An Unexpectedly Good Side Dish (or, How I Learned About Beurre Meuniere)

It was around 6pm last Friday. The huge ribeye I picked up the weekend before had been in my sous vide for 3 hours. I was ready to start making my sides: Roasted potatoes and pan-fried brussels sprouts.

I just had one problem: I only had three small potatoes and one small package of brussels sprouts. I had used the rest of both earlier in the week and didn’t leave myself enough for another meal. I thought I had, but I was wrong.

I have almost nothing else in the fridge. Little in the pantry. We’ve already planned to go grocery shopping this weekend. If I hadn’t already cooked the steak, I would have ordered pizza or Chinese food. But the steak is already cooked, so now I’m stuck.

I started digging through the freezer and pantry to see what I had to work with:

  • 2 bags of frozen corn
  • 1 bag of frozen green beans
  • Quinoa
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 apples, 3 pears, and 2 bananas
  • Onions
  • Butter
  • 2 bags of frozen whole edamame

Sure, I could roast the edamame with some oil and spices, but that is more of an appetizer, not a side dish for this beautiful ribeye:

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After about 10 minutes of furiously searching, I found something that seemed to fit the bill: Potatoes, Green Beans, and Corn with Lemon-Brown Butter Dressing from The Kitchn.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Would a mixture of potatoes, beans, and corn actually be good? I decided to go with it, though, because I had no other options. I also didn’t really have enough potatoes to make the full dish, so I decided to cook a cup of quinoa to toss in the mix. As you know, I rarely follow recipes.

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When I tasted it, I was pleasantly surprised. The lemon-brown butter sauce changed the whole flavor of the dish. It was delicious. Both Amanda and I ate huge helpings at dinner and we gladly ate a bowl of it as a snack a few days later.

After one taste, I decided that I want that lemon-brown butter sauce at least once a week this summer. That lemon-brown butter sauce is going to regularly grace our dinner table. I now know that it is called beurre meuniere. Parsley, shallots, or garlic make nice additions to it. It would go well with asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, white fish, green beans, or even as a light pasta sauce.

I don’t forsee us needing green beans, corn, and three potatoes to swoop in and save the day any time soon, but I’ll definitely make this again in the future. We’re definitely making that sauce again. Probably next week.

Preparing for Guests

Amanda and I love having friends come stay with us. In fact, we have some friends coming to stay with us this weekend. This got me thinking about how I usually prepare for guests on the food & beverage side of things. My Grandma taught me that there is no faux pas worse than not having enough food or drinks for guests.

I thought it would be a good idea to get my checklist down on paper.

Food

  • How many meals should I prepare for and how many are we likely to eat out?
  • Do our guests have any dietary restrictions or strong preferences?
  • Do I have enough snacks for between meals or late-night game playing and conversation? My go-tos are:
    • Fresh fruit (Apples, bananas, pears)
    • Cheese, crackers, and charcuterie
    • Nuts (cashews or almonds)
    • Olives
    • Kind Bars
    • Popcorn sprinkled with Mural of Flavor
  • Do I have breakfast ingredients? Not everyone fasts until noon like I do. I usually make a large breakfast skillet or some breakfast bowls. I also keep some bread around for toast. Other times I like to make a large frittata.
  • What can I make ahead of time to make meals at home easier? My go-tos are:
    • Soups. Easy to make and freeze a week ahead of time and easy to heat up. Have some crusty bread to heat up on the side and we are good to go.
    • Carnitas. Today I’m making a big batch of carnitas in the crock pot that I’ll strain and crisp up in the oven before putting them in the fridge. This makes whipping together a quick lunch fast and easy.
    • Cutting, seasoning, vacuum sealing, and freezing meats ahead of time to toss in the sous vide. Then I can quickly roast vegetables for a side.
    • If I start pizza dough three days in advance, making pizza is a fun and delicious group activity.
  • Do I have dessert options? They don’t need to be elaborate. Scones or cookies work well!
  • Do we have flowers for the table? Making the table a more pleasant place to be is important.

 

Beverages

  • Do I have enough coffee beans?
    • Do my guests take milk or sweetener in their coffee?
    • Do I have grass-fed butter and MCT for the people who prefer Bulletproof coffee?
  • Do I have different varieties of tea for people who prefer tea?
  • Do I have enough ice for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks?
  • Should I make a double batch of iced coffee if it is hot out?
  • Do I need to walk down to Yonkers Brewing and get a growler? Do my guests like hoppy, sour, or full-bodied beer?
  • Do I have enough citrus for juice and garnishing cocktails?
  • Do I have at least one interesting cocktail I should introduce my guests to?
  • Do I have Pellegrino and wine to serve with meals?
  • Do I have orange juice available for breakfast?

On Meal Planning

After overeating for the past two months, people are starting to think about slimming down for summer. Others are cooking more to save money after spending too much over the holidays. If this is you, planning is key. Don’t depend on your willpower to make good decisions all the time. It is far too easy to order pizza or pick up a sandwich from the corner. Instead, use your willpower when you have it to plan ahead for the times you don’t.

Here is what I do.

 

Shop first, ask questions later

I typically shop first with minimal planning. When we notice we are low on food, we go to the grocery store. I usually have 1-2 meals in mind that I want to make during the following week, but I do not plan a weekly menu in advance. That makes for a stressful trip to the store, especially when something isn’t available.

Instead, I go to the store, see what is on sale, see what looks good, and buy a cart full of tasty, fresh, healthy stuff. Sometimes I have ideas of meals to make while I’m at the store, but I typically don’t worry about meal planning there. This makes grocery shopping a lot less stressful.

Planning after you already have ingredients also lends itself well to the summer. We are involved in a CSA and we never know what our share will include until we pick it up.

 

Make a list of options

I do my version of meal planning after we’ve gotten home, put everything away, and had a chance to settle down. I treat it as a brainstorming session.

We have this magnetic dry-erase board on our fridge, and on it I write down the best combinations of meals we can make with what we currently have on-hand. I do this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When we eat a meal or we use an ingredient listed multiple times, I cross it out. When leftovers come into existence, I add them to the Lunch column.

I don’t typically use recipes when I cook, so for the Dinner Options column I write one protein and one main veggie. We usually add either a second veggie, a small salad, or a starch depending on what we have left in the fridge. If I must use a recipe, I liberally substitute and change quantities depending on what I have on-hand. No need to go to the store a second time. Your meals will still taste good.

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You don’t need to plan out what you are going to have each day of the week. Making a strict menu a week in advance has never worked for me because our plans and moods change. Instead, I go with what we have a taste for and what I have the energy to cook that day. I also factor in cooking time and what time Amanda gets home that day.

I usually don’t know what I’m going to cook until the night before or the morning of. Sometimes not until 3pm that day. That’s okay because I have stuff on hand and a list of possible meal options to choose from.

When you are tired, your only defense against eating pizza is keeping healthy options on-hand for every meal.

 

Keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge

What enables me to be flexible is keeping a well-stocked pantry of staples. I always have enough staples on hand to make a few main ingredients into well-rounded meals. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Rice
  • Beans (Kidney, Black, or Cannellini, usually multiple)
  • Lentils
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Lots of fresh spices from Penzeys.
  • Quinoa
  • Pine nuts
  • Fresh herbs from pots around the house (Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, and Oregano right now)
  • Various dried and canned chili peppers, usually ancho and chipotle
  • Ginger
  • Lemons and Limes
  • Chicken stock and Vegetable stock
  • Corn tortillas
  • Various cheeses, both hard and soft
  • Milk
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Eggs
  • Bacon
  • About 6 different kinds of hot sauce
  • Homemade mayo
  • Various homemade pickles (currently cucumbers, turnips, radishes, and beets, all separate)

We live in a one bedroom apartment, and while we have a decently sized kitchen, we don’t have a ton of storage space. I keep a little bit of each of the things above on-hand, usually enough for use in 1-2 meals, then it goes on the “replenish list” for the next round of shopping. This keeps everything fresh and our pantry manageable.

The above list allows me to make an impressive number of meals when you add a protein and a veggie. Sometimes I make spur of the moment meals just with stuff from the pantry. For example, I woke up last Saturday and saw a photo of huevos ranchero on Instagram. I went through my mental checklist to see if we had the ingredients: Corn tortillas, eggs, canned tomatoes, ancho chilies, oregano, cotija cheese, garlic, onions, limes. Yup! The only thing we were missing was cilantro and refried beans, both of which can be left out on short notice. 40 minutes later we had tasty huevos rancheros on the table.

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We can also make some pretty good soups from pantry items. On Sunday I took an old ham hock out of the freezer and used it as a base for lentil soup with carrots, onions, celery, garlic, and some frozen veggies.

 

Team up

I do most of the cooking in our household, but I wouldn’t be able to cook nearly as often without Amanda. She is a great helper. I can always count on her to prep veggies while I finish up work, sauté said veggies while I sear the meat I plunked in the sous vide three hours earlier, or do the dishes while I cook.

She also steps in and takes over when I’ve had a demanding day. Whoever has the lowest opportunity cost is the one who makes dinner. Most days that is me because cooking comes more easily to me and I work from home, but sometimes Amanda gets home early and I’m overloaded with work, so she steps in. This is where having the meal options listed on the fridge really helps. She picks an option she likes to cook, asks if I had any particular method in mind, and then knocks it out. She is the best.

After dinner I help her clean up by packing up the leftovers, scraping dishes, and drying things that don’t fit in the drying rack.

Don’t leave your spouse our partner on the hook to do all of the cooking. Teaming up and working together makes a big difference.

 

Leftovers

What about when you just don’t have time to cook?!“, you ask. Leftovers, yo.

When I do want to cook, I always make extra food. Sometimes double the amount (4 individual meals instead of 2). If it is a soup or stew, usually 3x or 4x the amount. This serves as our lunches and sometimes as our dinner later in the week if we do not want to cook.

Invest in some tupperware for the fridge and a good vacuum sealer for the freezer to keep things longer and prevent freezer burn.

 

Freeze!

Leftovers aren’t the only things we freeze. We also buy in bulk when things are on sale and freeze. Usually meat, but sometimes fruits and veggies, too.

We check the “produce rewrap” section each time we go to the store. Last week we picked up 4 bunches of bananas for $3, then cut them up and froze them for smoothies. When we get a ton of one thing in the CSA (like the 30 bell peppers we got over two weeks last year) we chop them up and freeze them in individual-use packets.

We regularly buy high quality whole NY Strips for $4.99/lb. That deal is usually only available during the week (M-Th), so I check the online sale ads when we are running low. I bring home the whole 10-15lb strip, trim off the fat cap, then it into 1.75-2″ steaks and vacuum seal them. We have a small freezer, but we pack it well.

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You can also make food ahead of time ahead when you have time and gumption, then freeze. When we see that we have some stuff that will go bad before we are likely to use it, we make a meal with it just to freeze for the future.

If cooking an entirely separate meal is out of the question in your busy life, just double or triple whatever you are making for dinner one night and freeze the rest. We do this a lot with soups. Right now we have these soups in the freezer, just waiting for a day when we are tired or feeling under the weather: Cream of Celery, Butternut Squash, and Lentil & Ham.

Don’t depend on your daily willpower to have healthy, inexpensive meals. Plan ahead.