Creativity. Culinary or Otherwise. The Secret to Menu Planning (Part 2)

If the saying goes “necessity is the mother of all invention” then I would argue that “limitations are the mother of all creativity”. In this day and age choices are virtually unlimited. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can get it or have it. We like to think this is a good thing but I have come to learn that so many options and choices are not always such a good thing. 

I lived most of my life in highly populated areas. They offered countless options for anything and everything: What movie to go see, what grocery store to shop at, where to go for dinner, where to go get gas, and so on. It wasn’t until we voted to the midwest that I discovered the joy of limited options. What I discovered was that the options caused stress.

What movie do you want to go see? Well, there are 20 to choose from at the near by theater… this was a common issue in California. Then once we picked a movie it was, what time do you want to see it. It’s showing on multiple screens multiple times a day. More decisions… ugh! Living here, in this tiny town we have one movie theater with one screen. It’s done as a second run theater and as a community non profit operation. That means they only show one movie a week. They show it every day at 7pm and on Sundays it’s at 4pm. Going to the movies became fun again. It wasn’t about picking the movie. The theater did that. It wasn’t about picking a time to go, it only shows once a day. This lead us to seeing movies I probably would have never chosen to see but because it was the only one we went ahead and saw them. It didn’t even matter if I necessarily liked the movie I was enjoying going.

This lead me to the thought of choices often lead to additional stress. I started paying more attention to times when I had choices and when I had fewer only to discovered that choices could become paralyzing. Another example of this is in my artwork. When it’s left to me to draw something, anything, I often don’t draw. It can be anything so what should I draw. I can’t decide… However, when I was hired to illustrate Jet the Frog I was able to turn out page after page because it was a defined project. There were specifics of what had to be drawn and limited the decisions that had to be made.

You may be asking, “what does this have to do with menu planning?”… a lot actually. Think of what I was just saying about drawing. Then think about menu planning. You sit down to plan the weeks menu and what happens? You become paralyzed with indecision so you just revert to what you know and have always done. Menu planning becomes something you dread because you have disengaged from the end result. You don’t like what you’ll be cooking so you’re not interested in going shopping for the ingredients which makes you even less excited about planning what you’ll need.

So let’s work backwards. Menu planning radically changed for me when I limited my options. Part of this is “seasonal cooking” and part of this is deciding up anything that isn’t seasonal into “seasons”. I went through and started breaking down what’s fresh and in season and when. This will vary for wherever you live. If you’re not sure the best way to know is to go to your local farmers market. This stuff is coming right off the field. It doesn’t get anymore in season than that. However, seasonal cooking can be a big leap for some. Maybe start with your protein. For this I broke up the main proteins.

Winter: Goose, Beef, and Bison

Spring: Chicken and Lamb

Summer: Fish and Seafood

Fall: Pork, Duck, and Turkey

I came up with this division partly based on holiday meals and partly due to complimentary flavors do to what’s in season.

Now, again lets go back to menu planning. It’s winter so I am thinking about beef. If my primary protein for any given dish can only be beef or bison then I am focused. I have less choices than if I was open to anything and everything. The issue is I don’t want to be bored with beef come spring. So how do I keep beef interesting? I look to all the cuts of beef (trying not to repeat any) and I look to international flavors. If one week I have skirt steak tacos and one week I have chili con carne, oh, and another week lasagna and on and on it keeps it interesting. I also am doing things like classic reuben sandwiches, pastrami on rye, and beef with knotted tofu!

Trying to stick to this idea encourages me to use my cookbook library. To go to various cookbooks and find new recipes. It makes cooking interesting and exciting. It takes me to new areas of the grocery store or new stores all together expanding my knowledge and experience and maybe best of all it teaches me a little bit about the world. It teaches me about foreign cultures and I can do it all from the comfort of my own kitchen. Having done a fair amount of travel I miss getting to experience where I am at through the food but by doing this I get to enjoy something similar at home and maybe with a deeper understanding. By being the one to buy the ingredients and cook the food myself I learn what goes into a dish, what makes the unique and delicious flavors, and how different and yet the same we all really are.

The hard part now is knowing that when I find an amazing dish like Molly Yeh’s Slow Cooked Goulash with Knödlen I have to wait until next year to have it again because I am still working through so many other wonderful recipes. Some might say, and I am one of them, that this is actually the biggest reward of cooking this way. Anticipation makes for excitement and if I have that about all the food I prepare those I share it with will get to taste it what I prepare.

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