On the Plate October 5-11 + 5 Meal Planning Tips


We interrupt the Halloween merriment to get a handle on menu planning. After all, how can you get decorations up and costumes made if you’re floundering with the “what’s for dinner” question every night?!

A varied menu makes the week go by!

A varied menu makes the week go by!

Monday: Herbed chicken breast, savory mashed sweet potatoes, green beans
So, the sweet potatoes were supposed to the Garlic-Herb Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Parmesan from Cooking Classy. Instead, I was scrambling to finish the outdoor decorating before I lost the light (hah! didn’t exactly happen that way, but it got done), so I didn’t start dinner until almost 8pm. Not wanting to wait on roasting the sweet potatoes, I popped them into the microwave on the magical “potato” setting (seriously, best thing about our new microwave) and whipped them up with the herbs and Parmesan that the original recipe called for. Just as tasty in half the time.

Tuesday: Dinner out @ Northside Pies in Tallahassee, FL
I’ll do a proper write-up of Northside Pies one of these days, but our monthly meet-up there with friends was fun as always. Even though their menu doesn’t mention it, they do carry a gluten-free pizza crust in the 10″ size, though their salads aren’t bad at all if you’d rather not. I opted for the Figure 4, this week, and a Black Julep (copycat recipe to come on that one, it was so good!) cocktail. Since the fresh garlic was very large and in charge, along with the figs (both High-FODMAP ingredients), I only ate half while there and was fine. (It was only after I scarfed the other half after getting home that there were issues. Oh, well, it was worth it!)

Figure 4 on gluten-free crust and a Black Julep at Northside Pies

Figure 4 on gluten-free crust and a Black Julep at Northside Pies

Wednesday: Bang Bang Shrimp, coconut rice, and garlic spinach
If you have ever been to Bonefish Grill and tasted their signature shrimp dish, yes, this is virtually the same thing and so worth the effort, even the deep frying, on a weekday night. I used the copycat recipe from Fake Ginger and substituted gf flour and breadcrumbs where applicable. Point one: No recipe ever seems to allow enough breading material–I had to triple it, in the end, to do a pound of medium shrimp (enough for four servings). Point two: though it seems odd to do a back-and-forth breading like this, it actually worked really well, so I’m glad I harnessed my natural inclination to switch to a more traditional 3-step breading.

Thursday: Pepperoni Pizza Pasta and a green salad
Based on A Night Owl’s One Pot Pizza Rigatoni, this seemed like a quick and easy option, even if mine was more of a two-pot, slightly more involved version. First, I don’t trust gluten free pastas in a toss it all together and cook situation–there’s just way too high a chance for error. Second, I was going for a more budget-friendly meal so used the ground beef we already had in the freezer and a quick sauce made in the pan (rather than purchasing a $9 jar of Rao’s Sensitive Formula Marinara). I also didn’t put it under the broiler to finish, just put the lid on after combining the sauce and pasta and topping it with the mozzarella and reserved (turkey) pepperoni. Still excellent!

Friday: Fish Taco Nachos
Nacho night! I’s been thinking of doing fish tacos at some point, but the fiddliness of it all just made me not want to, but fish taco nachos–why not?! I seasoned some rice flour with cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne, salt, and black pepper and dredged the tuna steaks in it before searing in garlic olive oil, crumbling the tuna steaks once they’d cooled enough to handle. Then I built the pan of nachos with my sweet potato refried bean substitute, shredded fiesta cheese blend, and green onions; topping with shredded cabbage and an avocado crema once they were out of the oven. We like to just take the whole pan to the coffee table and munch while catching up with our shows on Hulu.

Saturday: Waffles, Eggs & Bacon
I kept putting off trying the whipped egg white waffles I’ve seen in several places, but that’s also what the Pamela’s mix called for so I gave it a shot. Dude… such amazing gluten-free waffles we’ve never made or tasted elsewhere. The egg whites were so worth it! I don’t see us going back to the old way any time soon!

Sunday: Pot Roast, Potatoes and Carrots
One-pot slow-cooker perfection for a Sunday supper. And, no, I don’t fool with the canned soup or dry soup mixes, I just add salt, pepper, garlic oil, Worcestershire sauce and a little parsley and it’s good to go. We have a few pieces of the roast leftover after making up the lunches and I’d be lying if I said debris fries weren’t a distinct possibility.

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Two weeks ago, when I posted my last On the Plate, several readers remarked about needing to meal plan more often or otherwise not being able to make the time to do it. So here’s my process for putting together a week’s menu, in the hopes that it’ll help those of you still on the fence or wondering where to start.

  1. Inspiration sources. I “save for later” anything I find possibly interesting while going through my blog feeds in Feedly. This way, when I sit down to menu plan, I can click on the sidebar link and scroll through easily. If something sounds good, I decide what day it’ll be best on and plug it into my Google Drive document. Pinterest is another good inspiration source, naturally, so if I know I’ve pinned something over the last couple of weeks, I go check there to refresh my memory. And, then, there’s always grabbing a cookbook off the shelf at random and thumbing through until something catches my eye (or going straight to the post-it notes if I’ve already flagged things in the book). Checking your store’s sale paper online is also a good way to dream up dinner ideas.
  2. Inventory. “Shopping” the pantry and freezer to see what we have on hand not only reduces the chances of over-buying but also tells me if something needs to be used up before it goes bad. We stock up on meats every couple of months at Sam’s club, so looking to see what we have left usually grants a certain amount of direction.
  3. Routine. We don’t tend to follow a prescribed schedule on what to eat on what days, but if that helps you, use it! Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, etc. can make things a lot easier and it helps set expectations among the family. Our routine is more along the lines of knowing that we’ll cycle through the main proteins of any given week (pork chops, chicken breasts or thighs, beef, fish or shrimp) plus a breakfast for dinner night and maybe a meatless meal. So if I’m planning and I have a few spots to fill, I run through the list and see what’s “missing.”
  4. Favorites. We don’t eat the same thing each week, but we do have certain favorites that we fall back on to fill menu gaps. For me, it’s most often Sushi bowls, for Todd it’s Jambalaya or a Shrimp and Orzo dish we both loved from our Menu Mailer days.
  5. Balance. Don’t plan multiple ingredient or technique-heavy items in the same meal. Just don’t do that to yourself! Take, for instance, Bang Bang Shrimp. That requires a sauce, breading, and deep frying. No way was I going to, say, make handmade spring rolls on top of that! Instead, I made coconut rice (1 can of coconut milk, 1 can of water, 1 1/2 cups white rice) in the rice cooker and put some frozen spinach in a pot on the stove with some water and garlic oil to simmer until done. Keep in mind what preparation each item needs, and swap out something if you’ve got two heavy hitters in one meal.

I hope these tips helped you get a handle on weekly meal planning. If you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed at the process but want more organization to your dinners, there are services out there to help! Three we’ve used in the past (yes, even a former chef doesn’t always want to think about what to make every night) are Menu Mailer ($21/quarter and up), eMeals ($39/quarter), and Paleo Plan ($9.99/month). Menu Mailer and eMeals also offer shopping lists as part of the weekly planning service, I don’t think Paleo Plan does, but it’s been a while since I’ve used any of them.

Bridal Show Tips, Part 2

Third Time Wife, Wedding Planning

Bridal Show icon with lights and velvet ropeIf you’ve never attended a bridal show/fair/expo or you’ve been to one and didn’t really get anything out of it, maybe this week’s tips will help your next experience be more positive.

  1. Do your homework.
    Check out the list of exhibitors on the flyer or website, check out their websites or reviews on WeddingWire.com and be prepared to ask important questions on the day. Not only will you get more out of the expo for your own planning, but you’ll become more memorable to your chosen vendors as you’ll stand out from all the standard spiels they’ve had to give.
  2. Take all show-floor promises with a grain of salt.
    Our first show we talked to a local hotel rep who had us practically sold on her meeting room–it’s great for 50 people and it’s only $150 to rent. Wow! Thankfully, Todd had the idea to stop and take a peek on the way home. 50 people could fit in that room, sure, presentation style. And even then it’d be tight. Get sample contracts if you can, or at least get them to write down the too-good-to-be-true offer on the back of a brochure.
  3. Be honest about your budget.
    I’m not saying you have to put your budget on your nametag, but if you’re standing at a table for a local mansion whose rental fee (before Food & Beverage) is your entire budget, tell them. They may have a venue they can recommend or a smaller building on the property that’s in your price range. But don’t lead them down the peony-lined path if there’s no way in Prada they can make a sale.
  4. Enter everything.
    Okay, maybe not everything. But don’t pass up an opportunity to win a free honey, a discount on your catering or a floral consultation. Nixed the limo due to budget? Enter the giveaway and maybe you win the use of a town car. Already have honeymoon plans? A pre-wedding getaway might be just the ticket for your stressed selves. And a door prize is always nice. Even if the gift isn’t your style, maybe one of your bridesmaids would like it?
  5. Print up info labels.
    This is the best thing I ever picked up along the way! Print up some basic address labels (30 per sheet) with your names (bride & groom), mailing address and email address. You can also, depending on your font size and preference, put your wedding date on there. Bring these labels with you to the next show and not only will you breeze through all the sign-up sheets and cards, you’ll impress the hell out of the vendors.

I almost didn’t bother going to any bridal shows this time around–I figured I knew enough from before. But the first 2 shows I attended taught even this wedding-veteran a thing or two, yielded some impressive intel and even snagged me a couple of door prizes. The first show I went to I won a piece of jewelry from a local shop and this last one I got a gift certificate to the store that hosted the show. Now I’m just wondering how long the luck lasts?

Pretty Book and Flower Icon


Any other tips on surviving the bridal show circuit that I’ve missed? Do tell!

Bridal Show Tips, Part 1

Third Time Wife, Wedding Planning

Bridal Show icon with lights and velvet rope

A bridal show is no different, really, than any other trade show or convention you might go to for a hobby or work. There are people trying to make sales, a lot of them have brochures, some have little freebies, and many are sponsoring giveaways as a way to build their mailing list.

So far, for this time down the aisle, I’ve attended 2 shows and have 2 more on the near horizon. By the time it’s all said and done, I’m sure I’ll have attended an easy 6-10.

Why? Because there’s always something new to learn!

Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way that will make your experience at a bridal show more effective and rewarding.

  1. If you can help it, don’t go alone.
    It helps to have a buddy for this sort of thing, be it your fiance, your mother or your maid of honor. This buddy can not only help you in practical ways (holding your tote bag while you search for that pen you picked up at the other table, giving his or her 2 cents on a vendor that you were dazzled by but they weren’t, and making sure you don’t miss something good–like cake samples) but also they are indispensable in the subtle subterfuge of avoiding certain tables.
  2. Avoid eye contact unless you want to be hailed.
    Remember, these folks are here to try and make a sale–if not today, then sometime in the next few months. They want to talk to you, impress you, and try and sign you up for their mailing list–and they’ve probably paid a hefty table fee for the privilege. You’re there for information, yes, but if there’s someone you just don’t want to talk to, don’t make eye contact. You don’t have to be rude, but you also don’t want to get cornered.
  3. Dress the part.
    I’m not saying you have to dress to the nines or even wear white! But for vendors looking to make a sale, it’s very possible you’ll get taken more seriously if you’re dressed nicely, not in a rumpled t-shirt and a pair of flip flops. Books, covers and judging all come to mind, but we’re talking the ways of the world and years of conditioning don’t wash away as easily as hair products.
  4. Wear comfortable shoes!
    With the exception of  shows held at actual wedding venues, many expos are held in convention centers and under a thin layer of carpeting (if you’re luck to have that) will be concrete. And your feet will be killing you if you table hop for 2 hours in spike heels. Just don’t do that to yourself. Comfy flats or a nice low-heel or wedge will keep you standing pretty when all the seats for the fashion show are already taken when you get there.
  5. Pre-register, if possible, for VIP entry.
    Some shows offer early entry if you pre-register, others offer an extra drink ticket or a special gift. Early entry may mean getting a chance to have a good talk with that caterer you’ve been dying to check out or a 1-on-1 with a complementary makeover before everyone else gets there.

Pretty Book and Flower Icon


Learn anything new, yet?
Come back tomorrow for the rest of my tips;
there’s bound to be something to help you!

In Search of Comfort & Good Grilled Cheese


(I have a feeling that I’ve written about this sort of thing before…)

Last week was a little rough around the edges: new schedules, unfortunate news, changing weather and a lot of things up in the air. When the going gets rough, the rough start craving foods that make them feel safe, warm and cuddled.

Remember, everything is fine in moderation: even comfort food.

So when it was my turn to grocery shop this weekend I loaded my list with comforting food that fit the change in the weather and were sure to sooth. Dishes including pot roast with potatoes and carrots, sausage with peppers and onions, chicken and broccoli roulade and stuffed meat load with glazed carrots will grace our table this week and  get us through the bumps in the road.

But to start things off, Sunday was soup and sandwich night.

I pulled out a container of the Borscht I’d made too much of while testing the recipe for Raiding Party and left it to defrost and simmer on the stove while I prepped the sandwiches. (This borscht, by the way, is based on a medieval Russian sour soup recipe and features 3 types of meat, lots of vegetables and a wine broth–it’s very hearty!) I can’t fully explain why (other than the general craving for comfort foods), but I’d been wanting a good grilled cheese sandwich for a couple of weeks.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are fairly simple, right? Butter both sides of two pieces of bread, place cheese between and cook until golden brown and melty.  Still, sometimes the simplest things can use a few tips…

Grilled Cheese Confidential

  • Make things easy on yourself, soften your butter first. Or, if you prefer, use a butter spread (we like Brummel & Brown yogurt spread). Point being, if you’re fighting with the bread there could be holes and holes mean the cheesy goodness can spill out (the horror!). Just 20 seconds in the microwave can soften a stick of unsalted butter, it’s worth the effort.
  • Speaking of bread, use a nice bakery bread. If you don’t want to bake your own, that’s fine, but some nice Italian sandwich, potato or honey wheat can really bring the sandwich up a bit, not to mention handle a wider variety of cheeses.
  • White bread and American singles might be what we were raised on, but there’s a lot of cheese out there deserving of the Welsh Rarebit treatment. Choose a cheese that melts well and has a good flavor. Stouter breads (such as rye or pumpernickel) can stand up to a good sharp cheddar or even a blue cheese while Havarti melds almost seamlessly with Italian or French breads (that’s what we had Sunday–delicious!).
  • If you like grilled cheese but think it might need just a little something extra, spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard on the inside of one of the buttered slices. You don’t need much, just a little will impart a tang that’s better than salting your sandwich.
  • Keep the heat low and slow to allow the cheese to melt as the outside of the bread turns golden. Too high a heat will scorch those butter solids and turn your toast black before the cheese has had a chance to get nice and gooey! I like to use our electric griddle set at 200F-250F since it’s much easier to control the temperature plus you get a larger surface than the usual frying pan.
  • Finally, if you’re prone to include anything else in your sandwich (crispy bacon, deli ham or tomatoes), keep a half-inch border of cheese around any inclusions so that the edges will seal and your sandwich won’t go to pieces in your hand when you try to eat it.

How do you like your grilled cheese?

Foodie Photography


About 10 years ago or more I read an article about all the different “tricks” food stylists would use to make food look good on camera. Everything from cellophane “ice” and “milk” glue to browning agents and tweezer-applied sesame seeds–the works!

Oh, sure, we know folks put their best food front-loaded and forward when it’s time for an advertising campaign or cookbook shoot, but can the average foodie can make their not-so-average food stand out in a still shot?


Regardless of subject, lighting is one of the major factors between blah and beautiful. Natural light is, by far, the most prized but, well, Mr Sun and my dinner don’t always cooperate. Not only is a lot of my cooking done in the evening when the light’s not so hot but it’s not always feasible to cart each item out onto the deck for a few snaps before supper. A well-lit window is the next best thing to the great outdoors, I’ve read, but it brings with it some of the same issues.

Stuffed Mirliton--no retouching!

What I found, completely by accident, was a way of working around the wonky indoor light. It happened while trying to take a picture of our Christmas tree this past December without each and every light looking like flares. Turning the setting dial on my Canon PowerShot S2 I came to “SCN” and it turns out it had tons of useful pre-sets that saved me having to crack open a dusty manual and figure out how to manually set the white balance and so forth. The “Fireworks” setting turned out to be great for the lit Christmas tree and the “Indoor” has done a wonder for my food pics!


Okay, so we’ve figured out the lighting situation, what else is there?

Do you find yourself automatically aiming the camera straight down onto the plate or platter? Do you do this because maybe there’s other stuff around the dish that you don’t want to be in the shot? Not that I’d know anything about that…

I blame part of this habit on my early experiences with food photography. A lot of decorated cakes look the same from a side view, the fun stuff is on the top! So you shoot the top. Then, in culinary school and after, at the Plantation, the point of taking photos was usually to see the plate clearly so someone else could recreate it. (Very useful in buffet settings or when you want to avoid having to work the dinner shift yourself but must ensure consistent presentation–again, not that I would know anything about that).

Anyway: overhead shots are second nature.


Bar towels make an instant backdrop!

I’ve been trying to remind myself, though, that it’s not the only way to go and practice close-up shots at a 3/4-view–hey, it’s flattering for faces, why not food? And when the counter isn’t providing the right backdrop do you know what can come in handy? A hand or tea towel “hung” in the door of the cabinet above. Keep a few of different colors or materials on hand and you’re golden!

The Extras

Which leads me to another thing… Props. I’m not a huge fan of too many props in a food picture. If you’ve ever seen those recipe cards from the 60s and 70s with their odd table-dressings, you know exactly what I mean! But a well-chosen plate or place mat certainly would not go amiss.

The plate, glass or other vessel should be your main prop and, in a perfect world, would contrast the color of the food nicely. Does this mean you need a butler’s pantry worth of serving-ware in order to take good food shots? Absolutely not! First of all, most foods fall into the white, red, green, brown or orange color-categories. Having a few white, yellow and purple plates for picture-purposes will cover most contrast requirements along with whatever other fun pieces you might find at thrift stores and garage sales. Choose a few cloth napkins or placemats in fun colors or patterns from a housewares open-stock section and you’ve got your primary needs covered! Keep in mind that salad plates rule for this sort of thing and are generally less expensive than the full-size options.

Catching mouth-watering images of your favorite foods doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Keep your shots simple, your props uncomplicated and the focus on the food. My camera now hangs out in the kitchen while I cook, where’s yours?

Happy snapping!