meal-planning

This post is written by Megan Barr, a true Lady Farmer and co-owner of Abraham’s Table Farm in Sandstone, Minnesota. Read more about Megan and her farm at the bottom of this post!

I regularly experience tension concerning meal planning. I love it, and at the same time, I hate it. As I grow older and receive more grace to accept paradoxes, I’ve been able to allow this tension to exist. However, it’s taken me years to learn how to dance in the tension and even longer to come to appreciate it. 

Hopefully I’ve hooked you by using the word ‘paradox’ and you are ready to have your mind changed about meal planning. The truth is that no one wants to read or think about meal planning because it’s really boring. Its necessary repetition makes it tedious. It can often stunt creativity in the kitchen. On the other hand, meal planning can be liberating. Meal planning can free up mental thought, physical energy, money, and time. It can prevent burnout in the kitchen. It can ensure diversity and nutrition in the meals you cook. I have even felt it foster creativity in my cooking. 

I have been consistently feeding people for a long time. Lots of people. Over the years I’ve hoarded up methods and systems to help me feed these people and I realized as I sat down to share some words on the topic that the words just kept coming. I thought there might be public interest in these words, and that maybe my sharing in more detail could help ease the tedium of meal planning and re-inspire creativity in the kitchen. 

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My meal planning is built on a system of both ideals and limitations.

To begin, I consider myself the “home” half of ATF. I consider Joel the “field” half of ATF.  These are gross generalizations, but I use them because they are simple, poignant, and accurate in a big picture kind of way. We prefer these roles. Occasionally we exchange them but they work together. One exists to support the other in a healthy display of INTERdependancy (not co-dependency!).

Nutrient-dense food is the central factor that unites our roles. Joel works to grow nourishing food and I work to capture and make available the nourishing food. So it’s a given that I approach meal planning with a high reverence for food as something that gives health in a multitude of ways.

For me, food MUST taste good. But in my deep heart, I am a peasant, and food must also be simple. What allows these two to exist simultaneously is how the food is grown.

Food that is grown with, for better want of a word, love, in soil that is rich and alive will have a superior flavor and will need hardly any manipulation in the kitchen.

In our years of farming, we have learned this truth by experiencing it. This is the underlying philosophy that shapes the way I prepare food. 

There are a few other factors that contribute to the way I cook and meal plan. Budget is one. We are rich in many things but not money, so I cook seasonally using mostly product that we grow or raise. Another factor is my home-centricity. I use the time at home to produce instead of purchase. Many of the elements of nourishing meals are not difficult or complicated to prepare but they do require sustained time at home. Take, for instance, bone broth. It’s nothing more than bones and vegetables simmering together, but it requires one to be present for several days. 

That being said, my time IS quite precious so the food I produce has to be efficiently prepared and it has to enable me to apply my time elsewhere. I’ve learned how to take shortcuts and be flexible without compromising what is important to me. 

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I also really want to impress upon you the value of technique in the kitchen. I’m not exactly referring to cooking-school-technique. Remember, my heart is loyal to the farmer peasants. I’m just talking about a general knowledge of how to cook things. Specifically, how to cook things The Best Way (according to YOU and your family).

A good place to find techniques is the Cook’s Illustrated New Best Recipes anthology. The Bon Appetit website is also good. Another fabulous book for learning this stuff is the popular Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. I make the roast chicken in Nosrat’s book once a week.

The reason I value technique so much is because I cook with what’s available in the garden and I don’t always have the same ingredients on hand throughout the year. I have to be flexible. But meal planning is not flexible. Knowing a technique allows me to maintain the structure of a dish but also it allows me to be creative and make accommodations or substitutions based on what I have in the garden or pantry. If I know how to make a gallette (a free form open-faced savory or sweet pie), in summer it will be filled with tomato and Manchego and oregano and the winter it will be filled with butternut squash and Gruyere and thyme.

Technique accommodates variation.

This is how I stay sane but maintain creativity as I meal plan and cook for hoards of people throughout the year. And eventually, the techniques you adopt will become committed to your memory and everything will get even easier.

I’m going to give you my basic vinaigrette salad dressing technique. Who makes salad dressing, you might ask? You will, because it’s easy and takes five minutes and you can control the ingredients and the flavor and best of all, you eliminate buying and discarding plastic packaging. I’m compelling, yes?

You should be tasting this throughout the concocting process. It helps you discern the different flavors and the impact they give to the whole. Try to get the best quality and freshest ingredients you can afford. It makes a difference in the flavor.

Vinaigrette Dressing

1 part. Oil
3 parts. Acid (there’s debate these days on whether acid should be 2 pts. or 3 pts. I say use your tongue to solve the debate. I prefer 3 pts)
Dash of sweet (honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, whatever)
Dash of pungeant or Umami (grainy mustard, Soy sauce, garlic, shallots, anchovies)
Dash of intrigue (grated orange peel, whole coriander seeds, any fresh herb)
Salt and pepper

Throw all ingredients into a wide mouth mason jar (quart or pint depending on how much you’re making) and then, if you have an immersion blender, put the stick right in the jar and blend until emulsified. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can just shake the jar, but then you will have to mince your ingredients with a knife to ensure proper flavor distribution. As far as I’m concerned, the oil, acid, salt, and pepper are non-negotiable. You can play around with the rest of the ingredients. Make a big quantity of this at one time to last a week.

My favorite basic combination: Olive oil, balsamic, mustard, garlic, soy sauce, and honey!

I am hoping to try to show you how to re-enter the kitchen with a new perspective and allow it to be woven into your life in a holistic way. I want to deconstruct the barrier between “kitchen” and “life” and present a more integrated definition of home in which the kitchen informs and influences everything else! I know, this is fairly radical. It seems a lot to ask in this busy culture where it’s hard to find time for anything. But without a doubt, if it’s important to you, you will find a way to incorporate it into your life. This is true of anything. 

Below are recipes for two of my favorite things to make in my kitchen. They are simple, comforting, nutritious and well-loved by my family. They function superbly on their own, or as building blocks for another meal. I consider these two recipes to be foundations essential to creating kitchen-centricity. If you can make stock or brothy rice by heart then you’re well on your way!

Megan’s Chicken Broth

1 whole chicken
4 chicken feet (optional, but these definitely fortify your broth)
2 stalks celery, cut in rough chunks
2 carrots, cut in rough chunks
1 onion, cut in rough chunks
10 peppercorns
3 bay leaves
A handful of fresh herbs (my favorite are thyme, rosemary, and oregano)
A glug of apple cider vinegar (helps extract nutrients from bones)

Put all the ingredients in a large pot. Cover with good quality cold water. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to the lowest setting your stove top goes. Skim the surface foam of the liquid with a spoon and discard the impurities into the compost. Cover pot. After about two hours, or when the meat of the chicken easily pulls off, use tongs to remove the chicken and then pick the meat off with two forks. Save the meat for pot pie, rice bowls, tacos, salad, or whatever else you’d like. Return the carcass to the pot, cover, and let cook 24 hrs. Broth should never boil.

Bone Broth Rice

This is the most comfortable comfort food ever. It’s all I ever want to eat postpartum, except I add even more butter after the rice cooks. By cooking the rice in broth, you’re also ensuring everyone gets the benefits of the broth. What kid won’t eat rice?
Serves our family of 2 adults and 3 children

A big knob of butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cups white rice (any kind will do as long as it’s good quality)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4.5 cups chicken broth

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pot on medium heat. Add the onions, about 1 teaspoon of salt, and a generous amount of fresh ground pepper, to your taste. Cook the onions, 10-15 minutes until very soft and starting to carmelize. Do not skip this step because it’s the slow cooking of the onions that help make the dish taste so good. Add the rice and stir everything around. Add the broth, bring to a boil, then turn to the lowest setting of heat and cover. Let cook 30-45 minutes until rice is soft.

Notes:

    • Adding freshly grated parmesan hearkens the dish to cacio e pepe (a simple Italian pasta dish)
    • We eat this with fried eggs most lunches. It could be great with roasted vegetables mixed in and shredded chicken for a rice bowl of sorts. Or use it as a stuffing base for baked stuffed squash.

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About Megan
Megan operates Abraham’s Table Farm with her husband Joel, three daughters Una, Rosemary, Frances, and her sister Corinne. Abraham’s Table Farm raises vegetables, grass-finished beef, eggs, poultry, and fresh-cut flowers, with the ultimate goal of providing a nutritionally-complete diet for their family and customers while healing land and supporting their local community. Megan used to live next door to us in Maryland, and we still tend to a sourdough starter created by her mother 25 years ago!

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