Raise your hand if you've heard this one: A chef is asked how he or she creates dishes and responds, "Oh, I go to the farmers' market in the morning and see what's good, and then build dishes around that." Doesn't that sound delightful? It certainly can be, but when you're putting together a menu, it's usually best to do a little planning beforehand.
What You Need
Cookbooks and/or computer
Pen and paper
A comfy chair
1. Gather a stack of cookbooks that you think might be the most helpful, pull up some of your favorite cooking web sites (perhaps the list of recipes you've tagged in your Google Reader), grab a pen and paper and settle into a nice comfy chair.
2. Make a list of the people who will be joining you for the meal and note any dietary restrictions. You don't necessarily have to write this list out, but it can be help keep things organized. And when you're planning a menu, more organization means less stress. And less stress means a more enjoyable experience for the cook.
3. Think about ingredients. What is in season right now? What do you already have in your pantry? Are there any ingredients that need to be used up soon?
4. Choose your dishes and write out your menu. If you'd like, leave a little flexibility so you can choose a few ingredients as you shop. For instance, we're making roasted vegetable pizzas, but we're going to wait until we get to the market to choose our vegetables, and then stop by our neighborhood cheese shop and make some selections there. This way, we can still pick up whatever looks the best that day, but focusing our efforts prevents aimless wandering and unnecessary stress.
5. Write out a shopping list. Even if you're leaving some wiggle room, there are ingredients that you will definitely need. You may want to list the items in the order they're arranged in the store. If you'll be serving wine, it can be helpful to do a little research on pairing before you shop and jot down a couple of options to look for. Even if you don't find those exact wines, it will give you some direction.
Additional Notes: You'll most likely discover ways to make the process easier on yourself as you plan more menus. Do whatever is best for you! Just be sure to keep it fun for yourself and enjoy the process – and the meal – as much as your guests.
(Images: Joanna Miller)