Tuesday, January 10, 2012

menu planning & leftover recipes

When Bunny went back to school, the biggest expense that we both knew we needed to cut was our grocery budget. We used to go to the store with only a vague idea what we were eating throughout the week, and we'd wing it - buying whatever looked best, or sounded yummiest or set off my imagination. Our shopping habits have since changed: now I make a meal plan and a grocery list before we head out, we try to incorporate things that are already in our pantry or fridge into the meals, and I've put an emphasis of trying to learn how to cook more with legumes and grains (beautiful barley dishes, or curried lentils have been amazing choices lately).

These changes (weekly menus, set grocery lists) have turned out to have big benefits, in several ways. Our trips to the grocery store are more organized, and the number at the register tends to be much more reasonable. Usually we're under budget. The contents of our shopping cart shock me: mostly produce, and fresh ingredients. Sure, a bag of flower or sugar gets tossed in, or snack bars, but the bulk of our purchases are eggs, milk, and vegetables, or bulk grains. We've cut waaaay back on processed food. Now, this is partly because I bake so much, but it's become very unusual for super processed foods to grace our plates. Even better, there is no stress about what's for dinner? because (unless we've decided we're lazy and would like to opt in to frozen pizza) it's easy done.

So how do you plan an effective menu? Here are a few tips:
  • Be realistic. If a recipe is outside of your comfort zone (cooking wise), save it for a night that you have time. Don't put too many ambitious items in a given day or week - you'll go crazy.
  • Use what you have. Take inventory of your pantry & try incorporate what you already have in your plan. Use up leftover produce from the other week. Already have 3 kinds of rice? Maybe you don't need a fourth. If you have shelves of food that never get touched, find a recipe to use them in.
  • Planned leftovers. There are two ways to do this.
    • Leftover as a meal. If you made a great roast, there's no reason that you can't have that for dinner twice in the week. Or freeze meals and have them next week.
    • Leftovers as a portion of a meal. Reincorporate the leftover meat, or plan to make extra rice/pasta/veggies to use in another dish. From my childhood: a roast beef inevitably meant that we would have shepherd's pie later in the week. Roast a whole chicken? Plan on making soup or chicken salad or pot pie.
  • Don't be afraid to try something new. Try a new vegetable, or a new way of preparing an old favourite every now an again. Variety is the spice of life. (See the first tip, though, for a warning)
So with that in mind, I'm also going to give you an amazingly easy leftover recipe to play with.

What's-In-The-Fridge Fried Rice

Ingredients:
  • Rice, cooked - 11/2 cups
  • Eggs - 2-3 large, lightly beaten
  • Vegetables - approximately 2 cups roughly chopped or small sized mixed vegetables of choice
  • Onion - 1 medium, diced
  • Garlic cloves - 2 minced
  • 1/4 cup low flavour oil (I used peanut and canola)
  • 2-4 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2-4 tbsp sesame oil
  • Protein, cooked - approximately one cup, roughly chopped.
Ingredient side note:
For the vegetables, I used 1 cup frozen peas plus 1 can corn. If I'd had leftovers from another meal I would have used them.
Rice? Basmati leftover from curry earlier in the week.
Protein? I chopped up some leftover pork roast.

Directions:
  1. Heat 1/4 cup oil is large saute pan. When hot, add onions & garlic; saute until onions are translucent. Add vegetables, saute until warm, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from pan, set aside in medium bowl for later.
  2. Add meat to pan. Saute until warmed through. (Note: if you want to use raw meat, simply cut into small portions and cook it through. It'll work). Remove from pan, set aside in same bowl.
  3. Add eggs to pan. Scrambled, stirring constantly. Cook until solid but still slightly moist. Break into small pieces. Remove from pan, set aside. (I left these in a separate bowl, but it's unnecessary.)
  4. Ensure enough oil is in pan to just barely cover bottom (if not, add a little more). Add cooked rice to pan, stir to ensure each grain is coated with oil. Spread into even layer on bottom of pan. Every few minutes stir and flip the rice, and respread. You should notice the rice picking up colour, and as you continue cooking you may notice that you have to stir more frequently to stop the rice from sticking to the pan. When the rice reaches the desired level of colour (colour means flavour), add vegetables, meat and egg. (For me, this step was approximately 5 minutes). Mix until there is a fairly even distribution of fillings in the rice.
  5. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, mix the oil and sauce in thoroughly. Serve.
  6. Garnish, if desired with green onion.
This is just about the most adaptable dish I know. I've made it with just egg and vegetables. I've made it with beans. I've made it with fresh veggies, with frozen, with a million different protein sources. This is one of the ultimate meals for when you don't have much in your pantry, or to use up all your last little bits of leftovers.

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