Thursday, February 28, 2008

Meal outlaw: Test

Meal Outlaw, a review

Meal outlaw is a good example of a web 2.0 site.

It relies completely on user-entered data; providing only a format in which to display your data, and ways to distribute it. There are several such services, but the others tend to associate with large databases of recipes. This one does not.

I discovered Meal outlaw through a link provided in the comments of a post about menu planning. To use Meal outlaw, you have to join. You can either sign up with your facebook account, or create a Meal outlaw account. The creation is a simple process, akin to all the other web 2.0 signups, except it asks for a security question and answer for password retrieval.

According to the about page, the idea for Meal outlaw came from Matthew Amster-Burton's blog Roots & Grubs. Mr. Matthew Amster-Burto is a food writer living in Seattle. In the article that inspired Meal outlaw, explains the inspiration for listing what he's eating this week as:

Aside from the purely voyeuristic element, hearing about what other people are making for dinner gives me ideas for what to cook myself.

When I entered my first week of menus, I went to the calendar, clicked on a day, clicked on "add a meal to this day" then entered the information. It was a lot of clicking for adding a title, some tags, a link and any notes. But when it was done, I had a week-long calendar of meals that I could print either from the screen or into PDF. There is a quicker way to add data - right from the front page in fewer page-refreshes and clicks.

Overall the service is a nice one. It allows you to subscribe to your calendar of meals - or anyone else's via RSS or iCal. You can also add comments and photos to your meals, and comments to everyone else's.

The creator of the service, J.R. Tipton, welcomes suggestions and even provides his own email address on the about page. I completely concur with Mr. Tipton's statement that there is a wide proliferation of threads, web sites, and blog posts about what to make for dinner. I'm glad I found Meal outlaw, but it made me wonder about all the other ones out there.

Menu for the week of March 1, 2008

Meatball soup (for 6) Beans and rice (for 6) Pork chops & salad Chicken Piccata & salad Steak sandwiches with spicy cheese on fresh baguettes & tomato soup Broiled lemon-pepper fish and steamed corn Vegetarian cassoulet (for 6)

Updates from the week that is

The meatball soup was well received. Everyone enjoyed it and I even had enough left-over for the following day's lunch.

Beans and rice. It was actually bland. All those aromatics and it was bland. I cooked all the aromatics with the white kidney beans. I used 2 serrano peppers and I suspect my cayenne pepper is dead. Everyone liked it, but several folk reached for the african-heat spice shaker to try and give it more of a kick. Next time I'll go for the stronger smoked ham, a fattier ham-hock, possibly spicy sausages and/or more chilies.

The pork chops I bought shrunk quite a bit when cooking; but overall tasted very good. There really is no recipe for this - I sprinkle the chops with pepper and throw them into a grilled pan to cook a few minutes on each side. They were served with a fresh romaine and grape tomato salad with a red wine and olive oil vinagrette. Simple, fast, and delicious.

The meal didn't get made. I grabbed something from the freezer and heated that instead.

Steak sandwiches on fresh bread with sharp cheddar cheese and jalapeños Monterey jack cheese. Yum.

Broiled lemon-pepper fish and steamed corn

The gang canceled, so once again I relied upon the contents of my freezer. I pulled out a pound of hamburger and made ... well ... hamburgers. :)

17-March-2008: Updated with the day-by-day results of my eating.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Meatball soup

Originally from the Relish! menu planning website, I modified the recipe to reduce the salt. I picked the recipe originally because it seemed straightforward and probably could be modified to work with the crock-pot. My first test of the recipe was a resounding success.

Version: 2.0
Serves: 6 (1 1/2 cups each)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes


  • Measuring cups & spoons.
  • Cutting board & knife.
  • Dutch Oven.
  • Ladle.
  • Stirring spoon.

The original recipe used canned beef broth and onion soup mix. Both taste good, but I wanted something lower in salt. So, I switched to chicken broth and real onion. I also reduced the amount of butter down to a tablespoon (from 2). I had 2 cups of rice (cooked in chicken broth) in my fridge - so I added it to the soup to positive effect.


  • 38-ounces frozen meatballs
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 4 carrot(s), thinly sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
  • 26-ounces (6 cups) chicken broth, fat removed, low-sodium
  • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 3 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated


  1. In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt 1/2 the butter.
  2. Sauté the onion until the onion begins to become translucent.
  3. Add the carrots and celery, and continue to sauté for 4-5 minutes or until softened.
  4. Add all the other ingredients except the meatballs and the cheese.
  5. Bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
  7. Add meatballs; cover and simmer meatball soup 10 minutes longer.
  8. Remove the bay leaf before serving.
  9. Serve topped with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Taco seasoning mix in a jar

I found this recipe on a website about Gifts in a Jar. It’s a nice mix that keeps well for 6 months or longer if stored in a well-sealed mason jar. This mix can also be made fresh.

Version 2.0
Serves: 5 (Yields about 2 cups)
Preparation time: 5 minutes.
Cooking Time: None.

Equipment required:

  • Mason jar and funnel
  • Measuring cups & spoons

Add pasta to create Hamburger helper.
Chili mix seasoning is slightly different, but I like the taste of this mix so much that I often use it instead.
The original recipe called for 1/4 cup of salt. I removed it and found the recipe tasted a lot better.


  • 3/4 cup dried minced onion
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 1 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch or whole wheat flour.
  • 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin


  1. Pour the ingredients into the mason jar.
  2. Mix well.
  3. To use: Add 2 - 3 tablespoons of the mix to 1-3/4 pounds hamburger and 1/2 cup water for tacos.

Fresh version
This takes longer, so I only make it this way when I have time and a good reason (like people coming over for dinner).


  • 1 onion, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon oregano, fresh minced
  • 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour.
  • 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin


  1. In a hot skillet, with a little bit of olive oil, cook the onions until they are translucent. Stir frequently. If the skillet smokes, reduce the heat.
  2. Add the garlic and stir. Cook only until the garlic is fragrant.
  3. Add the spices, and stir to incorporate.
  4. Add the flour, and continue to stir.
  5. Remove the mix from the pan, and set aside. Cook your meat in the pan, and drain it well.
  6. When the meat is cooked, and drained, return the mixture to the pan, and add 1/2 cup of water. Stir well.
  7. Cook until the liquid is mostly incorporated, then remove the pan from the heat. The mixture will thicken as it cools.

Updated. Modified the recipe according to John Eddy's comments.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Plan B. Improving what I eat

So, it seems I'd best try planning out all three recipes a day to try and reduce all the extras.

Last weekend's grocery receipt (compared against a few older ones) shows a few things I regularly get.

  • Baguettes.
  • Hot cereal mixes.
  • Snack bars.
  • Instant meals.
  • Flavored yogurt.
  • Drinks (chocolate milk, juices, sodas, etc).
  • Taco mix, or sauce.
  • Junk food.

Most of these things I can either make at home or just do without. Breaking the soda habit is a hard one. We're going to try to wean ourselves off both soda and junk food. This is not going to be easy; and to help I have to come up with interesting snacks for daily consumption that are portable.

Step 1. Sauces
I have a great recipe for taco mix. I need to make that up this weekend. Fortunately I have most of the ingredients.

I'll have to make more chicken broth next week (as this Friday's meal will probably take all I have). And I should make up some Diabetic vegetable stock as I'm all out.

Step 2. Snacks
I read somewhere that you should always reward yourself. When trying to stay healthy - that does limit my choices.

Snacks for this week:

  • 100mL sugar-free fruit yogurt + ground flax seed
  • 1/4 cup frozen berries + 1/3 cup cottage cheese - just me
  • 1 oz Cheese + small fruit
  • 2 sticks Celery + 1 tbsp natural peanut butter
  • 4 Carrot sticks
  • 1/2 cup Fruit salad (apples, pears, bananas, grapefruit, melon)

Menu plan
Check out Meal Outlaw for my menu plan.

I barely know which way to go to get to the kitchen in the morning; so instead of setting a specific meal for a specific day, I'll just list the options here in three categories: Planned (must prepare the night before or get up early), backup (used most often when I sleep in), Quick (for when we're running late).

  • Planned: Eggs and chicken bacon
  • Planned: Cream of wheat & cinnamon sugar & fruit salad
  • Backup: Oatmeal & fruit salad
  • Quick: Cold cereal, milk & bananas
  • Quick: Toast, natural peanut butter & bananas

Same categories as for breakfast. Most lunches are planned, but we don't always have leftovers (even if I plan for them), so sometimes I need to use a backup and sometimes there's not even time for the backup.

  • Planned: Leftovers, small salad, 15ml dressing, fruit, 257mL diet soda
  • Backup: 1/2 Chicken sandwich (on whole wheat with light mayo, pepper & lettuce), carrots & celery, soup
  • Quick: PB&J, carrots & celery, 257mL diet soda

Grocery list

  • Celery (snacks)
  • Pears (snacks)
  • Bananas (snacks)
  • Melon (snacks
  • 2 green bell peppers or red bell peppers (Mexican pie)
  • 1 jalapeño pepper (Mexican pie)
  • 1 Parsnips (Vegetable stock)
  • 2 Leeks (Vegetable stock)
  • 1 Celery root (Vegetable stock)
  • 1 (10 ounce) package red pearl onions or white pearl onions (Vegetarian stew)
  • 5 large sweet potatoes (Vegetarian stew)
  • 1 head cauliflower (Vegetarian stew)
  • 0.67 lbs (0.30 kg) ground chicken (Mexican pie)
  • Sugar-free fruit yogurt (snacks)
  • Cottage cheese (snacks)
  • Eggs (breakfast, Mexican pie)
  • Buttermilk (Mexican pie)
  • 1 can low-salt tomato sauce (Mexican pie)


  • Chicken bacon
  • 1 pk chicken thighs (Chicken stew)
  • 1 roasting chicken (Sunday)
  • 1 pk chicken breasts (Chicken Provencal)


  • Cheese (snacks)
  • Dried minced onion (Taco mix)
  • Chili powder (Taco mix)
  • 1/3 cup (80 mL) black olives (Chicken Provencal)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Using what I bought - II Putting it into Practice

Friday I updated my pantry index, and it got me thinking. I do this pretty regularly -- but I still base my menu on what I see on websites, blogs and in magazines and not what's in my pantry.

Vegetables still go bad in my rotter, and milk products go bad in their containers in my fridge. So this week I'm going to try and put my idea into practice.

Using the data
So, I have my hastily written list in my planner. Now I have to use the data. Here it is thrown into a table - without much thought or planning, it is at least a start.

DayServingsTypeCooking Method
Saturday6Dinner out
Sunday3.5Cooked chickenRoast/Easy
Monday2Black beansEasy
Tuesday2Soy-Ginger steakEasy
Thursday2cooked pork loinEasy
Friday6Meatball soupCrock-pot

The above is all stuff I have in my fridge/freezer. Now, using that along with the salad, potatoes, frozen vegetables, and rice I have in my pantry--I now have to come up with a menu.

I used google and SuperCook to find recipes that would use the leftovers and limit the other ingredients I have to buy. All told it took about 2 hours. Ug!

DayServingsTypeCooking Method
Saturday6Dinner out
Sunday3.5Sante Fey Chicken and salad with vinagrette
Monday2Supper Huevos Rancheros, salad & vinagretteEasy
Tuesday2Soy-Ginger steak & baked potato wedgesEasy
Wednesday6Lentil patties Baked Trout and steamed vegetables
Thursday2Pork BurritosEasy
Friday6Meatball soupQuick

Last, but not least is the grocery list. If I did this right I won't need to buy much.

Grocery List

  • Taco sauce (Sunday:Sante Fey Chicken)
  • Sour cream (Sunday:Sante Fey Chicken, Thursday:Pork Burritos)
    Tortillas (Thursday:Pork Burritos)
  • Monteray Jack cheese (Monday:Super Huevos Rancheros, Thursday:Pork Burritos)
  • Romain lettuce (1 head)
  • 6 pieces of Fruit (lunches)
  • 1 tin diced tomatoes (Friday, Meatball Soup)
  • 1 lb mixed Dried fruit (To make oatmeal bars)
  • Skim milk
  • 2% milk

What worked & what didn't
I'll update this (somehow) through the week.
I blew my budget. Seems I'll have to pay more attention to the snacks and extras I pick up when I go shopping.

  • Sante Fey Chicken - too much acid. I need to modify the recipe somehow (use less salsa and more taco seasoning). The recipe is a great casserole for using up leftover chicken. It's easy to make and smells terrific when baking.
  • Huevos Rancheros. Seved them open faced (to the other) and rolled like a burrito to me. I scrambled the eggs and made fresh salsa and black bean sauce to go with the meal. Unfortunately the avocado's were well past saving, so I couldn't make guacamole. It worked very well; then again breakfast for dinner usually does.
  • Tuesday. Forgot to take the steak out to thaw. Had La Commensale's vegetarian pea soup instead. It's a deli soup (bought in plastic, ready to heat and serve). Served it with whole wheat baguette. It made a great dinner for a cold night.
  • Baked trout and lentil cakes. Maybe it's just the nature of lentil cakes--but these came out really dry. I added salsa to the mix to give them some taste and served them with a red curry sauce and no-fat sour cream. The sauce was way too hot for even the sour cream to tame. I put a dijon mustard and thyme coating over the fish. Smelled divine, but I put too much coating on and most of it was scraped off at dinner. Looked really good though. I'm definitely doing this one again (but with less sauce on the fish, and a better lentil cake recipe).

21 Feb 2008. Updated: The What worked & what didn't section for the week.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Using what I bought

It sounds so simple: if you buy it, you must use it.

But it's a philosophy I've never quite managed to master. Often I end up buying something for a new menu and either (a) I don't like it or (b) it goes bad before I can find another recipe that uses it. Not that either of these reasons stop me from trying something new.

This week (and part of next) I'm trying recipes from the sample menu from Relish! The weekend's meals (Saturday: Penne with Creamy Mushroom Sauce served with a classic Italian salad, and Sunday: Soy and Ginger Flank Steak served with an Asian spinach salad) were very tasty. Naturally I've managed to buy more than the recipe's call for; either because the smallest bottles/jars/etc I could find are double (or more) what the recipes ask for, or because I have a devil of a time converting imperial to metric. So to use up all the food I bought, I'm also trying to prepare the dishes and freeze as many servings as I can just before cooking. It's not quite OAMC (Once A Month Cooking), but it is similar in philosophy and hopefully this will stop me from ordering out as often as well as help me follow the new mantra.

I love to cook, but it always seems to bring out new challenges. In some cases (like where I bought two bunches of Asparagus when I needed less than one -- they were on sale!), I'll cook them up and use them for lunches. In others, like the extra spinach (the salad only used 1/2 the bag), I'll sneak it into other salads this week (and maybe even bring salads for lunch). I hate buying bottled sauces though; unlike fresh fruit & vegetables you can't just toss them into a meal and be certain no one will notice the difference. Mac & Cheese & tahini anyone? How about Thai red chili paste instead? OK, those actually sound kind-of yummy, but hopefully you see my point.

I still have 2+ liters of black beans to decant (they're in my fridge in a big pot), and my fridge's freezer has lots of chili still from two weeks ago. And yet the new menu doesn't use black beans anywhere. I'll freeze the beans, serve bean dip this week when friends come over, and try to use them as a staple next week.

Saturdays my fridge's freezer is full and my fridge's shelves are groaning (OK - the fridge is only so full you can't see what's in the back; which is a major cause for spoilage in my family). By Friday night, usually both are pretty much empty and all the drinks and grab-and-go stuff is usually gone by Friday morning (cheese, fresh fruit, yogurt, etc).

Next week, when the "Relish!" menu peters out, I'll have to make a new inventory of what I have and try and figure out how little I can get away with buying to eek out a week's worth of meals. If I'm very careful, I might be able to use up everything I have without buying many tins, sauces, and dried goods. It's a rather work-intensive (but tasty) way of trying to recoup the added expenses from this week.

BTW - if you're reading this (and apparently some folk are) - do leave me a comment. How successful are you at using up all of what you bought?

Minor edit: Added a couple of links to the post.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Grocery Shopping, is there a better way?

So, following my usual round-about route, I ended up reading an article on the Real Simple website describing 6 menu-planning services. It's a good article, and naturally, I spent some time last night trying the free previews of each. Some are more focused on kid-friendly meals, a few have options for vegetarians, and low-carb meals; but none quite meet my needs.

Thinking that I might be too picky, I asked a few friends if (a) they'd be willing to pay a service to send them meal ideas and (b) how much. The answers were surprisingly mixed. What follows is a completely un-scientific survey and was only based on a few conversations.

Friends with kids said they would be willing to pay between 10-20 CDN$ a month for the service on three conditions: i) that the recipes can be either removed or repeated upon the user's request, ii) that there are a large number of dinner ideas to choose from, and iii) that special dietary requirements (allergies, intolerances, or medical problems) are always taken into account before a menu is offered.

Made sense to me.

Some friends without kids said they'd be willing to pay, but only 5-10$ a month. They had no conditions other than that they could be assured certain ("icky") foods would not be part of the menu.

Good limitations all, but my problem with the services is something else entirely. At least once a week I serve 5+ people dinner. Most nights I only serve 2-3 people (myself included). So I need to be able to scale each recipe depending on the night that I serve it. For the group meal I prefer to use the crockpot; but it's not mandatory.

Every week I make my own menu and shopping list using an Excel spreadsheet. It takes a few hours of browsing various websites to get a handful of recipes, from which I dutifully scale and copy down the amount of required ingredients. I try to plan 7 nights of food, and I usually cook about 5, sometimes 6 nights. The seventh night is typically either restaurant fair, a meal with another family, or something I can pull from the freezer and cook in minutes (soups, stews, and the occasional 2nd batch I made of something tasty, etc.).

I keep trying to find cost-saving and time-saving measures to make this task easier. Some weeks I don't make a menu and we do just fine. The sky doesn't fall, the world doesn't end ... but it does make the hour before dinner a bit more hectic, and I do end up going to the store more, and often eating out more and paying more overall.

Some weeks I make a menu and can't stick to it. Friends come over (they're very welcome, but dinner gets modified so I can feed everyone), or we go out, or we just order out (or pull something from the freezer) because I don't feel like cooking (gasp!). Hey, it happens.

So, if I do this so regularly and I'm comfortable with what I do - why am I looking to change it? I guess I'm just looking. I like to see how other people do things, and hopefully improve my own methods. In my house almost *everyone* I cook for always stands before the fridge and reads my menu for the week. Sometimes they comment and sometimes they take notes!

Other sites of interest:

  • The Ultimate Grocery List. Contains a six-column, 1 page list of anything you might casually step out to buy on one sheet. The site itself collects grocery lists.
  • SuperCook. The Intelligent Recipe Search. I noticed it was querying Recipe*Zaar as I entered ingredients into its interface. SuperCook lets you save the list of what's in your pantry to help you find recipes for what you already have. That's something the Recipe*Zaar search sifter doesn't do--but SuperCook also doesn't let you pick your recipes based on 'Zaar's categories.