Meal Planning: How Not To Do It
I did a stupid thing. Fortunately, it turned out well. But it was really stupid. What did I do, you ask? Well, it all started with meal planning. I’ve been reading about it, and thinking about it, because as you may have caught on by now, dinner is the third meal I struggle with every day, and I’ve heard that some people don’t struggle quite so much because they have it all figured out ahead of time.
So I decided last weekend that I would start meal planning – sitting down on Saturday or Sunday before I go to the grocery store, and actually planning out what we will eat for dinner each night of the following week. That way I can get everything I need in one trip to the store, and when I get home from work at 5:30 I can say “Oh, it’s time to make tacos!” instead of “Ugh, what are we eating tonight? Let’s see what I can scrounge up from the fridge.” It seemed like such a simple idea. So I sat down on Sunday afternoon with a spare calendar, and I picked dinners for the week.
Here’s the first place I went wrong: I decided that this was the time to try out new recipes. What a good idea! Take a recipe you’ve never made before, and have no idea how to make or how long it takes, and experiment with it on a work night, after a long day, when you have to go to bed early. Smart.
Here’s the second place I went wrong: I had these beautiful butternut and acorn squash that I picked up last week because they were on sale and looked delicious and I was feeling inspired and ambitious. So my meal plans for the week included Butternut Squash Soup (which I’ve made before, but not this recipe) and Roasted Acorn Squash (which I’ve never made). But when I looked at those on my little menu calendar, I thought “Those aren’t whole meals. I need something to go with my soup and squash!” So I looked in my favorite cookbook and found what looked like a very simple chicken recipe that I’ve never tried before, Chicken Piccate, and I added that to my meal plan for both squash days. (To be fair, I did assume I would make it on soup day, and serve the leftovers on squash day. I wasn’t crazy enough to think I’d make it twice in one week.) Anyway, the key point is this: I intentionally planned to make not one but TWO brand new recipes, on the same night, which was a work night. That’s where we went very wrong.
Butternut Squash Soup and Chicken Piccate
Butternut Squash Soup
At this point, all was well. It was just after this that things started to go downhill. The squash pieces did not fit in my pot. My steamer basket was too high in the pot with the legs up, and too low with the legs down. I cut the pieces up smaller and crammed them in, then shoved the lid on. It worked, mostly, but I think I should have steamed them longer because the surface area was less exposed.
Once we got here, it was smooth sailing. Except that I hadn’t quite steamed the squash long enough, so there were still chunks that weren’t soft enough and didn’t get blended by the immersion blender. But that was really okay – they were tasty chunks, so I just ate them. The croutons were flawless, although they took longer than 10 minutes to bake.
Up to here, this was all very easy. Ultra thin chicken breast didn’t need anything except spreading out, seasoning, and dipping. But then my timing was off, and they had to sit for a while, and they absorbed all their flour. So they had to be redipped, and I almost ran out of flour. Then I discovered that cast iron does NOT count as a heavy-bottomed pan. These things were supposed to brown in 2 1/2 minutes per side. I gave them each about 10 minutes per side, and they never, ever browned. They cooked, but they were just as pasty as they started by the end of it all. And my pan was also too small, so we had to do three rounds instead of two, so of course that meant that my timing was even more off than when I started…
We ate dinner at 9:00. It was tasty enough that I didn’t scream, but not tasty enough that I will ever brave that insanity on a weeknight again. We do have leftovers of soup and chicken, though, so I guess I could say I saved myself half that time on another night…
Butternut Squash Soup
The New Best Recipe
If you don’t have a collapsible metal steaming basket, substitute the removable insert from pasta pot. Other squash varieties that work well in this soup are delicata and carnival. Appealing accompaniments to this soup are lightly toasted pumpkin seeds, a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar, or a sprinkle of paprika.
- 4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 large shallot, chopped fine
- 3 pounds butternut squash (about 1 large squash), cut in half lengthwise, each half cut in half widthwise; seeds and strings scraped out and reserved
- 6 cups water
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
- pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat until foaming.
- Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 3 minutes.
- Add the seeds and strings from the squash and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns a saffron color, about 4 minutes.
- Add the water and 1 teaspoon of salt to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, place the squash cut-side down in the steamer basket, and lower the basket into the pot.
- Cover and steam until the squash is completely tender, about 30 minutes.
- Take the pot off the heat and use tongs to transfer the squash to a rimmed baking sheet.
- When cool enough to handle, use a large spoon to scrape the flesh from the skin. Reserve the squash flesh in a bowl and discard the skin.
- Strain the steaming liquid through a mesh strainer into a second bowl; discard the solids in the strainer. (You should have 2 1/2 to 3 cups liquid.)
- Rinse and dry the pot.
- Puree the squash in batches in the blender, pulsing on low and adding enough reserved steaming liquid to obtain a smooth consistency.
- Transfer the puree to the clean pot and stir in the remaining steaming liquid, the cream, and brown sugar.
- Warm the soup over medium-low heat until hot, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in the nutmeg and adjust the seasonings, adding salt to taste.
- Serve immediately. (The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several days. Warm over low heat until hot; do not boil.)
- 4 slices of white sandwich bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 Tablespoons melted butter
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Remove the crusts from bread and cut it into 1/2-inch cubes (you should have about 2 cups).
- Toss the bread cubes with the butter in a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon.
- Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mixture over the bread cubes and toss to combine.
- Spread the bread cubes in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until crisp, about 8-10 minutes. (The croutons can be stored in an airtight container for several days.)
- Follow the recipe for Butternut Squash Soup, sprinkling some of the croutons over the bowls of soup just before serving.
– took longer than 10 minutes
– very, very easy and delicious. also makes a good snack
- 2 large lemons
- 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (5 to 6 ounces each), tenderloins removed and reserved for another use, fat trimmed
- salt and ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 Tablespoons vegetable oil – divided
- 1 small shallot, minced, or 1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 Tablespoons small capers, rinsed
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
- Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position, set a large heat-proof serving or dinner plate on the rack, and heat the oven to 200 degrees.
- Halve one lemon pole to pole. Trim the ends from one half and cut it crosswise into slices 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick; set aside.
- Juice the remaining half and the second lemon to obtain 1/4 cup juice; reserve.
- Sprinkle both sides of the cutlets generously with salt and pepper.
- Measure the flour into a shallow baking dish or pie plate.
- Working with one cutlet at a time, coat with the flour and shake to remove the excess.
- Heat 2 Tablespoons of the oil in a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
- Lay half of the chicken cutlets in the skillet. Saute the cutlets until lightly browned on the first side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes.
- Turn the cutlets over and cook until the second side is lightly browned, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes longer.
- Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the cutlets to the plate in the oven.
- Add the remaining 2 Tablespoons of oil to the now-empty skillet and heat until shimmering.
- Add the remaining cutlets and repeat steps 8-10.
- Add the shallot to the now-empty skillet and return the skillet to medium heat.
- Saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds (10 seconds for garlic).
- Add the broth and lemon slices, increase the heat to high, and scrape the pan bottom with a wooden spoon or spatula to loosen the browned bits.
- Simmer until the liquid reduces to about 1/3 cup, about 4 minutes.
- Add the reserved lemon juice and capers and simmer until the sauce reduces again to 1/3 cup, about 1 minute.
- Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in the butter until it melts and thickens the sauce.
- Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Spoon sauce over the chicken and serve immediately.