Plan & execute

Planning the weekly menu

When I am planning the menu for the forthcoming week, my objective is to balance the types of protein we eat, i.e. meat, fish, chicken, etc. and ensure that every meal has some greens. We try to eat fish at least once a week, and have at least a day or two of vegetarian meals. We also like to eat a variety of cuisines, so a Japanese beef dinner might be followed by Mediterranean salmon with chickpeas.

Having lived in Singapore for 7 years gave me access and insight into oriental ingredients and now, even though we live in London, I still cook a fair bit from my oriental repertoire, as it’s light, fresh, easy and above all loved by the family.

The other big change moving to London is our local farmers’ market, which I love. It’s small and has frequently changing seasonal fruit and veg. It has made me more adventurous and I end up buying vegetables that I have never cooked before.  The menu planning is based around the produce and often starts on Sunday after my farmers’ market shopping.

Inspiration and recipe organisation

I have probably “read” in excess of 200 recipes books over the past few years, apart from subscribing online to countless recipe sites and newsletters.  The sheer choice of recipes available online can be bewildering.  So a few years ago, I started saving the recipes that I wanted to try out  (be it from a book or an online resource) as a pdf file on our home cloud storage. It only took a few seconds, but over time, I created categories for them according to my convenience. Now I have an inventory of 3,000 recipes. This is apart from the countless recipe books that I own.

What I love about having my online recipe folder is that I can access it anywhere.  When I am out shopping and find an interesting ingredient, it is handy to quickly look up my recipe inventory, to see what might work.

Having a party?

  • It can be daunting planning a dinner, so I try to choose at least a few dishes that don’t need too much last minute work. If the main course is going to involve last minute cooking, then I do a cold starter or a soup, which can be prepared in advance.
  • Dessert is the one course that I almost always make in advance and do some last minute assembly. After several glasses of wine and a long evening, I don’t want to present a dessert that involves lots of last minute focus!  I have in the past made hot soufflés for dessert (they are deceptively simple) but only for a small gathering, and only if the meal that preceded was simple to execute.
  • Breaking up recipes into manageable bits – If am planning a dinner at home, the key is to start thinking in advance, and it’s all down to some behind the scenes organisation.
  • The first thing I do is have the menu ready at least a week in advance of the dinner. Once written down, I go through each and every recipe on the menu and make a shopping list, grouped to make for easier shopping.
  • I try to get all the non-perishable ingredients shopped/delivered at least a few days in advance of the dinner. That gives me time to change the menu if something I need is unavailable. The only shopping that I leave for last minute is for perishables like salads.
  • About 3 days before the dinner, I review the recipes and make “to do” lists for myself by grouping common cooking tasks together, which can be completed in advance.  So for e.g. if I’m making slow cooked lamb shanks with a cheesy polenta and need chopped onions, celery & carrots for the lamb, grated cheese for the polenta, etc. I will take out my food processor the day before and finish all this chopping and grating in advance. Similarly if I am making crème brulee with almond tuiles, the crème needs to be made in advance anyway, and the tuiles can me made up to 3 days ahead. So on the day all that needs doing is the actual bruleeing with a blowtorch.
  • On the day – If more than one dish needs to be baked or reheated in the oven, I write myself a simple “oven list” which I keep handy in the kitchen, so that I know when the oven needs to be switched on, and the temperature and timing for each dish. That way there’s no last minute panic trying to remember baking times, etc.
  • Last but not least, I paste a copy of the menu somewhere visible in the kitchen.  When I’m rushing about it’s easy to forget an accompaniment or a topping, and it can be distressing to find it lurking about in the fridge the following day!

A well stocked larder

A well-stocked larder makes it much easier to execute weekday dinners. You  just need to shop for fresh ingredients for the recipe which are often easier to find at the local grocery store, than perhaps some speciality or quality ingredients.

I have put together a list of what I have in my larder, and tried to divide it by cuisine, to make it easier to pick what to stock. I literally have a shelf each in my larder for Oriental, Mediterranean, Indian, and baking ingredients. It also makes it easier to find ingredients that I’m looking for.

Oriental pantry list - the essentials

  1. Chinese light & dark soy sauce – I prefer to buy Asian brands like Lee Kum Kee, which you can find in Chinatown.
  2. Japanese Kikkoman (all-purpose soy sauce)A note here about soy sauces – Chinese cuisine uses light and dark soy sauce. The Japanese also have the concept of Usukuchi or light soy sauce and an all-purpose one. The standard for Japanese recipes is the “All-purpose soy sauce” made by Kikkoman. If a Japanese recipe calls for light soy sauce, you can substitute Chinese light soy sauce, as they are quite similar. However be careful not to replace light soy sauce in Chinese recipes with Kikkoman because the flavours are different and Kikkoman tends to give a stronger and darker finish than Chinese light soy sauce. Chinese dark soy sauce has no resemblance to Kikkoman. It’s used mostly for giving colour and a caramel overtone to dishes. It’s important to use when a recipe asks for it, so don’t skip it, and don’t replace it with Kikkoman.
  3. Thai fish sauce (can be used for Vietnamese cuisine, but the Vietnamese one is less salty and milder tasting)
  4. Rice vinegar – hard to substitute with other vinegars as it has a unique flavour
  5. Toasted sesame oil (not be confused with untoasted). This is used for aroma and flavour. I have a slight preference for Japanese brands, but Chinese is fine too
  6. Shaoxing wine – The closest substitute for this is sake or dry sherry, but it’s a key ingredient in Chinese cookery, so if you are in China town, get a bottle of the decent stuff (this is an ingredient I would recommend buying a more expensive brand)
  7. Oyster sauce – Any good Asian brand. Be aware that the Thai version of the sauce is somewhat different, but can be used inter-changeably
  8. Mirin – Japanese sweet wine for cooking
  9. Sake – Japsnese rice wine for cooking
  10. Dashi – This is a Japanese ingredient, and is essentially fish stock concentrate made from bonito flakes (a derivative of tuna) and seaweed. For purists, dashi should be made fresh from bonito flakes and konbu (a type of seaweed) but I do that for dishes where the flavour of the dashi shines through (like the accompanying sauce for soba noodles). However, for applications like miso soup, or for marinades, I am quite happy to use dashi granules. If you can, buy a brand without added salt to avoid over-salting the recipe.
  11. Miso paste- white or shiro, if you want to keep just 1 type, as that’s best for miso soup.

Oriental pantry list - nice to have

  1. Hoisin sauce – Chinese
  2. Nori and/or Wakame seaweed (Japanese)
  3. Palm sugar (Thai) or Gula Melaka (Malaysian)
  4. Star anise
  5. Shichimi Togarashi – Japanese spice blend to sprinkle on grilled meats
  6. Japanese seaweed – Wakame for miso soup, nori for sushi and soba

Spice collection - the essentials

          1. Coriander powder
          2. Turmeric powder
          3. Cinnamon powder
          4. Cumin seeds
          5. Fennel seeds
          6. Chilli powder
          7. Paprika, both smoked and regular
          8. Cloves
          9. Bay leaf
          10. Black pepper
          11. Nutmeg

Spice collection - nice to have

          1. Sumac
          2. Ras-el-hanout
          3. Onion seeds (Kalonji in Indian cuisine)
          4. Mustard seeds
          5. Green cardamom
          6. Garam masala
          7. Cinnamon sticks
          8. Ground dry ginger

Condiments - the essentials

            1. A good white wine or red wine vinegar
            2. Aged balsamic vinegar
            3. Stock concentrates – Marigold organic veg stock powder is excellent. Chicken stock concentrate, not really virtuous, but key for adding flavour to sauces and oriental stir-fries.
            4. Sea salt flakes – Maldon, what else!
            5. Dijon mustard
            6. Capers
            7. Anchovy fillets
            8. Hellman’s mayo
            9. Panko breadcrumbs (once you use these, no other bread crumbs will make the cut)
            10. Tomato paste and tins of whole peeled plum tomatoes

A note about tinned tomatoes: – I don’t generally like using  tinned ingredients, but make an exception for whole peeled plum tomatoes (my favourite brands are Mutti and Cirio). I prefer tins of whole peeled tomatoes to chopped tomatoes, as the best quality tomatoes are used for the former.

Baking ingredients - the essentials

                    1. Plain flour (I don’t bother stocking self-raising, as it’s not necessary and you can add baking powder and salt to plain flour to get the same result).
                    2. Bread flour – because I bake a lot of sourdough, I like to use the freshest milled flour.  At present I order online from Shipton Mills, who home deliver in the UK. It’s worth getting their organic unbleached bread flour, which is excellent for all bread recipes.
                    3. White granulated or castor sugar (the latter is finer, and better for light cakes). I just have granulated sugar as it’s cheaper and all purpose, and if I need castor sugar, a spin in the grinder / blender makes the sugar finer and better suited to a delicate cake.
                    4. Light brown sugar
                    5. Baking powder and baking soda
                    6. Dark chocolate buttons – I find in the UK that most dark baking chocolate is sold in bars, which means that for most applications you need to chop it. I prefer to buy dark chocolate or couverture buttons online (Callebaut or Vahlrona). Must easier to use, especially where chocolate chips are needed.
                    7. Homemade vanilla extract
                    8. Nuts & seeds
                    9. Instant yeast (sometime called fast action in the UK) – for bread baking. There are many different types of commercial yeast and the varieties can be confusing. Don’t bother with active dry (I’m not sure why anyone would use that anymore, as it needs to be “activated’ in a warm liquid before using). All recipes for bread can be adapted to use instant yeast. Some traditional bakers insist on fresh yeast, and I have tried using both fresh and instant and really can’t tell the difference. 

In my fridge I always have

          1. Tomato paste in a tube – it’s an amazing pick me up when using fresh tomatoes which aren’t the best. Adding a little early on the in cooking stage, before adding the liquid, adds a lovely savoury and intense tomato flavour.
          2. Opened jars of Dijon mustard, mayo, capers, anchovies,  and maple syrup
          3. Block of parmesan cheese
          4. Unsalted butter (grass fed) – there are plenty of good reasons to eat dairy products from grass fed cows (it’s all about CLA’s.. read here)
          5. Sourdough starter

In my freezer I always have....

          1. Home made chicken/beef stock
          2. Frozen vegetables – peas, spinach, edamame (great for a snack and for adding to salads), sweet corn
          3. Frozen wine for cooking
          4. Frozen bread – always sliced before freezing, so it’s easy to take out and toast as much as you need. Once toasted you can’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen bread; key is to have it toasted.
          5. Home made shortcrust pastry – wonderful to have on hand for a weekday quiche