Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Monthly meal planning - August (and Big Oven!)

I'm playing August almost completely by ear, hence the very few planned meals. My sister is expecting her second baby in early August and I'm just waiting for the call. It would be very sweet if my new nephew decided to hang in there until I'm scheduled to arrive (his sister was really accommodating this way) but I'm prepared to head up earlier if need be. So this is really just 1.5 weeks of meal planning, but I am using a fun new tool that I wanted to share.


Meals for August:
Miso salmon + Asian chopped salad - both new to me. The salad recipe is for mason jar portions, but I'll probably just make one big salad and maybe set aside one (undressed) serving for lunch.

Meat and veggie balls (in marinara sauce) + green salad - I love these meatballs and haven't made them in forever. They're a great summer dish.

Farro salad with roasted veg - Another tried and true. I made this last month and it was a hit with D's brother, so I'm repeating it.

Coconut, tomato and red lentil dhal - Almost every month. Not sure I'll get up the energy to make saag to go with it.

Modified version of Heather's quinoa salad - We ate this a lot two summers ago but I haven't made it lately. It holds up well in the fridge so I figured it was a good dish to make right before I leave (assuming the timing works out!).

I also got us a couple packs of veggie burgers for quick meals. Trader Joe's has the best veggie burger options and I'm tempted by all of them but we usually end up with the veggie masala burgers, because potatoes are the best.

In meal planning news - I'm experimenting with using Big Oven for meal planning. The actual monthly meal plan is easy enough for me to do on paper. Usually I shuffle through my recipe binder (or the stacks of recipes I haven't put away) and then just sketch out the grid. The sucky part comes next - doing the shopping list. I have to look at each recipe and write down the ingredients, then go back again to compile them into a single shopping list. It usually takes about 5 sheets of paper and I forget at least one thing. It's not a huge deal, since it's basically 30 minutes out of my entire month, but last month it finally annoyed me enough that I went looking for a better option and found Big Oven.

The premise is pretty simple. You can search for recipes directly on Big Oven, or "clip" them from various websites (how simple this is depends on whether the site is using formatting that is compatible - my blog is 100% not compatible because of my formatting, sadly, but it's still fairly simple to enter the recipe), or enter it by hand. Then you can use the meal planning feature to drag recipes from your collection to the calendar and (this is the part I'm excited about) export a grocery list.

This is what my meal planner looks like for August on the website (yes, I still write it out by hand because I like having something to stick up on the fridge).

Big Oven interface

They offer a two month trial of the Pro membership, which gives you an ad-free experience, unlimited recipe uploads (although I can't figure out how many recipes you can add with the free membership) and custom folder sorting. I've been using that so far and I think I might go ahead and pay to keep using it, since the cost is pretty reasonable ($1.99/mo or $19.99/year).

There was a fairly big time investment to start, since I had to add my most frequently used recipes. I ended up creating a folder that is just called "All my recipes" in addition to my category folders, since sometimes I just want to see everything at once. I'm still getting used to the interface but sometimes I find things a bit wonky. One small example - you can organize your recipes by dragging them into folders (love), but unfortunately the Pinterest button shows up almost exactly where you need to grab the picture and sometimes makes it difficult.

The grocery list feature works really well in general. You can specify what time frame you want to buy groceries for and then the program pops up each recipe to give you a chance to uncheck ingredients you already have. Once you've done that for each recipe in the time period, it will compile everything (sort of - it won't add up how many carrots you need, but at least it sorts everything so that each type of item is grouped) and you can have it emailed to you or just access it on your phone. I end up re-writing my grocery list on paper at the end, because I like to split it up by store. But having everything from each recipe automatically pulled together is amazing.

Because I like to do one massive shopping trip at the beginning of the month for any non-perishables or hearty stuff, and then just purchase vegetables weekly, I do need to figure out a way to modify it a little. Because you have the option to make edits when you are checking each recipe's ingredients (while Big Oven compiles your grocery list) I've just been adding a note to the "notes" section next to the ingredients that I want to buy during a specific week. That note will show up on your grocery list.

Overall, I'm feeling really good about this and I think it will make it easier for me to try out new recipes. In my paper system the most often used recipes tend to rotate back into the top of the stack, and if I lose a recipe sheet then I forget about it for ages. With the online system, I can quickly add in any recipe that catches my eye, even if I'm not meal planning right at the moment. You can flag recipes as "want to try" and scroll through those first.

Anyone already using Big Oven care to chime in? I'm still so new to it that this is all first impressions.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Meal planning - July wrap up


Meal planning - July

It was a busy month. As I mentioned, I bumped up my planning to four meals a week, to accommodate our slightly larger family last month. As it turns out, four meals a week is pretty much perfect for three adults on a good week. We had two weeks where we were all at home for dinner almost every night and it was nice. But then everyone got busy at work and the last two weeks were pretty unpredictable and we all seemed to eat at different times. I cut out a few meals to accommodate this and it was fine.

I didn't try anything new last month, so this is going to be very short.

But, I do have the PDF of the monthly meal planning template for you, in case you want it! It's very simple, but I much prefer using the grid to hand sketching one every month, so hopefully it'll be useful for some of you. You can download it right here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Weekend camping - Bandido Group Campground

Bandido Group campground is just 26 miles above La Cañada Flintridge, making it a pretty easy 1.5 hour drive from LA. We managed to get a rare two night trip in by leaving on Friday evening after work, hoping that we could juuuust make it while it was still light out, but naturally we didn't get there until 9 pm. Luckily we're pretty good at setting up our tent in the dark, although the first spot we chose was right on top of a giant anthill and I'm really, really grateful we noticed them just before we got started.

wake up

saturday breakfast


bandido campground

angeles national forest

sunset on the ridge

camp pancakes

new cooler

new cooler

On Saturday we visited the Chilao visitor center, a few miles down the road. It's a really nice station and the rangers were sweet and enthusiastic and recommended some good hikes just a couple miles from our campground. We ended up going on the Burkhart trail hike, and did about 5 miles round trip. There is supposed to be a nice waterfall (Cooper Canyon Falls) but the ranger warned us that it's been too dry lately so the creek is just a trickle. It was still a nice dog friendly hike (Circe didn't agree and made us carry her the whole way anyways). We went in the early afternoon and we were definitely feeling the heat, but it just made happy hour back at the campground that much more enjoyable.

I think I've mentioned that I've been drooling over the Camp Chef stoves, and we're lucky because our friends have one and we borrowed it from them this weekend so we could test it out. The verdict? So much nicer than our old Coleman one. The flames are stronger, they adjust really nicely, and it's easier to wipe down. We aren't planning on splurging on a new stove just yet, but when we're ready we'll get this one.

Other new camping gear - we tested out our new Kelty collapsible cooler that we purchased during the REI sale and I'm happier with it than I thought I'd be. It's a soft sided cooler that collapses down for storage. It doesn't get super tiny (my main beef when I first received it), but it is much easier to store than a hard sided cooler and it holds plenty with zero leaks. We loaded it up on Friday around 6 pm, and everything was still very cold on Sunday mid-morning (although most of the ice had melted by that point). I think that's pretty good considering how hot it was outside. We did keep it covered with a space blanket (shiny side out to reflect heat away) which helps. I wasn't sure if we'd end up returning this, but we're happy with it and we'll keep it.

Campground notes: 

Bandido is in the Angeles National Forest. This group campground is nice but since there is no camp host I think cleanliness is hit or miss. We had to clean up our campsite a bit when we arrived because the previous occupants had left some trash. The bathrooms were decent (for pit toilets - soooo, not at all nice, but you know what you're getting into and at least there was plenty of toilet paper provided) for the first night but a huge group came the second night and they were the type that inexplicably strews toilet paper all over public restrooms (I will never, ever understand why people do this, but I'm very curious to see what their bathrooms look like at home). This certainly isn't the campground's fault and it's pretty par for the course with large unattended campsites.

We stayed at site 1, which can hold up to 12 occupants (but in my opinion that would be a squeeze) and costs $24/night. We had four people and it was lovely and spacious, with two fire pits, two picnic tables and enough parking for three or four cars (we only had two, so we didn't test the limits). The obvious spaces for tents are incredibly close to the fire rings, but we were able to find a couple little tent-sized nooks in the hill right above our campsite that were much more pleasant the second night.

Bandido is dog friendly, as are all the hikes in the area. Circe was in heaven galloping around the large campsite. We didn't spot any coyotes here, but we kept her close anyways because it's rattlesnake season and she hasn't had avoidance training. We didn't see any snakes, though.

Amenities: This is a pretty simple campground (which is actually nice because it meant it wasn't overrun with RVs). No running water, no electricity, zero cell service, no camp host, the aforementioned pit toilets. Fires are allowed within the fire rings, just make sure you buy firewood in La Cañada because once you start going up the hill there is nothing at all. You are allowed to pick up wood and kindling from the ground (I always check with the rangers on this in advance, because this varies and for some environments it's really important that you don't disturb anything).

Worth noting: This is bear country but there are no bear boxes provided at these sites. I checked with the ranger and she said that the bears in this area haven't yet (!) started breaking into cars, so they recommend standard bear precautions (no food left outside, nothing scented or food related in your tent, don't wash dishes too close to your campsite) but just locking your food inside your car at night. We did that and made sure to take the extra precaution of covering the coolers, bags, etc. with a blanket so they weren't visible (bears are clever and often recognize coolers, so you don't want them to see anything that makes them think FOOD). I was a little worried that we'd wake up the next morning and find our windows smashed in, but everything was fine. Note - locking food in your car is really bad news in some bear areas, notably Yosemite, where bears have learned how easy it is to break into a car. But the rangers at any given campground should know their bears, so going with their recommendations is a good bet.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Reading, lately

Summer reading!

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Moving on with the Ferrante series. I like these but I need a break after each one. So much melodrama! I enjoyed this one quite a bit and felt like maybe Elena was finally showing a bit of self awareness.

Into the Darkest Corner - Several online and IRL friends were reading this, so I jumped on the bandwagon. If you're looking for a seriously creepy thriller, this should do the trick. It's solidly written, you feel for the main character, and the tension is high.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair - I almost loved this book. It's a mystery/novel and the writing and the plot are engaging and darkly comedic. The basic premise is that a young writer gets caught up in a cold case investigation involving his favorite professor/longtime mentor/pseudo father figure. I have to say, though, I could not get over the central plot point, which is a love affair between a 30-something man and a 15-year-old girl (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it is included in the summary text, so fair game?). I never stopped being icked out by it, and it made it impossible for me to really lose myself in the book.

The Wonder Garden - A collection of short stories set in the fictional small town of Old Cranbury. The stories don't really intertwine but the characters keep brushing past each other. I really enjoyed this book and it felt like a voyeuristic chance to peek behind all your neighbors curtains.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This - And here are some short stories that are not at all connected. They are highly detailed, and mostly sad, and so well written. The titular story made me tear up multiple times.

The Hand That First Held Mine - I think I've already recommended this novel to at least three friends. I loved it. The plot revolves around two women living in London during different time periods and it touches on love and motherhood and loss and relationships and there's a nice dash of post-war Soho descriptions that I loved.

The Kind Worth Killing - Billed as being a contender for the title of next Gone Girl (but what thriller isn't?) and it actually is closer than some of the others I've read. It's got a bit of everything - love affairs, multiple murder plots, psychopaths. Add this to your list of page turners, if you're into that.

The Boys of My Youth - Looooved this. It's a beautifully written collection of autobiographical short stories that are tender and funny and sometimes very intense. Her voice is perfect, I never wanted to stop reading, and I cried multiple times. Winner.

You Are One of Them - This novel explores that question lingering of every child of the 80's - what if your best friend was actually a Soviet spy? Joking, obviously, but I did enjoy the plot premise for this novel and the writing was good. I think it fell apart a little bit towards the end, but overall I really enjoyed reading it.

The City of Mirrors - The final book in Justin Cronin's trilogy and it got off to a slow start but was ultimately satisfying. I recommend this series all the time and will continue to do so, but I have to admit that it gets wonky sometimes. I realize it might sound odd to claim that there's a lack of believablity in a series about a pathogen that turns people into vampires, but that's my main quibble here. Most fantasy novels have strict internal rules, but I feel like Cronin sometimes tweaks the rules he's created to suit the plot. Just me? I think I need a book club for this one because I still don't fully understand the logistics of what happened near the end of the second book and I don't want to spoil anything here. Regardless, this trilogy is fun, has lots of well detailed descriptions, and is totally worth reading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Around here

I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately, and it's been nice. I know that soon the weather is probably going to get nuts and I won't even want to turn on the oven, so I'm taking full advantage now.

meal prep weekend

 Over the holiday weekend I prepped a few things for the month (pizza dough that I could freeze for quick weeknight dinners, chicken stock in the crockpot so I could portion it out for the recipes I'm using this month and freeze it).

vanilla cupcakes

Last Saturday I spent most of the day baking cupcakes and arranging flowers for my grandfather's 100th birthday party. I was just supposed to do the flowers, but while I was browsing Pinterest for arrangement ideas I kept seeing sunflower cupcake tutorials and couldn't resist.

sunflower cupcakes

Sadly, I forgot to get a picture of the best ones since I took them to the party, so I only have the rejects left but I'm sharing them anyways. I'm so far from an expert cake decorator and sometimes I think I should take a class or something but I'm pretty sure I'm doomed to failure. I always have trouble piping buttercream because my hands are so hot that they basically melt the frosting instantly so for this project I had two bags of frosting set up so I could rotate them in and out of the refrigerator and it kind of worked. I used this tutorial for the decorating, because it doesn't require any special tips (although I cut the hole in the bag a little small which made for a less polished result). I went back to my old school favorite frosting and it didn't disappoint. It's the creamiest, fluffiest, lightest frosting - similar in taste to a whipped cream frosting. It does get really soft at room temp, so I knew it wasn't the best choice for decorating but I'll always take taste over aesthetics. I didn't have superfine sugar but I just blitzed some regular sugar in the food processor and it worked just fine.


D was busy with a client project so we didn't see each other all day but we reconvened to admire our work and share a beer in the evening. I know I'm biased right now because the weather has been so great, but I'm kind of wishing summer would last forever. I'll be singing a different tune in September, I'm sure.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Monthly meal planning - July

So I wasn't going to meal plan this month because it seemed like it might be nice to have a break for summer. But then that's exactly what I had the last week of June, since I'd left the schedule open, and let me tell you - it wasn't fun to go back to figuring out meals on the fly, especially when we'd just come back from vacation and I was feeling tired.

And so I'm back to it for July, with even more meals. I'm going to be cooking four nights a week this month instead of three, because D's little brother is staying with us for a bit and I'm hoping that this will be the correct amount of scaling up for us. If we're ending up with too much food, I'll readjust partway through the month and start deleting meals. If it isn't enough food then I'm moving out and everyone can fend for themselves. Kidding. Sort of.

July monthly meal planning

I am making it easier on myself because I'm sticking with tried and true recipes and not doing anything new.

Recipes for July: 

Chicken tikka masala + saag - Made this for the first time last month and D requested it again immediately.

Brown rice noodle bowls with stir fried vegetables (x2) - no recipe, I just stir fry a bunch of veggies with some ginger and garlic and the extra firm tofu from Trader Joe's (it has the best texture!) and toss with some Soyaki marinade (also from TJ's) and the cooked noodles. 

Farro salad with roasted vegetables and fontina - Haven't made this in a long time but we used to make it a lot.

Coconut, tomato and red lentil dal - Always popular around here.

Spicy sloppy joes + salad - This is my go to recipe for sloppy joes and I'm figuring these will be a hit with the teenager. I'm not really modifying our regular meal planning much, but I thought it might be nice to add in a few recipes for him that aren't lentil or vegetable based.

Spiced butternut squash salad with lentils and goat cheese (x2) - Apparently I make this every month now. I'm lazy and always buy the pre-cubed squash from TJ's. It's only a tiny bit more expensive than buying whole squash and it saves a lot of time.

Rainbow power salad with roasted chickpeas - Solid spiralizer recipe, should be good for summer weather.

Red lentils and spinach in masala sauce - My current favorite red lentil recipe.

Spicy shrimp with pesto zucchini noodles - I would eat this all the time if the cost of shrimp (and the guilt associated with it) weren't so burdensome. Last time I made it I doubled the pesto recipe and put the extra in the freezer, so this time around it will be super simple.

Sweet potato bolognese + salad - again, no real recipe. It's just 1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb hot sausage, 1 jar marinara and 2 large sweet potatoes that have been spiralized. (spiralizer post is here)

Indian dal nirvana + saag - Love this recipe and it's a nice change from all the red lentil recipes.

Grilled shrimp and vegetables with pearl couscous - One of our favorite summer dishes. Holds up so well in the fridge, good cold, also great on top of kale salad.

Homemade pizza night - I prepped for this over the holiday weekend by making a batch of my favorite pizza dough and then freezing the portions. That way I just have to defrost and it's a quick weeknight meal. One batch makes enough for four pizzas, so we'll probably get two meals out of it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Monthly meal planning - June wrap up

June was a little hit or miss because of guests and traveling, but I made it through. I skipped a couple meals and then moved a few things around to make it work.

June monthly meal planning wrap up

New recipes this month - 

Broccoli rabe with spicy Italian sausage and zucchini noodles - Ugh. I really, really didn't like this. I like broccoli rabe, but this just didn't come together for me. We ate it, but I ended up tossing out the last serving because I just didn't want to eat it as leftovers again.

Chicken tikka masala + saag - New to me recipe recommended by a reader. This recipe is a bit more work than the slow cooker version that I've used in the past but it is 100% worth it. The flavor is so good. I made this while my sister, brother-in-law and niece were here and everyone loved it. I'll probably keep both versions in my repertoire, since you do have to devote a fair amount of time to this one so it's best suited for weekends. Note - you can prep the sauce ahead of time, which would make it doable for a weeknight meal.