Easy Menu Planning – How to Create a Culinary Masterpiece

Are you tired of cooking the same old thing? Bored with your menu? Learn how to turn plain, weeknight dinner into a delicious, savory Culinary Masterpiece! No special tools or knowledge required!Shrimp Gumbo in a bowl

Menu planning can be a challenge, especially after you’ve been cooking for many years. Here, you’ll learn how to think “outside the box” and come up with new spins on your traditional favorites!

STEP 1: Determine Menu “What’s For Dinner?”

Most often, the factors in determining this age-old question depend upon:

  • what we’re craving
  • special diets
  • weather or emotions
  • what others will or won’t eat
  • how much time does it take and
  • what’s in the freezer

As the cook, you can either make an executive decision or take a poll. Italian Sausage with Balsamic Grape Sauce

Tips for menu inspiration:

  • Internet – look up restaurant menus and note what the chef pairs together (rice pilaf with lemon/mint rice)
  • Frozen food aisle – stroll down the freezer section and observe the different ethnic foods that are available
  • Magazines – not just food publications, but community magazines often have recipes in them!
  • Cookbooks – go back to the basics and look at some of your old cookbooks

Determine Menu

When determining a menu, be realistic and take into consideration the determining factors.

  • Time -(shopping and cooking)
  • Budget – what’s on sale?
  • Palate -who won’t eat this or that…
  • Ingredients-what do I already have?
  • Number of servings – feeding 2 or 6? Consider turning your idea into “tapas” or little plates

Let’s say you have chicken, green beans, brown rice and something sweet for dessert. Sure, you can bake the chicken, steam the rice, saute the green beans and have a bowl of ice cream for dinner, but this gets boring if you cook and season the meal the same way every time.

So let’s add a touch of creativity to our menu!Bruschetta on a plate

STEP 2: Determine Method of Preparation

Using the chicken dinner as an example, ask yourself, “How do I plan to cook the chicken?” Again, this may be based on several factors- time, budget, etc. There are various methods of cooking.

Determine Method of Cooking Dry heat methods include cooking with air or fat: grilling (direct heat), broiling, roasting, frying, sauteing or stir-frying.

Moist cooking methods include cooking with liquid: poaching, boiling, or steaming, braising and pressure cookers.

Pick one.How you cook the dish will guide you, but more on that later…

Harissa shrimp with black rice

STEP 3 : Select A Region

This is the fun part of menu planning! Spin the globe and pick a country or region.

Maybe you recently traveled to Sicily and want to recreate that food memory, or perhaps you’d love to go to Greece one day…let your imagination guide you because there’s no right or wrong in creating a culinary masterpiece!

Select Region for culinary masterpiece

STEP 4 : Select Seasonings

Once you’ve selected a region, search the Internet to see what spices are used most frequently! Or, next time you’re at the store, read the ingredient labels of packaged mixes and sauces…go home and recreate it!

Let’s say you want to grill the chicken and go to Greece. Since grilling is a high, direct-heat, you’ll want to primarily use ground seasonings and marinades.

If you add woody sprigs of fresh rosemary or delicate sprigs of fresh dill to the grill, they will burn, so in the grilling situation, you’d season the chicken with ground rosemary and/or dill.

Regional Seasonings for a Culinary Masterpiece

Regional Seasonings

This list of regional seasonings is in no way comprehensive, but it will give you a good idea of where to start:

  • Southwestern: green chiles, chili powder, cumin
  • Mexican: chili powder, Sazon Goya, mole sauce, enchilada sauce, tomatillo sauce, ground cumin
  • Italian: basil, sage, oregano, marjoram, herbs de Provence, garlic, Parmesan, Mozzarella
  • Greek: dill, garlic, lemon, kalamata olives, mint
  • Indian: cardamom, fennel, coriander, turmeric

These are just a few examples. Explore other areas of the world and note what spices are most frequently used.

4 Steps to create a culinary masterpiece

Apply to side dishes

Use this same thought process to dress up your side dishes. If the Greek, grilled chicken is going to have a predominant citrus flavor, choose complimentary seasonings for the rice and green beans. Consider adding a nutty flavor to the rice, as in coriander, roasted almonds or hazelnuts.

The same thought process applies to the green beans; perhaps you want a little heat, so you might saute the green beans and season with a bit of cayenne or white pepper.English Pea Salad

Expert tips

  • Use your imagination and creativity
  • Don’t overthink it
  • Ground or dried herbs are stronger than fresh. Use a ratio of 1:3. If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of thyme, that would be 1 teaspoon of ground/dried thyme or 3 teaspoon of fresh thyme
  • Add ground/dried herbs early in the cooking process; add fresh herbs closer to the end of the cooking process
  • Incorporate pastes into your dish – garlic, lemongrass, Harissa, tomato, etc.
  • Consider flavored oils and vinegars – garlic infused olive oil, tarragon vinegar
  • Consider adding an acid to your dish (lemon, vinegar, wine, liqueurs);
  • Add acids last
  • Use toasted nuts and seeds

On a final note, adding a sauce can be the final component of any culinary masterpiece. Sauces and gravies can really give a dish another level of flavor and texture!No Mayo Coleslaw

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