“And by the way, what are we going to be cooking?” – this is the question that gets me thinking for the whole evening before a cooking class. Menu planning is always about the right balance of enthusiasm and efficiency, I find. Turkish cuisine is hardly short of options and it is easy to create a new menu every time to maintain variety and my enthusiasm. Yet I know for a fact that there are simple dishes which are bound to be a success and no wonder I am tempted to include them in every cooking class.
Here are a few principles which I have learned to use in menu planning for my cooking classes and regular life. It is thanks to them I stay organized and yet truly excited about the food I am cooking.
1. Understand the purpose of your menus
Are you switching gear from sandwiches to the proper cooked food? Trying to loose weight? Treating others? Feeding the family of 8? Menu is a food routine driven by a higher purpose and depending on that purpose your menus can differ a lot. Don’t just take someone’s unless they work for you.
For my cooking classes I include a couple of starters, main dish and a dessert to showcase the variety of the Turkish cuisine and create opportunity for lingering and conversation when the cooking is done. For my countryside meals I usually go for a satisfying main. And while I often have a salad or a soup as a main I have learned that in Turkey they can only be a side or a starter and so my menu planning is different in Istanbul where I cook for myself from Sapanca where I cook for my Tukish family.
2. Get friendly with the local produce sellers
Why not to start the planning at the local market: see what’s available and take it from there? This is excellent way to expand your cooking horizons too: you can pick up anything which is in season (even you have never cooked with it before), take it to your kitchen and give it a go.
I love browsing the produce stalls at my favorite Kadikoy market and do live menu planning as I chat with my greengrocer about the produce. This makes my cooking aligned with seasons: in winter you have higher chances of cooking anchovy rice with me while in summer you are almost guaranteed to learn one or two Turkish eggplant dishes.
3. Review your kitchen pantry regularly
No doubt that your kitchen pantry builds up based on your menu. But you can’t ignore leftovers and ingredients with the short shell-life at the shelf of your fridge. I review my fridge a couple of times a week (less frequently for the rest of the pantry) making sure that things get rotating and I used them for cooking instead of throwing into the bin.
At the countryside where we have a restaurant I am particularly obsessed with using up the pantry and this is how two days rice comes a rice casserole and anchovy left from the anchovy pilaf go into my leftover salad.
4. Learn your star dishes
You need to have a repertoire of reliable star dishes. These guys are utterly delicious indeed and shamefully simple. They hardly take any effort to put together and get those “wow” from anyone savoring them. You need to have those dishes as they become the backbone of your menu planning, favorites you go back to again and again and a platform for your further experiments.
They usually either rely on one really fantastic ingredient (like my roasted red pepper salad), or take a basic ingredient and upgrade it with additional condiments (like my sigara boregi of Turkish phyllo dough with selected local cheeses), or boast unexpected use of the usual (my dry fig dessert). My countryside star is dolma: with 20 minutes of preparation work you can feed a dozen of extended family members. With experience and taking feedback from the eaters you can figure out yours.
5. Always keep experimenting
Menu planning does not have to be boring and gives you enough space to experiment. Sneak a more eccentric ingredient instead of a regular one like my mother-in-law did when she put dry apricots, honey and cumin to the classic Turkish red lentil soup. Cook a completely new dish for lunch.
I do. Because if I don’t you will be eating the beautiful food we have cooked together and I will be watching you without much enthusiasm and secretly craving only for the cheese that has escaped from the sigara boreks and spilled over the baking tray. Indifference to food is a professional hazard which is so easy to develop but such a luxury to have. So to get your menu planning right – keep surprising yourself and others!