Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Food Master List

Recently a friend posted about her approach to meal planning, which revolves around a master list.  I had intended to post about making such a list awhile back, as it is what helped me get out of a slump with cooking.  I had been somewhat resistant to making a master list at times.  I get bored cooking the same things very often, and while it certainly made sense logistically when I heard friends talk about rotating through the same list each month, it made me feel uninspired.  I actually really like meal planning, but I occasionally hit a slump with it, and usually it is when I have been trying to work a bit too hard at it.  I am not in a phase of life to be trying a new recipe every day!  When I actually wrote out a master list for myself, I found that I had well over 40 recipes (which would cover more than a month of dinners, even using just the list) that are well-liked, feasible recipes that I make well.
A few notes on a "master list" living overseas here.  It has taken me some time to even develop this sort of core of dishes that work for us.  There are also things that are much simpler to make here, but given that my family gets a bit weary of the staples (lentils and rice) here and eat them often for lunch (most days for my husband and a few times a week for the kids and me), I try to avoid using them very often for dinner time.  I also have to change, at least in part, my list based on the season.  Now, this applies largely to produce, but there also are "seasons" where certain food items that are available here just disappear for stretches of time.  It isn't predictable in timing or duration, so you just have to roll with letting go of those recipes that use those things for awhile.  For produce, it really is more than just the value of buying local or trying to cook seasonally; it is just the reality of what is available.  More foods are starting to be imported, but they are often really expensive, not as fresh, and not reliably available, so it really is most feasible to cook with produce that is locally in season.  There are some seasons when that is a bit of a challenge!
The weather is also a factor, as few homes have air conditioning for the hot weather or heating for the cold weather, so we tend to eat a lot of hearty, hot meals and use the oven a lot during cold weather and try to avoid heating things up much in the summer (still figuring out some of what to do in the summer times!).
What I've found works for me is to keep a master list and use that to pull from and then maybe try about one new recipe per week.  On busier weeks, I may not try a new recipe at all, and on weeks when I'm feeling a bit more energetic, I might try a couple.  I also try new recipes for baked treats when I'm feeling inspired, which is an enjoyable outlet for me.  This keeps me feeling like I have freedom and room for new things while still keeping planning time reasonable.

Since we are nearing the end of the hot weather, I'll focus on my fall (and some of winter) master list and then note a few others that I have for other seasons.  Without further ado, this is my fall master list (in no particular order)!
1.  Chili and cornbread (usually make a big batch and then use some for chili mac or as a topping for loaded baked potatoes)
2.  Lasagna
3.  Loaded baked potatoes (sometimes this turns into toppings on pieces of potatoes if there aren't big ones available!)
4.  Broccoli rice casserole with chicken added
5.  Beef stew (I tweak this one just a bit, but this is the base recipe.)
6.  Pasta carbonara
7.  Chicken with dumplings
8.  Peanut sauce stir fry 
9.  Korean honey soy noodles (Soba noodles seem to be easier to find where I am, and they also work fine.  Oh, and I often have to sub veggies, as the ones listed are not usually available, but carrots, cabbage, peppers, and others work well.)
10.  Pumpkin gnocchi with creamy sage sauce
11.  Calzones or homemade pizza  (I use Jamie Oliver's pizza dough recipe.)
12.  Toad in a hole
13.  Baked macaroni and cheese (The Fanny Farmer recipe is my favorite!  This one is also good and a bit more economical here.)
14.  Pumpkin soup (I vary the kind I make--sometimes just a creamy one, sometimes with sausage, apples, and onions--and then often thicken the leftovers or add some cream to use as a pasta sauce.)
15.  Spanish beans and rice
16.  Pasta with meatballs and red sauce
17.  Chicken pot pie (I alter the filling some, mostly the veggies included, but it gives a good base, and it is the crust I always use.)
18.  SOPP (sausage, onions, potatoes, peppers--or subbing veggies that are available)
19.  Shepherd's pie
20.  Potato soup
21.  Cheeseburger soup
22.  Lentil soup
23.  Moroccan chickpea stew (similar to this one but tweaked a bit and with chicken added sometimes)
24.  Chicken noodle soup (I just skip the marjoram if I don't have it, and I use regular pasta noodles if I can't find egg noodles.)
25.  Pulled pork   (I adapted this to make it in the pressure cooker.  I double the spices and liquids if I want to use the sauce, but it cooks well without doubling. Without doubling, I use 1 t American chili powder and 1 t paprika. Use 2 T brown sugar and then some molasses. Cook in pressure cooker on low heat for one hour after coming to pressure.)
(Note:  Store-bought buns are not an easy reality here, so dinners like this or burgers or sloppy joes also involve making buns, and this is my go-to recipe.)
26.  Dirty rice
27.  Thai cashew chicken or another Thai chicken recipe we love with coconut milk and a couple of veggies over rice noodles
28.  Gyros or kofta (turkey isn't available here, so I sub ground chicken or beef) with pita bread
29.  Meatloaf and mashed potatoes
30.  One-pot spaghetti
31.  Burritos
32.  Ham and potato gratin
33.  Chicken with roasted potatoes and veggies
34.  Moussaka (similar to this recipe but roast eggplant instead of fry and sprinkle some shredded cheese on top)
35.  Pasta with chicken cream sauce
36.  Creamy chicken and rice soup
37.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup
38.  Swedish meatballs  (Beef broth isn't available here, but I just sub water and a chicken cube.)
39.  Hamburger gravy with rice or mashed potatoes
40.  Goulash
41.  Sloppy joes (something similar to this one)
42.  Chicken enchiladas

With lots of soups in the list for fall/winter, I'll need to keep some bread options in the works, as it seems to complete the meal a bit more for my family.  My friend Lizzy has a recipe for DIY Bisquick mix and then directions for drop biscuits or rolled biscuits.  She also has a good recipe for whole wheat dinner rolls I've been meaning to make but have had when she's made and can vouch for their yumminess!

As I mentioned, I am still working out a master list for summer, as late summer is actually the low season for produce where we live, and it is hot!  So, many of the recipes above don't fit, but I did find a few that were great additions to a summer list.
Summer additions:
French dip sandwiches
Black bean and corn salad
Corn chowder
Pesto pasta (when basil is available and sub almonds)
Super nachos (seasoned ground meat, cheese sauce, salsa, avocado)

Anyone up for sharing your list?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Let's Talk Water

As usual, I'm late to the party, as the hubbub now seems to be dying down a bit, but the ALS ice bucket challenge certainly did get people talking about a lot of stuff.  If you could call it talking.  It seems to be par for the course on social media these days that people criticize things without mercy and others dig their heels in to defend it.  Usually it involves some level of name calling and insulting each other's humanity from both sides.  Ah, but I digress...

One of the many issues raised with the challenge was the wasting of water.  Now, water is a serious issue in the world.  According to Water for the World, 1.8 billion people still lack access to fresh water supply.  They have some other really powerful statistics over on their website.  Water is essential for life, and the lack of clean supply is a truly significant issue.

But, let's talk about water for just a moment for those who were railing on the ALS challenge for this particular reason (I am not in any way intending to address the overall value of the challenge or its other criticisms).

Living in a country where the water issues are part of the daily reality, I'd like to just mention a few of the things of what that looks like for us.
*  We have a water filter in our kitchen.  It only filters (there is a reserve tank for the filtered water) when the electricity is on, which is currently about 17 hours per day but can get down as low as 8 hours per day, mostly at night.  Drinking water from the tap is directly asking to spend several days tied to the bathroom, at the very least.  We have to be very vigilant at making sure dishes and cups are dry before using them, and it can be a real challenge getting little ones not to get the water in their mouths at bath time.
*  We have a ground tank and a tank on our roof.  The roof tank is the one that feeds into the plumbing in the house.  Again, we can only pump up to the roof from the ground tank when the power is on.  Once the ground tank is empty, that's it.  We get a trickle of water daily from the city for an hour, but it doesn't amount to all that much.  When the water is gone, we have to call a water truck to come and fill the tank again, and with delays, we have had several occasions where we don't have water to use for a day or so.
*  We collect our shower water and scoop up the boys' bath water in buckets to reuse it for flushing the toilets.  Most of our friends also collect the water from their washing machines, but ours is positioned rather awkwardly to do that.

Now, every time I start to feel a slight bit cool about how careful we are with water and the extra effort we have to make with it, I am reminded how massively privileged we (my family) are here!  This is far better than the reality for the majority here (and in tons of other places) who don't have any water in the house at all, let alone clean or filtered water!!!

That all seems like I'm pointing back to why people should be upset about the ice bucket challenge, and yet, I'd like to sort of call out those who are fuming about the water issue with the challenge.
I've seen way more water used for far less noble causes.  I see photos of people's kids running through sprinklers and playing with water tables (which I am not suggesting are bad but certainly non-essential).  Quite a large percentage of parents in America use a bath as part of a daily routine for their pre-puberty kiddos.  (If you're one of those, please don't smell my kids too closely!)  I would say most Americans shower every day, or at least every other day.  (And, a moment of confession, this has been one of mine that I've had a terribly hard time giving up!  In the winter I try to stretch to every other day, but this is my personal weakness!)  I almost guarantee your daily shower wastes more than one bucket of water!  Know how I know?  Remember the aforementioned shower-collecting buckets?  With shutting the water off every time I am shampooing or lathering or whatever doesn't directly require water, my shower still uses about 3/4 of an average-sized bucket.

I'm certainly not as hardcore about the water stuff as I wish I was, and many of the critics may do a ton to really help the water crises around the world!

If you are one of the super vocal critics of the water use of the ice bucket challenge and you are doing the following things:
*  Reusing any gray water (from showers, laundry, etc.)
*  Turning off the water in between shower steps
*  Rationing your water for recreational use (this includes your lawn!)
*  Wearing clothes multiple times before washing
And, in the bigger picture (as residential water use is actually only a small percentage of the problem):
*  Avoiding major companies with egregious water waste, pollution, and/or exploitation
(Don't even get me started on Nestle!  They make everything, and they are a company known for exploitative issues in this and other arenas!)
*  Donating significantly to organizations doing REAL work (not just griping at people) to help with water solutions for those who need it most

...If you're doing all of those things and more, then by all means, call people out for dumping one bucket of water, but maybe include a bit of positive direction on how people can be part of the solution.  Or, if you are that conscientious, and that is your only issue with the challenge, donate the money and skip the ice water, like my cousin's husband who had his son dump a bucket of cash on his dad's head for their video...or, even donate the full amount associated with skipping the challenge to a cause you are passionate about, like those doing the real work for clean water.   Heck, do it even if you weren't "nominated."  Just don't sit back and feel like you've done something noble for the truly significant water issues in our world by criticizing people for dumping one bucket of water to raise money and awareness for a charity.