Every year I receive a new cookbook from my brother as a gift for either my birthday or Christmas.  I sit and devour these books as I read them like a novel tagging every "MUST TRY" recipe.  Besides those cook books I've been collecting recipes from magazines, newspapers and blogs.  I recently scanned in all those little pieces of paper which took up and entire 18 gallon tote.  I also vowed to hubby not to cut out any more, well at least for awhile.

This year I've decided to work on the basics - my working theory that once you have a good foundation the rest is all icing.  I'm particularly fond of tutorial style with color pictures and/or historical based cookbooks.  So all the scanned little recipes will wait (by the way, there were over 5000 recipes in that tote) and I'm going to concentrate on these 3 cookbooks this year.
I've always believed that no recipe is the same depending on who is making it and their techniques - whether the techniques are passed down through the generations, are school learned or experience learned through trial and error.  Once you get your basics down pat, variations based on your likes and dislikes become fun and easy to experiment with and then the rest is all gravy.

So I sat down with these cookbooks and read from cover to cover, tagging each recipe that caught my eye (and tummy too) to try or technique I wanted to learn and then made a list by categories.

Like Julie cooking her way through Julia Child's cookbook, I will work my way through these books before buying another cookbook or touching my stash of recipes. My biggest drawback will be that I'm only cooking for 2 so need to alter or adapt almost every recipe. Spices and seasonings will become my best friends to make these recipes my own.  It's all about your choice of ingredients, spices, seasonings and ALSO about HOW you put them together.

Our palates know flavors and based on our genetics we all crave different flavors, flavor combinations and have our individual cravings and comfort foods.  Cooking healthy can be done from scratch easily with enough preparation and organization.

My ultimate goal is to cook my way through 2014 using absolutely no pre-prepared ingredients while learning new techniques and trying tried and true recipes.

Here is my basic thoughts on menu planning and what should be in a basic pantry from earlier posts:

There is more to menu planning than just deciding what to make for dinner, at least for the average family. We're a military family used to getting paid once a month and trying to make it last. So for me, menu planning also encompasses recipe scouring, coupon clipping (we love to read the Sunday papers and have coffee. One of the things I always go for first is the coupons to see what I can save for us - hubby always laughs when I get excited at a large coupon for something already on the list - LOL), sale ad reading and logical common sense planning. I do participate in Menu Plan Monday, but I actually prepare my menu for the entire month all at once and then just break it up for posting.

I start the last week of the previous month with checking out what I already have in the freezer inventory and then the ads for my local markets for the upcoming week. I see what meats will be going on sale and then scour my recipe file for recipes to match. One of the biggest things I do to help not only with cost of ingredients, but also waste is to make sure to back up recipes to each other that use similar ingredients that I can buy in bulk. For example if a recipe calls for 1/2 an onion for Monday night's recipe, I make sure Tuesday night's recipe uses the other 1/2. I also know which meals we'll probably have leftovers for so I plan to either freeze part of it for a future meal or plan a CORN (clean out refrigerator night) within my plan if there is only going to be a little of this and that leftover. I write my list and then I match up the coupons for whatever staples (flour, sugar, eggs, butter, etc...) I need and then the luxuries if there is room within the budget. If there is a really good sale I buy in super bulk for the following month also. Now I know this sounds like a lot of work, but the whole process takes less than an hour and then it's done for the month.

I have every scrap of a recipe I ever saved as well as many of my grandma's too. It's like an obsession with me. If a recipe sounds good in a magazine, I figure I can make it better based on my family's likes and dislikes and tuck it away to try and manipulate at a later date. I recently decided it was time to clean-up this mess.

I found an old metal LP file box at a garage sale for 50 cents and dressed it up a bit so it didn't look like a trash bin on my kitchen counter. (it was a beat up lime green with stickers everywhere). I have written 2 family reunion cook books in the past which helped some with eliminating the scraps of paper and I'm also in the midst of writing a Tastebook to use as family Christmas gifts that is helping to clean up this mess on a permanent basis.

I have a perpetual list on the counter and every time we use something or run out of something, everyone is trained (finally) to list whatever they used or ran out of on an ongoing basis.

We keep a pretty concise calendar with everyone's activities, appointments, meetings and such on it. I also write what we will be eating on each day so they'll know what to expect. For the planning purposes here I'll show you the rest of the month so you can see the pattern(s). If for some reason we have to cancel a night I will rearrange the week so that the meal actually canceled is one using something from the freezer, not the fresh ingredients I've already purchased. When I do the shopping I buy in bulk to cut the cost and since I have my menu plan ahead of time, I break down the bulk package into meal appropriate sizes before freezing when I get home.  Then I wrap each meat package with a color coded band to help keep the freezer organized.  Red for beef, green for fish, blue for chicken and yellow for pork.  

Here is a sample month of menu planing with links to current recipes.  With each meal we also incorporate a small salad or 4 ounces of Green Goddess.

MONDAY ~ Meatloaf & Scalloped Potatoes 
TUESDAY ~ Stuffed Shells & Salad 
WEDNESDAY ~ Seafood Salad & Parmesan Rolls 
THURSDAY ~ Chicken Cacciatore & Salad 
FRIDAY ~ Chicken Carbonara & Salad 
SATURDAY ~ Lemon Lime Pepper Chicken & Rice Pilaf 
SUNDAY ~ Hot Wings and Home made bleu cheese dressing
MONDAY ~ Out  
TUESDAY ~ Mexican Baja Casserole 
WEDNESDAY ~ Spaghetti Bolegnese & Salad 
THURSDAY ~ Sauteed Garlic Shrimp & Salad 
FRIDAY ~ Meatloaf Muffins & Garlic Smashers 
SATURDAY ~ Chicken and Onions in White Cream Sauce 
SUNDAY ~ Beef Stew & Cheddar rolls
MONDAY ~ Taco Ring Salad 
TUESDAY ~ Chicken Cordon Bleu & Applesauce 
WEDNESDAY ~ Orange Honey Chicken & Fried Rice 
THURSDAY ~ Grandma's Chicken and Noodles - I'm working on a written recipe for this - I've made it from scratch for so long - it's hard to write it down - LOL 
FRIDAY ~ Chili and Beer Bread 
SATURDAY ~ Chicken Enchiladas & Refried Beans 
SUNDAY ~ Stuffed Pork Chops & Salad


As you can see the theme for this month is chicken with a bit of pork and hamburger thrown in. 

~ Tools, Condiments and Seasonings ~

I've been thinking about this category a lot and no matter how you look at it, it is subjective. I mean if I cooked a lot of oriental food I'm sure I'd find a WOK an essential tool, but I don't so we'll approach this through logic and I'll list 'my' essentials and then you can interpret any way necessary for your household and the meals you prepare.

As for essential tools I have many that I consider truly essential! But, in reality we can truly get by with very few. I consider a good set of cutting boards, a set of great sharp knives, my cast iron skillet, quality stainless steel pans, spoons, spatulas and tongs a necessity. I try to stay away from most plastics as they do wear quicker and tend to harbor bacteria. I'm still using the same stainless steel tools and cookie sheets I spent a small fortune on 20 years ago, so that expenditure has paid off. The cast iron skillet has been passed down through my hubby's parents and grandparents and it too is still going strong. I did purchase new heavy gauge stainless steel pots and pans about 10 years ago and they look brand new as stainless cleans so well. I also stay away from all non-stick surfaces as they do wear eventually and I just don't want that in our food. I do change my cutting boards and rubber spatulas every couple of years just to be on the safe side despite always running them through the dishwasher.

As much as I like all my pampered chef toys, they could all be eliminated by using just what I have listed above. Personally I cannot live without my essential Kitchen Aid stand mixer & hand mixer and my Cuisinart mini food chopper. I have a blender, but only use it to make my home made Creamy Tomato Basil soup. I don't even own an electric can opener. I do love my slow cooker too and my Magnalite stock pots and roaster, but they too could be substituted with other pots and pans.

Now for seasonings, this too is subjective based on the foods you prepare, but honestly if that recipe you cut out of a magazine calls for Herbs de Provence don't run out and buy it for a one time recipe. It is a combination of herbs you probably already have on hand. It usually contains rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf and thyme. So you can adjust what you have with your own likes. What I consider essential in the spice cabinet around here is kosher salt, sea salt, white & black pepper, celery salt, garlic salt/powder, basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram, parsley, paprika, cinnamon, apple pie spice, pumpkin pie spice, PURE vanilla, maple sugar, orange rind, bourbon extract, rum extract and vanilla powder.

In the pantry I have:
  • flours ~ all purpose, bread and cake flour, self rising flour
  • sugars ~ fine sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar
  • coconut
  • golden raisins
  • cornstarch
  • baking soda 
  • baking powder
  • rices ~ white rice, brown rice...
  • barley
  • split peas
  • tapioca
  • various pastas.
In the way of liquid essentials I have: 
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • soy sauce
  • honey
  • apple cider vinegar
  • red wine vinegar
  • avocado oil
  • olive oil
  • canola oil
  • balsamic vinegar and several flavored rice wine vinegars.

In the refrigerator I have:
  • mayonnaise
  • ketchup (both homemade when I have the time)
  • mustard (despite my severe allergy everyone else LOVES it)
  • sun dried tomato pesto
  • Better than Bouillon chicken and beef bases
  • fresh lemons & limes
  • chili sauce.
The real key here is to have what YOU need on hand at all times without a lot of effort.

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