We recently got back from our trip to The West (Utah-Wyoming-Montana) and I am trying to hang on to the post-vacation glow as long as I can. Eating out is always a big component of what I look forward to when we travel and happily, the meals lived up to my high hopes and actually exceeded my expectations. I didn’t know what to expect in Salt Lake City, but we got great meals at every turn, starting at a Mexican Restaurant called Alamexo, whose chef/owner had been affiliated with a well-regarded New York city restaurant called Rosa Mexicana. Though I had never eaten at the New York restaurant, I knew about it because I had their beautiful cookbook and had been wanting to try making a dish or two from it. The meal we had at Alamexo was extraordinarily good, and the novelty of the menu sparked a commitment in the back of my mind, on what was the first night of our 8-day trip, that I would bring home added energy when it was my turn to cook again – to try new things and incorporate some new dishes into my standard repertoire.
Does anyone else out there have a written-down list of the dishes that they make on a routine basis? (Show of hands, please?) I half-expect that I’m an odd duck in this instance though there is a blogger I follow who was, for a time, publishing her weekly meal plan, complete with what desserts and sundry breads and crackers she would be making. I found this both cool and intimidating, but she runs a household on a working farm so that’s the epitome of a waste-not-want not situation. And meal planning is a great tool to prevent waste. I try to meal plan, if not to that level, but since I usually do my shopping for the week on Mondays, it pushes me to come up with a rough idea of what I will be cooking for dinner about four nights in a row.
When I first put my repertoire list together, I found that it helped me when I felt stuck for an idea of what I should make for dinner, and what I should be shopping for. As Michael Pollan famously laid out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has.” It’s also nice to have the list also to remind yourself that you know how to cook a lot of stuff. My list of frequently cooked entrees is reflected in a lot of the recipes that I’ve already put up on the site (Recipe Index).
I might only look at the list periodically, as infrequently as once a year to see if it needs updating – in fact I had trouble tracking down my digital copy as I set out to write this post. I enjoy the review, though, because it’s fun to see what dishes I used to make that I forgot about or how my cooking horizons have expanded since the last time I went over the list. Also, sometimes you make dietary adjustments that affect what recipes fall out of favor. For us, that was items like mac and cheese, homemade pizza, and turkey meatball subs because we cut back so much on gluten.
I have dishes grouped under headings: Easy, Moderate or More Involved. Easy being almost fast food – Caesar salad with leftover chicken, hot dog or kielbasa night, broiled fish and rice, frozen “squirty” chicken Kiev entrees that I pull out of the freezer and bake in the toaster oven while the rice cooker makes the rice, or loaded baked potatoes. The majority of the meals I make fall under the Moderate category. They might take some medium preparation or involve three out of four burners, like breakfast-for-dinner, or that are better cooked a day ahead, like chicken soup, carnitas, chicken paprikash, or bolognese sauce for pasta. More involved signifies something that might get made for a holiday or special occasion or if I get a bee in my bonnet to go a little fancy. Like a recipe that requires a sauce, or a need to pull out another appliance to assist. Something like fried squash blossoms, chicken pot pie or lasagne. Once you’ve done those dishes a few times you don’t even want to call them that hard, but they are not a weeknight dish because they’re, well, more involved. I was amused to see that my old list also had a section – somewhat obsolete now – of the dishes that would be eaten by all of us, i.e. something that didn’t require me to make a plain bowl of pasta to accommodate a picky eater of a certain age now that our daughter is in high school and has a wider repertoire too, of what she is willing to eat. I was kind of shocked, as it turned out, when she ordered biscuits and gravy for breakfast in SLC. “I love biscuits and gravy!” she said when she registered my shock. I didn’t know she had ever had them.
In Missoula we ate very well and we were interested to see that there seemed to be a wealth of Greek places, but we never quite made it to one of the officially Greek places. Most of the restaurants I frequented in Missoula back in the day are no longer there (see another of my blog posts Missoula MT for more on my romance with this lovely town) but the food was, if anything, better and fresher and more various than it had been twenty years before.
Our first night in town I ordered fish tacos and they were prepared in a Greek salad style, with feta, black olives and a tzaziki sauce instead of a zippy ranch or salsa. What a nice variation. Since I was casting about for more ideas to bring back to our dinner table at home, I chose to chase down that Greek casual classic that we had missed – gyros, which is a favorite of my husband’s. Chris and I both love Greek food but there’s hardly any to be found in San Francisco. Gyros is a pretty basic street food that I thought I should be able to reproduce so that we can have it even if there’s a dearth of good Greek places here. My regular produce market sells pita bread and tzaziki, (which I could have made myself but since it was a weeknight, I punted and bought a deli tub) and I bought ground lamb and beef at my butcher across the street from there. Gathering the right ingredients might be the biggest challenge to making gyros. Otherwise it is definitely a moderate to easy meal to put together on a weeknight and cleanup isn’t hard either. I looked up a spice mix on the internet (thank you Daring Gourmet) and it seemed long and involved, but it didn’t really take long to throw together. I had everything in my cupboard except the parsley flakes, thyme and bouillion powder, but I used Better than Bouillion, which worked well as a substitute.
Gyros Spice Mix:
- 1½ tablespoons dried oregano
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1½ tablespoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (or 1 tsp. if non-freshly ground)
- 2 teaspoons beef bouillon powder
- 2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1½ tablespoons sweet paprika powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Once you’ve put this together, you take four tablespoons of it and mix up with the 1.25 pounds ground lamb and beef (a very tactile and chilly step!). When I talked over the cooking method and how my husband used to make it, he said that he used to bake his gyros like a meatloaf with a water bath. I raised my eyebrows and intoned – aloud, I believe – ‘that ain’t happening, it’s 6:45 already.’ I cut the chunk of seasoned meat into little flat strips and fried them in a cast iron skillet. Then, after it crisped up it got served with the pita bread, tzaziki and lettuce and tomato. We all liked it better than fine, and half the spiced uncooked meat went back into the freezer where it’s waiting for me to make it for another meal.
I’ve been going on a bit long here, so I will say briefly that the other new dish I added to the repertoire since we got back home is Pad Thai. It’s easy for me to get rice noodles in my neighborhood (and Safeway carries them too) and our gluten free cookbook had a nice recipe for it. Tackling this was a bit of a big deal for me because I needed to use the wok and I am officially intimidated by the wok. I decided that it was worth trying it and getting over my fear. On our last full day of vacation my daughter and I went on a guided horseback ride along the Bitterroot River about 10 miles from Missoula. I was definitely feeling intimidated in anticipation of that activity too but knew that I had to go for it. I did enjoy it greatly and as I reflected later, back on my couch at home checking out recipes, I thought to myself if you could get on and stay on that horse, you can make a noodle dish in a wok for crying out loud. Just Do It. And I did.
I was surprised how quickly and well it came together as a dish – very easy as a weeknight thing. It will be repeated once I get the recipe more to our liking. It needs some adjustment to make it more saucy, and when I figure out how to get it right you all will be the first to know. Meanwhile the school break aspect of our summer is drawing to a close around here. The public schools in San Francisco are back in action a week from today.
P.S. I’ve also got to comment that this region of Western states – from Salt Lake City, the interior of Yellowstone, and Big Sky, Bozeman and Missoula in Montana – has San Francisco totally beat in its inclusiveness and creativity in providing gluten-free choices. Most menus had gluten-free sections and substitute-able options front and center. In Bozeman at Starkey’s I had a gluten free peanut butter chocolate chip cookie that knocked my socks off. (And I will soon be trying to figure out how to re-create that cookie, believe me.) San Francisco, I am putting you on public notice, you need to do better especially as you claim to be such a foodie mecca. I live and eat out here, so I am in a position to say – you are behind where you should be ahead, and you have no real excuse.