Dining • Culinary Shop
EVOO Cooking School

MENU PLANNING—How to do it? By Robert Neroni

We are often asked where we get our inspiration for our menus. Then after describing the many periodicals we read, the food network shows we enjoy, and the desire to recreate what we have enjoyed eating out, we realize that there is more to the question than how we do our menus. The real question is “how to do it?” The answer is not so simple because there are so many choices and influences. We think there is more than one successful approach, for sure. No doubt though, whatever the style of menu planning a cook does, it corresponds proportionally to their success and satisfaction. So we thought we’d discuss a few menu planning methods that seem to work and provide some structure for the cooks that use them. Maybe you can identify your style or one you might like to try.

Of course, when consulting a TEXTBOOK or cookbook on the subject, we are advised that the key to a good menu is variety, as in variety of everything: cooking methods, colors, textures, temperatures and flavors. This is typically followed by a case in point example: Which is more appealing menu A or menu B?
Menu A
Steamed halibut Menu B
Mashed potatoes Pan-fried Potato Crusted Halibut
Steamed cauliflower Steamed Fresh Asparagus

Clearly variety of color, textures, and even method of cooking are important in this example.

As we gather our thoughts on the subject a pretty great example comes to mind from Lenore’s mom, Bette. As it turns out, it is a viable way of how one might tackle the job of making up menus.

We call it, “Monday is Meatloaf,” or the “Meat & Potato Method.” If you can tell the day of the week by what’s on the table, you may be already using this style. Notably here, Lenore’s mom was not an adventurous cook by any means, but the dishes she made were just like they’re supposed to be! I had the pleasure of eating Bette’s meals and told Lenore how great they were. And why not, Lenore laughs, “Mom, made 52 meatloaves a year, so she got pretty good at it!” So if Monday is Meatloaf, here is how the remaining week filled out according to Bette.

Tuesday was chicken, always in a tomato sauce, sort of cacciatore style served with egg noodles. Wednesday was stuffed bell peppers with mashed potatoes or some other hamburger dish—Bette always bought enough ground beef for meatloaf and one other meal. Of course she’d skip a day between. Often the second hamburger dish was called goulash as it was a one dish meal and had a sloppy joe consistency. Thursday was polish sausage or hot dogs with sauerkraut and came with macaroni and cheese. Lenore said she and Mom would gladly eat just the macaroni and cheese, but Dad had to have meat on the plate, even if just a hot dog! Friday consisted of one of two extremes: it was either in celebration of the weekend with steak and baked potatoes or it was leftovers from the week. Saturdays was about eating out—fast food or one of dad’s favorite restaurants where baked potatoes came with everything! Sundays was pot roast with carrots and potatoes and dark brown gravy. Least you think there were not many veggies, to Lenore’s mom credit every night had a different veggie as long as it was frozen peas, frozen corn, or the occasional fresh broccoli. Salads came later after Lenore had some Home Ec at school and it became her job to make them.

I deem the next the “Menu Trinity Method: Protein Starch & Veggie.” Of course this is clearly a spin off “Monday is meatloaf,” with the only difference being it doesn’t repeat by week day. The decision making is still based on protein as the center of the plate. Most restaurant menus are designed this way. Easy enough to pick the protein category—beef, chicken, pork, fish; a bit more challenging to choose the cut and the cooking method. The starch is easier still, choosing from potatoes, rice or pasta. Lots of variety comes in from the choice of vegetable—from asparagus to zucchini, you can make it raw, fresh, frozen or canned. To modernize this method, we suggest adding tofu, beans, lentils, quinoa, and other vegetable proteins to the animal proteins as center of the plate. And choose from the “newer starches” like barley, kasha, farro, and Chinese imperial black rice.

“WHAT’S IN THE MARKET METHOD” is a favorite of ours. We usually start in the produce section because produce is the center of the plate at our house. At least for us it is the biggest category of food on the plate. From there proteins and starches are added. To best work within the seasons, its good to start in the produce section or at the fish counter of the supermarket.

“THE MULTI-TASKING MENU PLANNER” is a contemporary approach. Multi tasking is just one of those phrases we all seem to use these days. And no wonder, with so much to do and so little time. The cooks who choose this method typically have one or two good prep days a week, with no time to scratch cook the rest of the week. Here’s a for instance, they might bake a chicken; (eating the breast meat that night) then pick the dark meat for a quick chicken enchilada, and maybe a third night it is chicken noodle soup.

If you even have less time for food preparation during the week, you might be a prime fit for the trendy “what’s for dinner” kitchens (www.whats4dinner.ca) that are springing up in America’s malls. There you choose from 12-15 recipes, already cooked, package them in amounts you need, and carefully take them home to your freezer. Now you have a different meal each night ready to heat and serve.

And finally there is our personal menu planning method. We ask ourselves a series of questions about the menus we create to for our Small Plates with Wine classes, as well those we might create for company at our house.

First, does it reflect sustainability—did we choose products close to home and locally produced? Are portions smaller, (nutritionally supported), and are the flavors bold and distinctive? Does it work within our budget and the available time to cook? Note: often the more economical the dish, the more time it takes. What will it look like on the plate?

Then we throw it past the “variety question.” Does it have different cooking methods, various textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors within the menu? We feel pretty strongly about giving our taste buds a work out so we become satisfied with the size portion and don’t require seconds. The more variety the more likely our taste buds will go the distance. It prevents “tongue fatigue.”

Before we close, let’s not forget to consult cookbooks and other resources. Remember when you used to buy a cookbook and none of the recipes worked, or you decided you would need an army of cooks or credentials to prepare the labor intensive items? Today you can trust that many chef authored cookbooks have teams of people testing their recipes before they are published. Also, go online and check out “Cook’s Illustrated” (www.cooksillustrated.com) or the “Food Network” (www.foodnetwork.com). Customers tell us they love “Epicurious” (www.epicurious.com) which claims the world’s greatest collection of recipes.

Recipe testing is notably what makes it possible for the success of today’s resources. I have simply “googled” an ingredient followed by the word “recipe” for a list too long to read. Sometimes the recipes found in this manner tell you whether or not they have been tested or even rated by users.

We think this is an immerging menu planning method too easy not to use. Let’s call it the “GOOGLE METHOD.” One might find a year’s worth of menus on line complete with recipes and even shopping lists!

One thing is certain; the resources to get menu planning done have increased ten-fold from when I started out. I am confident that many formulas work. Feel free to email your thoughts as well as questions for us to answer. Lenore and I would love to hear from you. info@evoo.biz.


I know it seems a bit old fashion, but the modern versions of afternoon tea sometimes referred to as “high tea” can be pure pleasure for both hosts and guests. It certainly has endured the test of time having been given British historical reference in the early 1800’s. Many fine hotels all across America serve everything from elegant formal affairs to afternoon tea and scones. Clearly a tea party is what you make it! Whether celebrating a birthday, graduation, Mother’s Day, or simply an excuse to dress up and use the fine china, a tea party is both trendy chic and traditional.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending TEA at the home of one of our customers. Shirley, who owns a vacation home here in Cannon Beach, has dropped in at the cooking school many times since we opened, and has even taken a class or two. Shirley’s enthusiasm for cooking is so evident in speaking with her that both Bob and I believe her to be an extraordinary cook! And indeed, we learned that Shirley’s passion is planning and giving afternoon tea! What a coincidence, I told Shirley one afternoon last December. I was writing curriculum at the time for how to give a TEA to debut this Spring! To my delight Shirley said she would work with me, but I didn’t expect an invitation for me and a guest to tea at her home! A good friend of mine, Wendy, had spent quite a long time as a child in London, and knew first hand all about tea time in Britain. Wendy was the perfect companion to take to tea at Shirley’s.

After greetings and introductions, we began in, almost unintended tutorial fashion, the how-to-do’s of giving a tea. The dining table was set for a very feminine tea party, so appropriate for the baby shower she had given just days earlier. She kept it set just to show us. The coffee table and mantel displayed many beautifully illustrated tea books from her collection, and though she insists nothing fancy is required, her collection of tea service pieces and art was ample and as special as any fine art collected over time. Our tea table was set in a bright windowed corner of her living room with a variety of tea cups, creamers and sugars that all came with a story. Dixie, close friend of Shirley’s, was there to help, and she is also a frequent hostess of teas. Dixie had made several of the menu items we tasted including some of the best shortbread I have tasted. Together Shirley and Dixie described tea-time formalities and traditions—everything from napkins, how to set the table, and what hand to use to serve. After all, this is the way our children learned their table manners, Shirley explained. And TEA isn’t just for girls and women, you know! Mother of six, three boys and three girls, one can only wonder how many tea parties she held. Now her children are all grown up and married with children of their own, and it’s clear that Shirley’s tea parties are more popular than ever.

I guess until now, I would have been more inclined to give a BRUNCH, and go out for TEA! I remember well the many tea dates Bob and I had with other chef friends—sort of a culmination to our working weekends, the busiest time for chefs. Late Sunday afternoon we would pick a different hotel in the Wash DC area to meet for tea, one of the most enjoyable times those days. Since working on the class and research at Shirley’s, I think teas and brunch have many similar attributes. I like that they are both typically held early in the day or early afternoon, and certainly end in plenty of time to get cleaned up without extending into the wee hours like so many dinner parties. And tea and brunch by virtue of their name give your guests a pretty good idea of what will be served. Most of the work is done in advance. Except for making the tea, the menu for tea can be made ahead of time. Some traditional items can be purchased like the jam and lemon curd. Shirley’s tea menu was mostly home made, and yet she was almost excited to share that some things came from the supermarket! She proclaimed them good enough to pass as homemade.

Whatever the occasion for tea, the approach we are taking at the school is to maintain the tradition of menu, time of day, and the genteel hospitality of it all. We prefer not to let words like “fancy” or “formal” deter us. And we really don’t fuss over which side of the guest to serve! In fact, during tea with just the four of us, Shirley, Dixie, Wendy and I, all with a fair amount of tea time experience, there were small differences of opinion on small details. But nothing we believed so important that we must change! And we agreed as for which hand to use to serve and clear—just pick one way and be as consistent as you can. Tea is the time for friendship, and that is the tradition of tea that’s worth repeating again and again!

A recipe follows:

2 cups All Purpose flour
4 Tablespoons sugar
1Tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon orange zest
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg lightly beaten
¾ cup heavy cream

Your favorite Jam Method: Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl; cut in butter until crumbly. Set aside.
Blend egg and milk together. Gently fold liquid into flour mixture; stir only to combine and knead a few times until holds into a ball.
Place onto a floured board. Pat or roll into a about 8 inch diameter circle about ½ inch thick—careful not to go too thin! Cut circle into half and half again until you have 8 pieces. At this point, you may freeze dough for baking later.
To bake, preheat oven to 400ºF; Place slightly separated on ungreased sheet; sprinkle with sugar and bake for approximately 15 – 20 minutes, until golden brown on top and bottom.
To stuff a scone: After baking, cool slightly. Then make small slit in one side. Stuff with 1-2 teaspoons of raspberry jam. Serve immediately!

Juice and zest of 2 lemons
2 eggs, whole, well beaten
¼ cup sugar
3 oz butter, cut into pieces

Blend eggs with juice, zest, sugar and butter and place over low flame; bring to boiling point, stirring constantly until thickened. Strain immediately through a fine sieve and cool. Hold in refrigerator for several weeks. Makes about 1 cup.

Kids in the Kitchen: teach them to cook!

Teaching kid’s classes provides us a growing repertoire of recipes that that work well, and those that don’t. Pizza is always popular! Pasta, too. But when we make a common dish like mac ‘n cheese from scratch, it often fails to live up to the child’s vision of what it should be. No surprise that the blue and yellow box, for example, is the standard for macaroni and cheese for children even as young as three! I loved it myself—until I read the ingredients. Adults—parent or teacher, who want kids to eat healthier, have quite a challenge. No doubt about it, the blue box will beat our scratch recipe for speed and ease of preparation, and it certainly encourages the child to be more independent—cooking class not needed. So when daring to make a recipe that has competition from a crafty version in a box, we advise making the new recipe as close to the “box” in flavor and appearance as possible. Don’t go for cutting fat and calories right away. Just make a great tasting alternative. Then hope that the satisfaction of “doing-it-myself” adds up to a desire to do it again and again! Our position on this subject is that teaching kids to cook helps develop their independence and gives them alternatives, but most importantly, they start to enjoy the process.

Of all the positive outcomes of learning to cook, we like that it helps kids enjoy the eating because they made it! A common expression heard in our classes is “this is the best “blank” I have ever eaten.” We can only guess it is because they did it themselves. With that kind of reaction to cooking, we dare to cook many foods that don’t make it to a kid’s list of favorite foods. For example, we were not real confident about making a fish burrito in one of our classes during Spring Break last year. But the children—8 to 13 years old, seemed quite eager to learn how to make it. The first step was to “bread” the fresh fish in a tasty seasoned bread coating. Everyone in class willingly took their turn during the breading procedure (process of getting the crispy coating to stick to the fish for cooking). Then again they enthusiastically helped “swim” the fish in the deep fat, (holding one end and moving it back and forth in the fat to set the breading before letting go), with adult supervision, of course. At this point, Lenore and I were encouraged that we had picked a recipe that made a hit with the kids. We assembled the other ingredients, and the children served themselves. The older kids filled their tortillas to the brim while the younger ones picked everything but the fish! Surprised we inquired. “We don’t eat fish,” they explained. I asked why they didn’t mention that while we were cooking and they didn’t know. I guessed the process of making it was enough fun to trump the fact that they don’t eat fish. Would the younger kids eventually enjoy eating the fish, we wondered, while the older kids went for seconds—proclaiming it the best fish taco they had ever had!

Parents often ask us how to get kids to eat better. Never having had kids, Lenore and I do not pretend to know for sure. We rely on good books on the subject by experts. We especially like the book, “Meals without Squeals!” by Christine Berman MPH, RD & Jacki Fromer, which is aimed at day care providers of young children. With a title like that, we believe mealtime to be one of the great challenges of childcare. Not speaking first hand, however, (having only parented our dogs, for which we provide a ration of kibbles at mealtime), I can only offer what I have read. These authors say to offer only healthy choices and allow kids to choose from them at mealtime—even if some items are left on the plate. They say avoid negotiation when it comes to food and mealtime, and only make exceptions to the family meal when there is an allergy or medical reason to do so. And of course, most authorities say kids will eat what they see parents and teachers eat, so it just makes good sense to be good role models. I don’ t judge, mind you—my dogs eat better than I do, but when people and kids tell us their creations are the best ever tasted, we go right back to our favorite way to help kids eat better, “teach them to cook.”

Here are a few of our kids tested recipes.

PIZZA DOUGH (using a mixer requires adult supervision)
1 cup water, warm 110°F. or less
1 pack active dry yeast, or about 2 ½ teaspoon
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 cups AP flour
1-2 Tablespoons EVOO
1 Teaspoons salt

Vocabulary & Abbreviations:
EVOO=extra virgin olive oil TT=to taste TBSP=Tablespoon TSP= teaspoon PUNCH DOWN= removing air after first rising with “fists.” KNEAD=working dough with rhythmic motion until it becomes very elastic—developing the gluten. This can also be accomplished in a mixer with dough hook and adult supervision. Method: 1. Combine water yeast and sugar in bowl of mixer & stir; set aside until mixture is foamy. 2. Add 1 ½ cups of the flour, 1 tablespoon of EVOO, and all of the salt blending with the dough hook on the mixer about 3 minutes, or mix by hand about 7 minutes. 3. Add flour gradually until all flour is incorporated. Mix with dough hook until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. OR, dump onto floured surface and knead for 4-7 minutes by hand. 4. Oil a clean bowl with remaining EVOO, swish dough in bowl and cover with towel. Let rise 1 to 1 ½ hours or until doubled in size. See diagram for shaping.
2 Tablespoons EVOO
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large can Roma tomatoes
1/2-1 cup water as needed
3 oz butter or EVOO
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
TT salt and pepper
Method: Heat EVOO in sauce pan. Over medium heat, sauté onions until soft about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add all tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes. Add water, if needed. Simmer 20 minutes. Blend (in food processor or blender) and strain, if desired. Whisk in butter and parsley. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Use immediately or cool quickly in the refrigerator and save for another day.
YIELD: 2 ½ cups
EVOO=extra virgin olive oil
TT=to taste
As needed, means ingredient is optional and only used to thin down sauce.
Minced= very small squares