living room changes

This past Thanksgiving, while my parents were making their annual visit out to Phoenix, Sean and I decided it was time to put new flooring into our living room. We’ve had carpet in the room for the past five years (since the house was built in 2004) and with our living room being such a high traffic area, the carpet just hasn’t held up well. After doing some shopping around, we settled on laminate wood flooring from IKEA. It sounds cheapo, but the flooring got just as good of reviews as comparable flooring and was way cheaper.

Living Room Before Shot:
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Underlayment in our entry way (This is the first layer to go down before the flooring):
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Finished Flooring (no baseboards or furniture yet):
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Everything Finished (with furniture moved back, too!):
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Since the flooring was going to be ripped up and Sean had access to the area between our floor and walls, we finally put the surround sound in that we’ve wanted since buying the house. We even did the smart thing and put wall plates with plugs in the ceiling so that we can take the speakers with us when we move.

Surround Sound:
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So, that’s what we did over Thanksgiving weekend. It really took us almost the entire weekend, too. We made several trips to our local Ace Hardware as well as the Lowe’s and Home Depot up in town. We also ate a lot of our meals outside on our patio (it’s chilly in the mornings/evenings by November!). My parents were a great help. I really don’t think we would have gotten it done without them. Thanks guys!

Weekly Menu – 12/29/09

Since I posted earlier today about weekly menus, here’s the weekly menu that I drew up for this week:

Monday – Red Beans & Rice
Served with fresh French bread.

We had ham for Christmas and pretty much if we have a ham, that means Sean requests red beans and rice for the following week. This time, we tried Cooks Illustrated’s recipe (Jan/Feb 2010 issue). Since this is a staple Cajun dish, I have my family recipe, but I’m always willing to check a different version out.

Tuesday – Chicken Dinner Salad
Sean and I are big salad fans. This is pretty much a staple in our menu. Almost every week, we have some sort of dinner salad. We usually choose between chicken breast, salmon, shrimp, tuna or flank steak for the protein and then toss in whatever veggies we feel like. Add salad dressing and you have dinner in usually under 15 minutes (the meat does have to cook, unless you pick up a roasted chicken from the store on your way home).

Wednesday – Paninis
Yet another staple in our weekly menu (sorry, my creativity was gone when coming up with my menu this week). The best part about this meal is that you don’t need a panini press to make paninis. All you need is two cast iron pans and you’re good (if one of them is a cast iron griddle, you can even get the grill lines on your sandwich).

For bread, we usually use the artisan sourdough bread from the grocery. Mainly, though, you’re just looking for a firm, large piece of bread. We usually stick with a couple types of meat, one type of cheese and then a couple of veggie fillings to round out the flavor. For meats, we go with ham, salami, prosciutto or any other Italian meat that we’re fancying when we get to the deli. For cheese, we normally go with provolone because it melts really nicely but has a small bite to it. For veggie fillings, we’ll use anything from olive salad to roasted red peppers or artichoke hearts.

Preheat one of the cast iron pans (this should be the griddle if you have one) over medium heat. It shouldn’t be smoking, but it should be pretty warm. Take two slices of bread, brush one side of each slice with a little bit of olive oil. Place one of these slices on the cast iron, olive oil side down. Put whatever fillings you want in your sandwich onto the bread. I would recommend starting and ending with cheese, as this will hold the sandwich together really well. Place the second slice of bread on the sandwich, olive oil side up and put the second cast iron on top, weighing the sandwich down. Flip the sandwich when the first side is golden brown. Take off the pan once both sides are nice and golden brown. Let sit for a minute and then slice in half. Serve with a small side salad or just chips for something quick.

Thursday – New Year’s Eve Dinner!
Three-Ingredient Prime Rib Roast (Food & Wine, December 2009)
Butternut Squash Gratin – This is a recipe from Sean’s aunt Patty that is great as a side or works well as a main dish (which is great since two of the people we’re having over for dinner are vegetarians)
Green Beans – nice and simple saute with garlic
Roasted Parsnips – olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven with the rib roast (also works well to do this with potatoes)

Dessert: Hot Chocolate & Fresh Chocolate Chip Cookies
To keep the dessert easy, I’ll make up the cookies the day before and then prep the hot chocolate so that all I have to do is combine the dry ingredients with the milk.

Friday – Black-eyed Pea Stew with Sausage (Food & Wine, January 2010)
I’ll serve this up with another small side salad to keep it nice and simple for a good start to the new year.

Saturday – Leftovers
Whenever I do stews and soups during the week, we usually have lots of leftovers at the end of the week (even with us taking in leftovers for lunch). This means that I’ve got time to do chores on this day and still provide a good dinner at night.

Sunday – Cacio e Pepe (Cooks Illustrated, Jan/Feb 2010)
This is way simpler than it sounds. It’s essentially pasta with cheese and pepper. Should be a nice meal to start off the next week with and provide some tasty leftovers for lunch.

Dinner Planning

We live in a busy world. Sean and I lead pretty busy lives. Sean works full-time and is trying to finish his bachelor’s degree almost full-time (3 classes each semester). I work full-time (although this usually equates to way more hours than your standard 40-hour work week) and I study yoga 4 days a week. With our busy schedules, Sean and I usually get home late with few brain cells left to process prepping and eating dinner. When we first got into our routines, we would stand around the freezer and fridge (or one of us would stand there with the other on the phone) and we would squabble over what to have for dinner. This invariably led to lots of grilled cheese and soup nights not to mention the amount of take-out we ate. We knew this habit had to change for two reasons. One, making dinner each night started becoming an argument because we were both tired of dealing with it. Two, we knew we both needed to eat healthier than we had been if either of us had any hope of losing the weight our doctors were telling us we needed to lose.

Here’s the plan that someone very smart suggested to us and we’ve spent the past 6 months following with great success. Every Saturday, we plan out our menu for the following week (Monday through Sunday). This gets recorded down somewhere. For us, that means it gets put into a Google Calendar that Sean and I share (it’s called Weekly Menu). In order to keep just one of us planning the menus, we swap this chore of planning the menu. So, each one of us only has to do this every other week.

Sunday morning, we make out a grocery list of everything we need to buy to get us through the week of dinners. Here’s where we deviate slightly from the plan. We eat a lot of fresh foods in our house (fresh vegetables, fresh meats, etc) which precludes us from completely shopping for the week, so we split our list into two. We’ll shop on Sunday for Monday through Thursday and then on Friday for Friday through Sunday. Fridays are usually the least hectic of our week days (Sean rarely has classes on Fridays and they haven’t extended beyond noon yet and I don’t have any yoga classes after work on this day), so this works out pretty well.

Okay, so that takes care of making sure that a menu has been planned for the entire week and that groceries are bought in a timely manner (instead of in a rush on the night of dinner making). That leaves making sure that the weekly menu is posted somewhere so that everyone in the household is aware of the plan and whoever gets home first can start working on dinner. Before Sean and I had iPhones (and thus constant access to our Google Calendar), we used a paper weekly menu stuck to our fridge.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering how we manage to come up with a weekly menu without running out of ideas on a regular basis. We have a lot of different resources we use, some online, some are cookbooks that we constantly refer back to and some are food magazines that we subscribe to. Here’s the rundown:

Online
epicurious.com – This is the online form of Bon Appetit which is a great food magazine. This website’s got several useful tools to help you plan menus. First, the search function allows you to search under a large variety of options, one of which is “quick & easy”. This option has found me some great ideas for week day dinners. The other tool is an iPhone app that you can download for free. This app gives you access to the database of recipes and allows you to create a shopping list from recipes that you add to your cart.

Sunset.com – Once more the online form of one of my favorite magazines in the world (thanks Lisa!). The magazine is meant for the western half of the United States and covers everything from traveling to gardening, but the online Food and Wine section can be used anywhere in the country. There’s a Fast and Fresh area where one can find easy and healthy recipes.

Food & Wine – Yeah, yeah, so I like food magazine websites. They’re rich resources of past magazine recipes. This magazine tags each of their recipes so that at a quick glance you can tell if it’s Fast, Healthy, Vegetarian, Make Ahead, etc. The website allows you to search under these tags, which is yet another way of finding just the type of recipe you’re looking for.

Magazines
Any of the above three magazines are great ways to start finding recipes. Why would I recommend spending money on the magazines when you can just download the recipes? It’s because these magazines offer more than just recipes to find. They offer techniques and advice that I find invaluable as someone who is trying to learn to cook better and healthier.

Cooks Illustrated – This magazine is beyond words for anyone who likes to cook. It offers a Quick Tips section where readers can contribute ways they’ve found to save time or resources in the kitchen (For instance, one reader suggests freezing leftover chicken broth in ice cube trays so that when you need some again you can defrost small amounts. I love this suggestion. In fact, when I make my own chicken stock, I do the same thing). The recipes in this magazine are also well thought out and written down. Each recipe comes with an article describing why they’re doing the recipe the way they are (why use small red beans over kidney beans in a Red Beans & Rice recipe). This helps expand your knowledge as a cook at the same time as getting a vault of great recipes to use. The one thing I’ll caution you on is that they don’t frequently do “quick” recipes, so if that’s all you’re looking for, you’ve been forewarned.

Cookbooks
30-Minute Meals – I’m not a huge fan of Rachael Ray, but I have to admit her cookbooks (I’ve got two of them) have saved my bacon a few times when I’ve needed to toss together a quick meal. She’ll give you recipes that will create a full meal and they really are ready in 30-minutes or less (including prep time).

My Personal Recipe Book – Sorry, no link for this one and that’s because this is quite literally a personal recipe book that was given to me as a wedding gift from awesome friends and family and has been expanded upon over the past 6 years (and counting) of marriage. Any time I find a recipe that I like online or in some of my magazines, it gets cut out and put into this 3-inch ring binder. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve poured over this book looking for ideas and I’ve rarely come away empty handed. The best part about putting together a book like this is that as the years go by, these recipes start getting stories put to them and they become personal.

So, here’s what I’m going to try to do. Each Sunday, I’m going to try to post our weekly menu so that other people can see how we’re planning. If the menu item has an online recipe, I’ll link to it so that everyone else can find it. I promise that planning healthy and quick meals ahead of time is worth it and it’s doable.