Magic Behind the Menu

Stepping up, Uncategorized

For the last few months, I’ve set aside my “wing it” ways and have started following a menu. First off, feeding four teenagers (3 of them boys) is like feeding an army. That ain’t cheap people! Second, I hate HATE coming home from a long day of work only to scramble about like an ant who’s lost its hill trying to produce something edible. Third, I love food. Like absolutely love it! I want to eat something yummy, not hamburger helper because it was quick and there! Fourth, we are busy peeps. Some nights have to be quick. But other nights I have an hour to grill salmon and whip up a vinaigrette. Fifth, I’m SICK of the question “What’s for dinner?” Hate it! Because, let’s do the math here, if all four kids ask me only once each day, that’s four times I’m asked the same question. But who are we kidding? They never ask only once! So double that- 8 times for the same question. Plus I happen to teach first graders in French. Do you have any idea how many questions I get asked in a day? They’re 7, so it’s cool. But adding on the dinner question from teenagers breaks this proverbial camel’s back.

There you have it. My 5 point monologue as to why I do a menu.

“But how can I do one?” you ask, scratching your head in bewilderment.

It’s easy! Sure, it takes time and planning, but once that’s down you’re golden for the next two weeks! All you have to do is take into consideration your schedule, your budget, and what you feel like trying out. Sprinkle in some staples like Taco Night, Spaghetti Night, and factor in leftovers. Et voila!

“I still don’t get it. I’m no chef.”

You don’t have to be! The internet and TV is ripe with recipes, ideas, and inspiration you can glean from. But this post isn’t about culinary skills. Let me break down how I make a menu before I even hit the grocery store.

First off, I do it for every two weeks, which means 14 dinners.

1. Taco Night

2. Mac n cheese Night

3. Spaghetti and Meatballs Night

4. Asian stir fry Night

5. Croissant Pizza night

6. Leftovers

7. Leftovers

8. Leftovers

Boom! Over halfway there in staples/leftovers alone! That’s only 7 more meals. This is where I like to get creative, so I will show you some of my examples. Don’t let the “fancy terms” scare you. It’s all culinary speak for simple techniques.

9. Cherry/apple smoked chicken salad with apples & bacon, Italian bread with dipping oils (seriously, just olive oil and some spices, whatever I fancy that night) and a side of sliced apples

10. Dill encrusted grilled salmon, roasted red potatoes, garden salad with blackberry-ginger balsamic vinaigrette (do not waste your money on store bought dressings. Blend olive oil, whatever vinegar you like, some honey to cut the vinegar, and season to taste. Trust me, way better in quality, cost, and zero preservatives).

11. Chargrilled steak with a Gorgonzola cream sauce, bourbon-honey glazed carrots, and garlic roasted sweet potatoes

12. Slow roasted pear/honey infused pork (aka crock pot, pear white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, & drizzle of honey) over Jasmine rice with sautéed green beans

13. Ok, so by now I have a fish, beef, chicken, and pork. It’s important to vary the meats. Don’t you get tired of chicken everyday? I know I do. Two nights left. What’s on sale? What do you prefer to eat more of? I like fish, and chicken is cheaper than steaks.

Roasted chicken and pasta salad with a red wine vinaigrette. Boom!

14. Roasted tilapia sprinkled with feta, cucumber salad, and angel hair pasta tossed with a champagne vinaigrette

Done! Just vary the proteins, veggies, and starches according to your budget/liking/timetable. Count up the busy nights and relaxed nights so you have an idea of what’s going to be quick or not. Don’t let this menu intimidate you. I have a very busy two weeks coming up so there are only two fancy evenings on my recent menu. It just all depends, but it forces you to stay out of a food rut. Because food is delicious!!

“But my kids are picky eaters!”

What happened to the gold old days of having to finish your food before dessert? Or at all? Kids will develop a mature palate over time, but we have to help them! Look at the French. Their kids eat all kinds of haut-cuisine without batting an eye. Why? It’s a part of their culture. Why not make food a part of ours? Then maybe, just maybe, our kids would grow up with a healthy outlook on food, and problems such as obesity, anorexia, etc wouldn’t be such an issue. Food for thought…


Grilled Salmon

Stepping up

I’m determined to my woo my family over to salmon. For years I’ve heard it’s too fishy and gross, so I haven’t cooked it. But thanks to my mom, I have a trump card to win this war. Let the games begin!

imageAfter brushing on olive oil, I seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and dill. Then I sliced into serving portions.

imageTell me that doesn’t look tasty already! I grilled over charcoal, adding hickory wood chips just before setting the filets on the grill.

imageI grilled for 6 minutes on one side, flipped it over and grilled for 5 minutes on the other. It all depends on your heat settings and how close the coals are to the grate. My mom suggested 6 per side but by 5 it was ready to come off.

Meanwhile, I worked on the potato salad. I used just a little too much mayonnaise than originally anticipated, but it was still delicious. I peeled and boiled red potatoes (no skins for this Crohnie). Once they cooled, I tossed them with garlic salt, pepper, mayonnaise, relish, bacon bits, a touch of apple cider vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice. I stirred and adjusted to taste.

The smoky, charred salmon and creamy, salty, with a hint of citrus potato salad balanced flavorfully on the palate.

The verdict? They LOVE it! I win! I mean salmon wins! Bon appetit:)

Grilled salmon

Fish Tacos

Stepping up



The spring air renders the taste buds to crave light, refreshing, with a hint of citrus flavors. I happened to have a hodge podge of quality ingredients in the fridge, so throwing these fish tacos together for lunch was simple.

I previously grilled cod over a charcoal grill with apple and hickory wood chips to add flavor, so I had a nice, smoky fish as the foundation of my taco. Then I stir-fried corn and a few bacon bits with a champagne-honey vinaigrette I happened to also have sitting around. I placed kalamata olives and goat cheese across the top, drizzling more vinaigrette and some lemon juice to finish off the tacos. I would have preferred to add avocados, but none of mine were ripe yet. Hence the goat cheese, as I felt it would add a nice creamy component to balance the citrus and tie in the smoky flavors. I also wanted to throw some sprigs of mint on there, but my dog has decided my herbs make for a good pee spot. Drat. I still have leftovers so hopefully my avocados will be ready by tomorrow!



Cherry-Apple smoked chicken salad

Stepping up

I’m back! Sort of. I literally wrote the menu as my husband drove us to the commissary, pulling ideas out of thin air. After going a week without a menu and winging it as I used to, I remembered why I started this in the first place. If you ever want to see my head explode, just ask me what’s for dinner. I will die. I get asked not just by every child, but multiple times by every child every day. Still need to sweep up the strands of torn out hair on the floor.

We did the big grocery trip, and I posted the menu (this afternoon, which did not help me avoid the dinner question- Charli even texted me from after school practice).

Mike spent the day smoking the chicken with cherry and Apple juice soaked wood chips. Smoking is the key flavor component here. I know it’s a pain and requires time, so if you have it, do it. I mean wow!

We peeled one apple and made the sauce with mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, garlic salt, pepper, and bacon bits. I blended the sauce separately to taste, them added in to taste. The sweetness from the apple cuts into the tartness of the vinegar, adding an extra layer to the smoked flavor of chicken. And bacon is always delicious. It provided a sweet and savory finish on the palette. We served over romaine lettuce, which the kids ended up using like a taco shell and eating all together. For sides, we served apple slices and Italian bread with dipping oils. Well, they got apple slices. I’m still taking it easy on this tummy of mine.

Et voila! I know not everyone can smoke a chicken, but at least put an effort to flavoring the chicken during the cooking process as much as possible. It makes all the difference. Bon appetit!

Hunting For Silver Linings

Crohnically Ill, Stepping up

As my Crohnies can sympathize, I just came off a rough weekend of tummy pains, nausea, toilet time, and the like. The past three weeks have been a downhill slide of fatigue and pain, most likely due to a bacteria overgrowth (recurring issue following bowel resection). My poor kids remained cooped inside, bored out of their minds and motherless. Meanwhile I’m hidden in my cave like a miserable hermit.

Today I receive the results of my dog’s biopsy (he just had surgery to resolve a separate issue), and it turns out he has cancer. Can I not catch a break? Not seeming to be petty but my close friends know all the gritty details of my personal life right now and it ain’t pretty. BUT I’m a glass half full kinda gal. Mentality changes everything, and I do have some silver linings in my life.

#1 today was our anniversary; I didn’t remember and my husband wasn’t even mad. He was banking on me not remembering so he could surprise me. Score! PLUS we technically have 2 anniversaries since we got legally married one year and ceremoniously married the next (my surgeries interrupted the ceremony business) so I still have April 6 to make it up to him. Double score!

#2 whilst holed away in my tower, I managed to get 5,000 words into my new story idea that I’ve been internally marinating on for a few weeks. Not a total waste of a weekend.

#3 my kids are super thoughtful and sympathetic. I even mustered the strength to demolish John in chess. I am oh so kind.

#4 I get to go to work with some adorable students. Listening to them speak franglais all day is hilarious! “Mme Zahm, est-ce que je peux sharpen my crayon?” Yes, yes you may!

#5 I get to speak French all day. The best moments are when I ask someone a question and all I get is a blank stare, and I’m wracking my brains remembering if I’ve asked in the correct language.

#6 people are very supportive. From my close friends, colleagues, family, and even my facebook and twitter buds, all of you rock!

So what’s your silver lining? Something HAS to be positive in your life, just look! And share with the rest of us via comments:)

Champagne-vinaigrette magic

Stepping up

So I made this dish for my mom when she came to visit, and she could not stop raving! I don’t know why. I learned my cooking from her, and the sauce I used is similar to her balsamic vinaigrette-same basics, just change a few ingredients. Needless to say, it’s a light meal with food my body can process, which really counts.

First things first- make the vinaigrette! I used 1/3 champagne vinegar to 1 cup evoo. I also used orange zest, the juice of said orange, basil, honey, and ginger. Honey is the trick here, as it cuts the tartness of the vinegar. Once well blended, I poured over the chicken. Heating the pan to medium, I seared off the chicken in this sauce, placing it in a baking pan and cooking it at 420 for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, I boiled angel hair pasta (no whole wheat for me- bad for belly!).

Whilst that was going, I chopped carrots and cooked them over medium high heat until they began to soften , turning the heat down to medium low. I salted, then added brandy and honey, allowing it to cook on low for the rest of the time.

I drained the pasta and cooked French cut green beans in the pan, adding the pasta back in and mixing all of it with the vinaigrette. I served onto plates, placing the chicken on top and drizzling with some more sauce. I put the rest of the dressing in a dish and placed on the table in case anyone wanted to add to their plate. Some of my kids love this, but some aren’t fans so I toss lightly. Et voila! Bon appetit!

Wine rack #wino

Stepping up

We collected this piece during our scavenger days. For some reason we catch a thrill when discovering a rare find or weathered piece that can be restored just sitting, abandoned, in someone’s trash pile. The kids dragged me to the site with unbridled eagerness to show me a sturdy, decent looking wine rack. It’s light brown finish curdled my insides, nothing elegant to be found in its exterior.

With a shrug we loaded it up, forming plans to transform it into a bow shelf. Yes, that’s right, a bow shelf. This was also our sharp shooter phase- the summer of target practice, and we needed a place to store all five of our bows. I couldn’t stand that brown, so I did a quick sand to strip the first layer, then covered it haphazardly with an ebony stain. A few hooks later, and we had ourselves storage!

But then we upgraded to a larger house. We could store our bows in our own closets, and we also had room for a nice sized wine rack. And with a little TLC, it could really pop!

Removing the hooks, I got to sanding and staining. But this layer dried unevenly, with stripes of shiny silk black and dull finish. Discouraged, I sanded again. When it looked even, I took a damp towel, wiped it across the surface, and wet sanded repeatedly. My kids quickly got bored and ditched me while I continued to slave away.

Finally, I added the next coat,this one gleaming and shining with perfection. Once it was dry, I finished with a clear lacquer to protect the stain. Et voila! C’est magnifique, n’est-ce pas?


Any excuse to buy more wine!

Crispy Flounder, cucumber salad

Stepping up

Much to my daughter’s dismay, I made flounder for dinner. While it no longer induces gag filled sobs, she still treats marine dishes like a cat does water.

Thankfully, the rest of my crew loves fish, and like any loving brother, find great entertainment in watching her stomach each bite.

I find my fish to taste quite delightful, and hope that one day she may come around as it contains many health benefits. For this dish, I seasoned flounder with salt, pepper, coriander, and basil, pan seared it, then baked it at 420 degrees for 20 minutes. I could have done 30 for a crispier dish, but my “army” was starving (save Charli).

For the potatoes, I diced, seasoned with garlic salt, basil, and thyme, and baked in the oven at 420 for 30 minutes (I started them before the fish).

Finally, for the cucumber salad, I peeled and de-seeded one large cucumber, then diced. I know skins are healthier, but they are more difficult for my body to digest, and I’m pushing it even eating fresh vegetables. I halved yellow cherry tomatoes, and tossed both with feta and a red wine vinaigrette.

To make the vinaigrette, I blended 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 1 cup of olive oil, drizzled some honey and added salt, ginger, and basil. Once well blended, I tasted and adjusted with more vinegar, oil, or honey as needed. When the fish was done, I drizzled some vinaigrette over it and crumbled feta on top. Bon appetit!

Herb encrusted steak

Stepping up

For a fancy Saturday night dinner, I decided to cook herb encrusted steak with a brandy cream sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and brandy/honey glazed carrots. Since I feed an army of teenagers, I purchased top blade steaks (sorry, no fillets in our house), Yukon gold potatoes, and baby carrots. I prepped a mixture of herbes de Provence (or whatever you fancy-basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, etc., but I also added coriander to the mix). Now, I only prepared what I needed per steak, with my bottles of seasonings at the ready for the next one.

Once the seasoning was prepped, I salted the steaks and set them aside. I took one steak, pressed both sides into the seasoning, then set it back on the plate. I continued this rhythm of season, press, set aside until all the steaks were done. I let them sit out to cure while I fixed the potatoes and carrots. Once potatoes were peeled, cut, and sitting in boiling water, I started on the carrots.

I sautéed diced carrots in olive oil, adding honey and brandy when they started to sweat. As they softened, I turned the heat back down to low and focused on the steaks.


I drizzled olive oil in the pans and turned the heat to medium. I cooked the steaks five minutes per side, but we have an electric stove top, so the times would be different with gas. Also, I wasn’t going for medium rare as my crew doesn’t prefer this.

I used chicken stock, Italian cheeses (was out of goat, my go to), some butter, and seasonings for the potatoes.

As for the brandy cream sauce, I found it delicious, as did Matt, but it did not receive rave reviews from the rest of the family. They’ve requested a Gorgonzola cream sauce for the next round, so I will post that on the next menu.

I put a 1/2 cup of brandy in the pan and set it on fire. Woohoo! The most fun part of cooking! Shaking the pan gently, I watched with gleeful amusement as the flames died. Then I added a cup of cream, put the pan back on the heat (right, take it off when you set it aflame), and let the cream boil until it thickened up into a sauce. Et voila! Bon appetit!


Asian slow cooked pork, goat cheese stuffed rice balls, honey glazed broccoli

Stepping up

It’s no secret. I’m a nerd. While reading Musashi, I decided rice balls would be delicious!

I blended sesame oil, soy sauce, orange zest and juice from said orange, ginger, and Thai chillies to make the marinade. I let the pork sit in marinade for two hours, then I browned and cooked for two hours in the crock pot. Meanwhile I boiled white rice and let it cool. I made a mixture of goat cheese and turkey sausage and set aside. Whilst waiting, I stir-fried broccoli, glazing it with honey and a bit of the sauce. Once my hands could tolerate the temp of the rice, I rolled into balls, stuffing the center with either the mixture or just goat cheese. I served with a drizzle of sauce. My kids devoured it, and the rice filled them up. That checks off my criteria for dinner!image