Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meal Planning Tips, & Cardamom Coconut Panna Cotta with Gingered Pineapple

woah! Hello! Apologies for falling off the face of the Earth!  I have to tell you, my days around here have felt a little like this at times:
I've been busy busy busy at work, and little miss Ellie has started doing so many new things, including some of this, from front to back and back to front, over and over:
And practicing this:
And putting every last thing in her mouth and gnawing on it as hard as she can.
We have managed to make some delicious food that I can't wait to tell you about, but the most exciting thing has been my first attempt at meal planning.  I have always cooked on a whim, usually buying groceries after work and putting together whatever sounded good at the time.  But with the little girl around, it's nearly impossible to get everything done.  So I've started doing my best to make a rough meal plan on weekends and it has been incredibly helpful.  Here are my tips if you're a beginner at meal planning, too.

  • Use technology. It helps.  Find something that helps you plot out your week and gives you a place to make shopping lists and write out prep for the next meal.  I've been using  From the site you can connect your calendar with iCal and Google's calendar.  

Here's a screen shot of last week's meal plan:

  • Repeat basic recipes every week, and basic elements every night.  We always have homemade pizza on Fridays.  It gives us something to look forward to at then end of the work week and makes planning so easy.  Once a week we have a crockpot meal using the pork we purchased from The Stamps Family Farm.  Sometimes it's carnitas, sometimes it's BBQ, but I always know that Wednesday morning I will throw something in the slow cooker and we'll have a hot meal by the time the work day is done.  Every night I include something green (as per my 2012 resolution!) and it's usually salad.  Even if I do include greens somewhere else in the meal, I have grown accustomed to having a big bowl of salad with homemade dressing at every dinner.  
  • Repeat easy, healthy breakfasts every day.  And don't neglect savory options!  My husband loves quinoa cooked in chicken stock for breakfast.  I love the convenience of overnight oats in a jar and carry them to work every day.  (Just combine oats, yogurt, milk of your choice, and any mixins you like. I always do chocolate chips and cinnamon.  Leave in the fridge overnight and eat either right out of the fridge or warmed up just a bit. Don't heat them!)
  • Make extra. Cook once, eat twice.  As I said above, my husband likes quinoa for breakfast, so whenever I make a pot to have with dinner (I use it to replace rice or pasta) I make a double or quadruple batch so there is plenty for breakfast.  
  • Prep over the weekend.  I do a big shopping trip on the weekend days to get all the dry goods that I'm going to need and then shop two or three times during the week for fresh vegetables.  Over the weekend, I like to prep as much as I can on Sunday so the rest of the week is already set up.  I like to fire up the oven and roast everything I'll need (usually at least sweet potatoes and onions) and I use the weekend to make doughs or sauces (which freeze perfectly) and soak and cook beans.  I also take the opportunity to make big batches of things that are easy to eat, like lentils, so that there's always something good to eat at a moment's notice.  (The appetite of a nursing mother is no joke!) 
  • Plan for leftovers.  We always make big portions at dinner time and either repurpose them for the next dinner or plan them as your following day's dinner.  (A roast chicken is the classic example of this, using leftovers for pot-pie, soup, or sandwiches.)
  • Divide up the work. As you can see in the screen shot, my husband cooks once a week.  This is mostly in name only because we really cook every meal together, but Wednesday is his night to pick out what he wants to cook and I take on the role of sous chef.  It's really fun for us to work together and for him to be in charge. 
  • Be prepared to fail.  It's possible that your plan won't work, so make some easy freezer meals that you can always fall back on.  (We love these burritos)  
  • Finally, have some fun. Experiment. Try new flavors and ingredients.  I can't explain why, but having empty slots to fill in my meal plan makes me more ambitious and adventurous as a cook.  
Last weekend, some friends came over and spoiled me by doing all the cooking for a big Asian-themed dinner.  I took the opportunity to make something for dessert and wanted to do something different but easy.  I knew I wanted to make panna cotta because I've been wanting to for months, and I decided to make it with coconut milk instead of cream to make it consistent with the rest of the meal.  I used Leftover Queen's recipe for the panna cotta and loved the idea of pan frying some fresh pineapple from Bittersweet.  This is a dessert that you can throw together with one hand if you're holding a cute little one but once it's plated, it looks gorgeous and tastes great.  It's also very easy to modify with any kind of milk or spice and can be topped with any sauce that suits your meal.  
Leftover Queen's recipe called for cardamom and I used it fresh.  If you've never used fresh cardamom, I can't recommend it highly enough.  You can buy the whole green pods in bulk, and they're much cheaper at Asian or Indian grocery stores.  I began by toasting the pods in a dry pan and then working on them in my mortar and pestle.  
If you don't have a mortar and pestle yet, I'd highly recommend one.  I've never managed to keep an extra coffee grinder for spices on hand like many people suggest, but I bought this mortar and pestle for under $10 and have gotten a ton of use out of it.  It's quick and effective at grinding most spices (not all though) and I love making chili garlic pastes in it.  After doing a lot of research on materials, we decided on a porcelain model because it's more lightweight than marble (not to mention cheaper) and easy to clean.  We chose a mortar that's around 4-5 inches in diameter and it's the perfect size.  You can find lots of cheap ones on Amazon.  I reach for mine a few times a week.  
To use a mortar and pestle effectively, you have to practice using the different techniques.  Combining them is the key to getting the desired final product.
Always begin by dry toasting spices because it helps warm up the oils and release the full fragrance.  Let the spices cool before processing them so you don't create steam and end up with mush instead of dry ground spices.

The first way to use the mortar and pestle is to hold the pestle with your hand wrapped around the neck and hammer down on the food.  This is where I usually begin because it helps you break big, oddly-shaped objects into smaller pieces.  Begin by crushing the seed pods by hammering down on each one just once.
Pull it out of the  mortar, separate the pod, and release the seeds.  Discard the shell and any inner bits you find because they will be tough and woody.
Return the seeds to the pestle and hammer again, crushing each seed.  It should smell so so good, which is one of the simple pleasures of using this tool.
The other way to use the pestle is to hold it in your hand like a pencil, between your thumb and forefinger, and turn it like a screwdriver against the edges of the mortar.  This helps you get the final fine grain.
Like this!
Coconut Cardamom Panna Cotta with Gingered Pineapple 
very slightly adapted from Leftover Queen
2.5 c. full fat coconut milk (try the Asian grocery store)
1/4 c. maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. freshly ground cardamom
1/4 c. water
1.5 tsp. gelatin (this is less than 1 envelope)

In the bottom of a bowl, bloom the gelatin by mixing it with the water while you heat the milk.
Put the milk over medium heat until the edges start to bubble.  (Note: if you want to use whole spices for the panna cotta you can steep them during this step and remove when you combine the milk with the gelatin.)
Add the maple syrup
And vanilla and cardamom.  Remove from heat after stirring to combine.
Add a little (1/4-1/2) c. of the warm milk mixture to the gelatin and water, which will be grainy, and whisk to combine.  Then pour this mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk.
Grease four or five ramekins.
Fill with the milk mixture and refrigerate until they set up.  This took around 2 hours for us.
To make the pineapple, cut and core a fresh pineapple (canned just won't work for this because it's too soft and won't stand up to the heat) toss with 2-3 tbsp. brown sugar (I used raw sugar) and a sprinkle of powdered ginger.  Brown in a greased cast-iron skillet until each piece is seared and caramelized.  Serve the panna cotta cold and the pineapple hot.
We had egg rolls, crab rangoons, egg drop soup, and a spicy stir fry for dinner.
We washed it all down with 7 Deadly Zins, which held up well to the heat.
After the spicy/savory dinner, the creamy panna cotta was perfect.  It was not too sweet at all, so the juicy sweet pineapple was the perfect foil.  The fragrant cardamom and ginger kept with the theme of the dinner (and played very nicely with the coconut milk) and made the dish feel exotic and special.  I was so happy with how it came out, especially given how little time and effort it required.
The panna cotta was thick and rich, but not heavy.  The texture was perfect with the fresh fruit.

There was one piece left the next day, and it was just as delicious.
Thanks for coming back after all that time gone, and I promise that I have a bunch of good stuff coming up for you in the near future.  Until then, tell me, do you meal plan?  Are you successful?  Where do you get ideas?  
Please consider panna cotta for your next fancy dinner or just a special weeknight. It's really easy, impressive, and delicious.  


Carrie said...

That last photo of E reminds me of faces her mama used to make!

Jen said...

Your baby is adorable. How old is she? My girl is just over 4 months old and puts everything in her mouth too. She cracks me up when she looks at me and her eyebrows go up. She hates tummy time though and will not be on her belly for long. She prefers to sit.....uhm...not sure that is the correct order but I gave up fighting :-) Jen

Alicia Ambler said...

Hi Jen! Thanks for commenting!
Ellie is just about to turn 5 months, and we are having so much fun with this age. It is SO funny that you mentioned her eye brows. Eleanor has been doing this for months and does it to me much more than she does it to my husband, so for the longest time he didn't believe me that she did it!
I absolutely love your blog. I'm going to have to try your apple quinoa cake soon, and I'm enjoying all your stuff at Punk Domestics. Thanks again for stopping by.

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