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    Creating a Menu

    Posted on 11/02/06
    Planning a party or just want to cook something for dinner? Putting a menu together can be difficult, so I always break it down into three easy pieces:

    1. Meat (poultry, beef, pork or fish)
    2. Starch (tortillas, rice, pasta, potatoes)
    3. Veggies (broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, etc)

    First, choose your meat or main dish. Next, match your sides with the main dish you are going to prepare. Here's a general guide, depending on the style of dish you want to make:

    1. Asian: rice, broccoli, carrots, peppers
    2. Italian: pasta, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots
    3. Mexican: tortillas, tomatoes, peppers, corn
    4. American: potatoes, green beans, carrots

    With vegetables, make sure to add color and flavor to the plate. Try to imagine the overall look of the plate with all three key pieces. Think your favorite restaurant dish, how are the pieces combined?

    Then it's time to think about drinks and dessert. What beverages would go well with your meal? Generally, I stick to these basics: lemonade, iced tea, and wine, although, a good American dish goes well with a glass of cold milk. I don't always serve dessert, but if I do it is usually one that I can make ahead of time, like cookies or fudge.

    Now that you have decided on a meat, starch and veggie, look for common ingredients to tie everything together. Example: Citrus Chicken, Lemon Couscous and Spinach Salad. Why this works: the citrus in the chicken is complimented by the lemon in the couscous, as well as in iced tea w/ lemon or fruity sangria. The spinach salad adds color to the plate. Look for ways to tie the different dishes together, like adding orange slices to the spinach salad or topping the chicken and spinach with the chopped green onions that are used in the couscous.

    Recipes are open to interpretation, so look for ways to add your own flavor to each dish. I'm not a big pepper person, but I love mushrooms. Mushrooms are rather universal in that they work in a variety of dishes, so I'll add them in where I can. Starches don't have to be boring. Instead of plain white rice, try brown rice or a wild & white rice mix. Look for tri-colored pastas to punch up the color of your meal. Use chicken or beef broth instead of water when preparing couscous.

    Don't neglect the table setting. Make sure condiments are out and ready to be used. Any time I serve Italian foods, I make sure there is parmesan or mozzarella cheese on the table. For Asian dishes, I put out soy sauce and chow mein noodles. For potatoes, make sure there is butter, salt and pepper on the table. For Mexican meals, set out sour cream, cheese, peppers and hot sauce. Those extra touches can make a meal very memorable.

    Before you start to cook, determine how long each dish will take to prepare and to bake. Will you be able to prepare and cook your veggies while the main dish is baking? Will everything get done around the same time so nothing gets cold? Typically, I start my main dish, then my starch, then veggies and they all are ready at about the same time. Leave yourself little cushions of time to move from one dish to the next. While you have down time, like waiting for water to boil, help yourself out by setting the table or putting used dishes in the dishwasher. Pull your cold items out last so they are still chilled when everyone sits down to eat (it's much easier to warm something up than to cool something down).

    Lastly, look at the final touches like picking out some great music, lighting candles, and adding a festive table cloth. Clear clutter out of the dining area and make sure the area is not too warm from all the kitchen activity.

    And if all else fails, you can always call out for pizza.