate that Christians need to live in fear of the Evil One - as if his power could rival that of God's if we just tip the scales the tiniest bit. They often even detail things that Christians should never discuss (Ephesians 5:12) or post pictures that should never be put in front of Christian eyes (Psalm 101:3). All of this makes the Evil One look powerful and glamorous, when in reality, he has been defeated by the Cross of Christ.

And, I'm much less concerned about the history of Halloween than about the current practice. 

Besides that, I let my kid eat more sugar than she should at Christmas, too. If sugar were the only issue, I wouldn't worry about it.

I've never been really comfortable with either set of arguments, to be honest. 

I dislike Halloween, but I've never been able to put my finger on why well enough to explain it to my little one. I don't want to give her nightmares by trying to explain to her about all the creepy stuff other people do on this holiday. And, I think the Bible clearly instructs us NOT to give a lot of attention to wrongdoing (Luke 10:20), nor to try to oppose the Evil One by ourselves, but to depend on the Lord to do so (Jude 1:9-10).

As C.S. Lewis said so profoundly in the Preface to The Screwtape Letters,
"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the
devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to
feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally
pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same

So, while I always want to avoid what is evil, I also do not wish to give that evil undue attention, nor to make my daughter fear what Christ has already defeated for her (Matthew 10:28). 

A couple of years ago, my conversation with my little daughter went something like this:
"Mom, why don't we celebrate Halloween? I like playing dress up and eating candy."
"Okay, let me explain it like this, honey, what do we celebrate on Christmas?"
"The Birth of Jesus"
"What do we celebrate on Pascha (Easter)?"
"The Resurrection of Jesus."
"And, what do people celebrate on Halloween, I've never told you, but can you figure it out?"

Well, that should probably be enough to explain it. But, it was always more of a niggling feeling than something I could put into words. Until this year, that is.

This year, we have had the uniquely Christian experience of saying goodbye to a beloved devout Christian friend on his way from this life into Eternal Life. He prepared for his journey by participating in the Sacraments of the Church. As we lived this experience with him and his family, we touched the miracle of Jesus' Victory over Death. We said "Goodbye" not forever, but until we could meet again. We see our friend's body as Sacred - it will rise again at the Last Day, as the Scriptures say. We said prayers for him, his body was anointed, we made our Cross before his casket, we kissed his body, we kissed the Icon of the Resurrection, and we interred his body in the earth, like a seed awaiting Spring. Although every moment was filled with grief for our loss of him, every moment was also Holy, Sacred, a preparation for Eternity with Christ.

The following day, I went to the grocery store and I was slapped in the face with what Halloween really is. There, on prominent display, was a creepy model of a skeleton of a human being with distorted features, covered in cobwebs. The plastic image did not remind us that this was the body of a human being, meant to be reunited with Christ at the Last Day, a seed to be planted in the earth and one day to be united with Christ. Instead, it was made to look loathsome, creepy, scary - horrifying. Not at all consistent with the Christian view of the reality of death.

And then, I realized the true function of Halloween in our culture.

The function of this so-called "holiday" (regardless of historical facts about its origin) is to make human beings repulsed and terrified at the idea of death and entering Eternity. And, in fact, to focus so much on either thinking about their fear of death, or refusing to think about death at all, that they completely fail to prepare for eternity. It is easy to notice on a moment's reflection that nearly every Halloween image is a distorted image of death - a lie about death.

Rather like someone who is terrified of flying, and must move to move to a new country, they could easily spend so much time thinking of their fear of the flight, that they completely forget to prepare to pack the right things in their suitcase, or give proper care to arranging for a place to stay upon arrival.

The Saints of the Church tell us "Remember Death" which is to say, keep our eyes on being properly prepared to enter an Eternity with God.

But, Halloween teaches us to be so frightened and repulsed that we avoid thinking about death at all costs. We cannot prepare for what we do not think about.

And, although I always hear people say, "It's just make-believe" the reality is that the fear that is engendered in human hearts through make believe, or fiction, often has just as strong an effect on the human psyche as does reality. We all know countless people who have developed strong fears by watching "horror movies." And, once those fears are planted in us, especially in childhood, but also in adulthood, they are incredibly difficult to overcome.

Even though the Evil One has been defeated by Christ's Death on the Cross, WE can choose live as if that defeat had never happened, to give the Evil One a place that is not his, by cowering and pretending he has a power he does not have.

Instead, we should see Death as what it is, now that it has been defeated by Christ. It is the door that opens when we enter Eternity. We need to live our lives preparing to walk through that door and enter a Holy, Eternal Life with Christ, rather than imagining that it is too scary to think about.

So, whatever your decision about whether your kids dress up as Princesses and Firemen and eat Candy the neighbors give them  - or don't - keep your focus on the reality. Be aware of the effect that the images of this season can have on the human psyche.

Eternity is what comes next. We're all going to "walk through that door" one day, if Christ should tarry.

Let's focus on being prepared, and as the Saints advise "Remember Death."

Here's a video I really like - perhaps you'll enjoy it too (it's only about 5 minutes.)

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew

This stew is delightful - a slight departure from the norm, without seeming too strange to less
adventurous palates. Our whole family enjoys this one, and, like most of my recipes, it is really easy to make.

It's great any time of year, as it is not too heavy for a Spring or Summer meal, but can be pleasantly warming during the cooler weather of Fall & Winter. 

I adapted this greatly from another recipe a few years back, but I cannot recall where I got the original recipe.

Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew
Sort, rinse well, and drain
1 1/2 cups Red Lentils (Split Masoor Dal)
Place in a large pot with
2 Cups Water
1 Cube Bouillon
1 Cup Chopped Onion (1 large Onion)
1 teaspoon Minced Garlic
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Bay Leaves
2 Cans Chopped Tomatoes (not drained)
1 (15 ounce) can Artichoke Heart Quarters (OR 1 9-ounce bag  frozen)
Dash Cayenne
Simmer till lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.
Add to taste
Lemon Juice (about 2 Tablespoons)
Salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)
Pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Serve with Green Salad & Crusty Bread

Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew in the Slow Cooker
For even easier preparation, prepare in Slow Cooker with pre-made Yachni Sauce from your freezer:
Place in Slow Cooker:
3 Cups Yachni Sauce, thawed
1 1/2 Cups Red Lentils, Rinsed well & Sorted
2 1/2 Cups Water
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Ground Coriander

1 (15 ounce) can Artichoke Heart Quarters (OR 1 9-ounce bag  frozen)
Dash Cayenne
Cook on High, 3 to 4 hours, till lentils are tender

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Monday, September 8, 2014

3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce

3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
My daughter's Godmother often has us over for dinner, and Spring Rolls are often a special little extra that she makes just for me when others are having meat. The other night, she sent us home with a nice box full. When I went to heat them to serve them for dinner tonight,
I discovered that I had no appropriate sauce. Nor did I have the Pineapple Juice that is a featured ingredient in the Sweet & Sour recipe I had on hand.

So, I did an Internet search, and from a recipe on (which was not vegan, nor did it quite match my tastes - but it was a great starting place), I created my own super-quick, no pineapple juice, microwavable Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce. It can easily be whipped up from ingredients that most homes have on hand most of the time. And, it was a big hit : )

This recipe calls for boiling a sugary liquid in the microwave. For that reason, you'll need a larger cup than you might expect for the amount of liquid (I used a largish microwavable teacup). You'll also want to use care not to spill the boiling liquid on yourself when removing it to stir it, etc.

A little of this goes a long way - the small batch here satisfied our small family & was sufficient for about a dozen Spring Rolls.

3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
Stir Together in large microwaveable cup:

1 Tablespoon Water
1 Tablespoon Catsup (or, Ketchup, if you prefer ; )
1 Tablespoon Soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Sugar
2 Tablespoons Vinegar (I used Rice Vinegar)
1 teaspoon Tapioca Starch (Or Cornstarch)

Microwave 30 Seconds, Stir, and microwave 30 more seconds, or till very bubbly. Stir. If needed, microwave another 30 seconds. Stir & Serve. 

Large Batch 3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
Stir Together in large microwaveable cup:

1/4 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Catsup (or, Ketchup, if you prefer ; )
1/4 Cup Soy sauce
3/4 Cup Sugar
1/2 Cup Vinegar (I used Rice Vinegar)
1 Rounded Tablespoon Tapioca Starch (Or Cornstarch)

Microwave 30 Seconds, Stir, and microwave 30 more seconds, or till very bubbly. Stir. Repeat 30 second increments, stirring each time the microwave stops, until the mixture is very bubbly. (Total cooking time should be less than 2 minutes) Stir & Serve. 

Note: If you have no microwave, this can be cooked in a small saucepan on the stove top. Stir it constantly until it boils - which won't take long. 

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