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Sweet Potato Hummus-2

Is meal planning something you struggle with? Well you’re definitely not alone!

Whenever I talk to Stonesoup readers about their biggest cooking problems, meal planning it always near the top of the list.

Last minute changes in plans and chaotic schedules are some of the most common problems. As is the fact that meal plans often ‘fall apart’ because you don’t ‘feel like’ eating what you’d planned to cook that night.

Then there were the people who struggle to come up with new ideas and feel bored with their current meal routine. And running through all this was the costly problem of wasted ingredients and leftovers going bad and having to be thrown out.

Sound familiar?

What IS the No. 1 Meal Planning Mistake?

In a nutshell, it’s deciding what you’re going to cook in advance and then building your shopping list around that plan.

Having a list of set recipes or dishes is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it takes a lot of time to figure it all out in advance. But the biggest problem is the lack of flexibility to cope with the changes that naturally come up with modern life.

It’s nearly impossible to predict that Wednesday is going to be the coldest February day on record and you’ll be craving a comforting bowl of soup, rather than the cool & light salad you had in the meal plan.

No wonder meal plans tend to get broken.

How Do I Avoid This Mistake?

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Roast Broccoli & Chorizo

A bit of a crazy title for a cooking blog this week, don’t you think? I know. When I started Stonesoup, I didn’t think nail polish remover was something I’d ever be writing about.

But here we are. Another ‘never say never’ moment.

So why do I keep nail polish remover in my kitchen?

No, I haven’t started giving myself a pedicure while dinner is cooking. I’m not that good at multitasking.

The reason is I’ve finally figured out a labeling system for the jars in my pantry that works a treat.

I just write on my jars with a marker (which I also keep in the kitchen). Then when each jar gets empty, I whip out my nail polish remover and the labeling is gone in seconds.

It’s a little thing but it makes me feel so much more organized.

I also use the marker to label anything I put in the freezer. Another big winner on the organization front!

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Stupidly Easy Banana Bread-2

One afternoon late last year, Fergal and I were out on our daily walk when a car pulled over and stopped in front of us. Given we live on a quite country road, you can imagine this made me a bit wary….

I was relieved when a super fit lady got out of the car. She didn’t look too dangerous. Anyway she ran across the road, introduced herself as Heather and asked if we knew about the local play group.

I told her we did and were planning to start going in the new year.

Fast forward a few months and I’m not sure who is loving play group more… Fergal or me.

While he get to explore the swings and sand pit and bikes and trucks, I get to chat with the other mothers about growing veggies, knitting, how to operate a chain saw and of course cooking!

So when Heather said she had the best banana bread recipe, I quickly gave her my email address. When the email came through with the title ‘Stupidly Easy Banana Bread’ I knew it would be a winner.

Trust me it lives up to its name!

But that’s not all.. I’ll let you in on another of its virtues. Yep, it’s sugar-free.

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20. ketchup beans

When I was learning to cook I was a slave to recipes. While it was a good way to start learning different techniques and ingredients, it did have some frustrating limitations.

Like what happens when you can’t buy a particular ingredient? And what do you do with that leftover half bunch of herbs? Or jar of sauce?

Or worse still, what do you do when you need to eat but don’t have time to search through recipes and go shopping for exotic ingredients?

Over the years, with a lot of trial and error, I began to learn to cook more instinctively, on my own.

Without other people’s recipes.

In my head, without really being conscious of what I was doing, I started thinking of recipes in general terms rather than specific ingredients.

From there, I developed a collection of starting point or ‘template recipes’. So whenever I walked into the kitchen and looked into the fridge to figure out what to cook, I had a head start.

I knew what had worked before to make that soup or stir fry and could use that knowledge as a springboard for a new dish or meal.

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Bangers & Beer

The most radical shift in my meal planning process happened at a very specific time in my life. I was working as a young winemaker in the beautiful Barossa Valley. It was vintage, the busiest time of the year, so my life pretty much revolved around working and sleeping.

There wasn’t much time for ‘luxuries’ like eating and bathing. So as you can imagine, sitting down to figure out a meal plan and write a shopping list was out of the question.

As luck would have it, my one ‘treat’ was a weekly pilgrimage to the Barossa farmers market. I’d grab a coffee and a bacon & egg roll and then take my time buying my produce for the week.

It was heaven.

Because I didn’t have a plan or a shopping list, I was guided to choose what looked best. Sometimes I’d know exactly what I was going to make with my bounty. But more often than not I wouldn’t. So each night I’d walk into the kitchen, open the fridge and decide what to cook then and there.

Sometimes I’d look up recipes but mostly I’d make it up as I went along. Just trusting my instincts and cooking from the heart.

I should mention that this was completely new territory for me…

Before my Barossa days, I always consulted a recipe. But my limited time circumstances meant I had to try another way.

Mostly the results were delicious, or at least edible. There were the occasional ‘disasters’ which meant, I’d use my backup plan of cheese on toast and take it as a ‘learning experience’. But over time these happened less and less frequently.

These days, I pretty much follow the same approach to meal planning.

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egg & pea fried rice

Recently there was an outbreak of Hepatitis in Australia that stemmed from people eating contaminated frozen berries.

Since I’m a bit of a hermit, I wouldn’t have known about the berry recall if it weren’t for my news-savvy Irishman.

Fortunately we didn’t have any problem berries in the freezer. Which was unusual but it’s been peak berry season here so I’ve been making the most of the abundance of fresh berries at the farmers market.

Anyway it got me thinking about my freezer and how much I love it.

I’m always teaching my online cooking students the value of a well stocked pantry. And I firmly believe your pantry isn’t just for shelf-stable ingredients. Your fridge and freezer are equally important.

So today I went and had a good poke around my freezer. Here’s what I found…

7 Things I (pretty much) Always Have in the Freezer

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sorrel pesto-3

Almost a year ago, my little family made the big leap to life in the country when we bought our tiny farm.

As I shared when we first moved in, it’s been a dream of mine for the longest time to have a little house and some land to grow veggies, raise chooks, plant a little orchard and hopefully some sort of vineyard so my wine making skills don’t lay dormant forever.

As with any good dream there have been some surprises along the way…

Like having not one but two tiger snakes in two days turn up on my kitchen step… Like having to catch a cute little green tree frog in our bedroom one night… Like getting used to waking up and seeing kangaroos just outside our bedroom window most mornings… Like planting my fruit trees in the boggiest patch of clay on the whole farm and having half of them decide to die…

All part of the fun of country life!

Anyway I’ve had a few requests to share what’s growing in my edible garden. Something a little different!

But before I do there’s a disclaimer. I’m new to this whole big garden thing. While I love spending time in the garden, especially picking things for dinner, I’m definitely a long way from being a green thumbed expert. So I’m not sure how helpful this will be…

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corn & miso salad-2

Don’t you hate it when you buy a new ingredient to use in a recipe only to end up with a big jar of ingredient cluttering your fridge? Me too.

I’m a little obsessive about keeping the random jars in my fridge to a minimum… Or at least keeping them ‘quarantined’ in the fridge door.

When I get a new ingredient, I go on a ‘mission’ to find ways to use it in other meals, easily, and with lots of tasty discoveries… my type of mission.

So when I got the following ‘request‘ from Beth last year, it reminded me that I had been neglecting a rather large tub of miso paste myself…

Hey! I was wondering if you had any dinner recipe ideas for Miso paste. I have tried putting it is a pot with tonnes of vegetables and making a stir fry, then serving it with some rice noodles – it is totally delicious. However I have had this meal a lot (and still have a giant pot of miso paste in my fridge), and I can’t think what else to do with it. Your recipes are always so creative and simple, I was wondering if you had any ideas?
Thanks, Beth

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vinegar

Have you ever ended up with lots of odds and ends of leftover wine and thought to yourself ‘I really should make some vinegar?’

Well until recently, I hadn’t either. I was happy keeping our little leftovers in the pantry to use in risottos and stews.

I think my lack of enthusiasm for home made vinegar stemmed from the fact that back in my wine making days, one of our biggest fears was accidentally turning a barrel of delicious wine into vinegar.

But when I was pregnant and there was only one wine drinker left in the house, we started to accumulate a reasonable stash of ‘cooking wine’ that was too past it to drink. And since I didn’t have a barrel shed of wine to risk spoiling, why not give home made vinegar a try?

And so I did.

It took a while but most of that time I had forgotten about my vinegar project until last year when we were moving house. Without much hope, I took a tiny sample from my jar to taste.

What a surprise!

Delicious, winey and vinegary – in a good way. More along the lines of sherry vinegar (which I adore) rather than commercial red wine vinegar (which I find way too harsh).

It’s now my favourite vinegar. And I’m actually finding myself happy not to finish the bottle at the end of the evening and save the leftovers for my vinegar stash.

So making vinegar can be good for ones liver as well! Who would have thought?

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baked lentilotto-2

So I’m going to let you in on a little secret… Before I started Soupstones, my done-for-you meal planning service, I thought there was absolutely no way I would enjoy following a meal plan.

You see, I like to think of myself as a ‘free spirit’, someone who hates being told what to do. I was worried about stifling my creativity.

But you know what?

Over the last year I’ve found myself following my meal plans more and more.

The thing I love about the weeks when I use Soupstones meal plans is that I don’t have to think. I just download the plan, buy what’s on the shopping list. And then walk into the kitchen each night and cook. It really is so easy (if I do say so myself!)

Anyway over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone and skype talking to the wonderful people from around the world who have been using the meal plans.

My main aim was to find improvements. But I’ve also been hearing how the meal plans are helping people.

There were the things you’d expect to hear like…

“I’m saving money because I’m only buying what we need”

“We’re eating so many more home cooked meals”

“I’m wasting so much less because I actually use the ingredients I buy”

“Everything is so quick and easy to prepare”

“I’m eating much more healthfully”

“We’re trying new and tasty recipes all the time. It’s helped me break out of my food rut!”

But there were a few surprises too!

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spanish meatballs-2

This time last year I did something I wasn’t sure would work.

It all started when my friend Caroline was telling me about her experience with one of those weight loss programs that comes with an exercise schedule and detailed meal plans.

With her new, more slender figure Caroline was looking amazing.

What surprised me was her insistence that the thing she had found most helpful was the meal plans. They made it so easy to eat really healthfully day in and day out.

Each week she’d print out the shopping list and buy what was on it. Or better yet, get her husband to do the shopping.

Then at meal times she’d walk into the kitchen, look at her notes and just start cooking. No having to ‘think’ at the end of a long day.

She told me,

“Jules you really should offer a meal planning service. Some of the recipes in the plan I was following were pretty time consuming. It would be even better to have healthy meal plans using your quick, easy Stonesoup recipes.”

That got me thinking. I wasn’t sure it would work.

But I decided to give it a shot. So this time last year, ‘Soupstones Meal Plans’ was born.

Since then there have been 917 people who have used the meal plans to eat well and be well.

And today I wanted to share the stories of how Soupstones has helped change the lives of some of its members…

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parmesan edamame-3

Now that I have a toddler in the house, I’m very well acquainted with the degree of difficulty involved with getting said toddler to eat anything green.

Fortunately Fergal loves peas, so I always keep our freezer well stocked. But there are only so many times you can serve up peas each week. So I’ve been on the lookout for a Fergal-friendly green veg alternative.

And I’ve found a real beauty!

Yep. Edamame are our new family favourite veg.

What are edamame?

Basically they’re fresh soy beans still in their pod. I always have some when I go to Japanese restaurants. They’re usually served in their pods and you just pop out the little beans inside and discard the pods.

They’re a vibrant bright green and have a lovely sweet, mild fresh beany flavour. Fergal loves them and so do my Irishman and I. So they’re definitely for adults too!

Where can I get them?

Try your supermarket freezer near the frozen pea section. My local supermarket stocks them but it’s pretty large. The next best place to look would be an Asian or Japanese grocery store.

What can I substitute if I can’t find them?

Frozen peas or broad beans would be the closet thing. Or I guess fresh snow peas or sugar snap peas where you eat the pod as well.

Are frozen veg as good for you as fresh?

Absolutely! Freezing is pretty good for keeping most of the nutrients intact. I’ve even seen studies where the nutritional content of frozen veg was better than unfrozen veg that was getting on the ‘old’ side.

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kung pao chicken

About this time two years ago my Irishman and I had a lovely holiday in Sydney staying in our friends Walsh Bay apartment with killer views of the Sydney harbour bridge.

One night we had an especially delicious dinner at Mr Wong. A seriously great Chinese restaurant in the CBD.

To cut a long story short, My Irishman was blown away by their Kung Pao Chicken.

As soon as we were home, he was in the kitchen trying to replicate Mr Wong’s KPC.

Now my Irishman is pretty handy in the kitchen but he doesn’t cook that often because I tend to hog the stove.

I love to be cooked for as much as the next girl, so I was thrilled to be the ‘guinea pig’ for his experiments.

Months later, when KPC was still on high rotation, I wasn’t quite so appreciative of being cooked for. So I took matters into my own hands and sent an email to Australian Gourmet Traveller, my favourite food magazine. I explained my predicament and asked if they could request the recipe from the chef.

A few months later my prayers were answered.

We had the official recipe! My Irishman was finally happy with his kung pao efforts. Life was good.

I’ve been wanting to tell you this story for a while now but I figured it needed a fitting occasion. And this week we have such an event!

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bas vin-4

Last year I read a great little book by Chris Guillebeau who fulfilled his dream of visiting every country in the world.

With the title, ‘The Happiness of Pursuit’, Chris’ latest book is all about quests. It chronicles the adventures of not only Chris’s globe trotting but a heap of other people with quests as diverse as cooking a meal from every country in the world to watching a baseball game in every major league stadium in the US.

Being a Virgo who loves writing (and crossing things off) lists, I found the whole ‘quest’ idea super inspiring.

Not only did it motivate me to finally start my ‘bucket list’, it also gave me the idea for a few mini quests that I’m working on this year.

My Quests for 2015

1. Cook every meal from David Tanis’ ‘Platter of Figs and Other Recipes’.

2. Post one photo on Instagram every day for a year.

3. Eat at every restaurant in Canberra on the Good Food Top 20 list.

4. Have a conversation in French in Paris.

The David Tanis Project

My best Christmas pressie this year was a copy of ‘A Platter of Figs ‘. I fell in love instantly with Tanis’ writing but even more so with the sound of his food.

I just love the way he tells a story about a meal and then gives the menu and recipes.

I also love that even though he is a chef, his favourite way to spend time with family and friends is to cook at home. A man after my own heart.

After reading the book cover to cover, an idea struck.

Maybe I should try and cook every meal from the book over the next year?

And the ‘Jules & David Project’ was born.

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japanese broccoli-2

If you’ve been reading Stonesoup for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a big believer in the power of simplicity in all areas of life. But especially in the kitchen.

And over Christmas I was reminded of just how complicated most published recipes are.

For our Christmas feast I decided to make a couple of salads from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s latest book, Plenty More.

I’m a huge fan of his books and if you’re looking for new ways to cook vegetables, I recommend having a look at Plenty More.

As with many chefs, the recipes I chose were super delicious. But when I was buying and preparing all the ingredients, I couldn’t help thinking that a bit of simplifying would make my life so much easier and I’m sure still totally tasty.

Anyway it got me thinking that while I did write recently about how simplifying my life has had such a positive impact, it’s been a while since we had a post focusing on simplicity in the kitchen. So at the risk of giving away all my secrets, here goes…

What is the easiest way to simplify recipes?

Easy. Remove any duplicate ingredients.

What do I mean by that?

I look at the ingredients which have similar form or function and then choose just one of each and replace the others with extra of my chosen ingredient.

It’s a bit tricky to explain in abstract terms so I have a real example of an Ottolenghi recipe I simplified for a lovely lunch over the holidays…

An example – Japanese Broccoli

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spiced eggplant with farro-3

This time 5 years ago I was staying in a tiny apartment in the beautiful city of Barcelona, trying to pretend I was Spanish. Without much success.

The main purpose of the trip was to have dinner at El Buli – at the time the best restaurant in the world.

As often happens when I travel, there was lots to think about.

To cut a long story short, I made the decision to leave my safe fun job designing chocolate biscuits (cookies) and have a go at turning my blog into a business.

I had no idea how I was going to do it. But that was part of the fun!

I did know WHAT I wanted to do.

I wanted to help people by sharing my knowledge of food science and my passion for simple healthy food. I was bursting to help people like you discover what I had – that delicious healthy meals need not be complicated or time consuming.

I wanted to share that by reducing the number of ingredients and using simple techniques, cooking can be amazingly easy, healthy AND tasty.

I had no idea what lay ahead. Not even the possibility that I could and would start an online cooking school helping students from places as far flung as Mozambique, Iceland and Peru.

It’s been so much more rewarding than I ever dared to dream.

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quick fish salad-2

Back in September, I ‘outed’ myself here on Stonesoup by revealing my 3 worst cooking habits. A bit of a brave move for an introvert like me.

Anyway, I promised to report back on my progress. So here we are!

BAD HABIT 1. Picking While I Cook

This is easily the toughest habit for me to break. So don’t be surprised that I still pick from time to time. But I do feel like I’ve made progress.

I’ve been tracking whether I feel ‘full’ or ‘hungry’ when I sit down to dinner in my habit tracking app on my phone (it’s called ‘habit keeper’). Usually it’s only one or two nights a week I’ve been over doing the ‘picking’.

Having more of a focus in this area has helped.

But the biggest change is that Fergal moved to having one nap a day. So we now have lunch at 2pm rather than midday. This means I’m much less hungry in the evenings.

It’s amazing how changes to your schedule can have a knock on effect to how much food you eat.

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beet caviar

Recently, my Irishman came across a fascinating documentary called ‘Gut Reaction: What You Eat Could be Making You Ill‘.

To cut a long story short, the program focused on the latest research on gut bacteria and health.

It boils down to this…

Eating processed food = unhealthy gut bacteria = unhealthy person.

and…

Eating lots of fiber from fruit and vegetables = healthy gut bacteria = healthy person.

I was surprised at the number of diseases linked to poor gut bacteria. They include emphysema, inflammatory bowel disease, MS, autism and asthma.

The clear message was healthy gut bacteria calm the immune system and reduce inflammation.

So even if you aren’t suffering from these diseases, your health will benefit from eating more veg and encouraging the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria.

How do you eat more veg?

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super moist zucchini & tuna salad-2

I often get asked where I get the ideas for my recipes and blog posts. And the truth is I find inspiration pretty much everywhere… magazines, restaurants, online, my veggie garden, when I’m looking in my fridge…

But one of my favourite places is the Stonesoup by request survey I set up to capture your questions or ideas for future blog posts.

It’s been a while since I took a request, so today I have a great one for you…

“How do you balance out saltiness? I liked your post on vinegar, and would like more of the food “sciency” posts!”
Marilen

For me, seasoning is the most important skill when it comes to making your meals taste delicious.

I’ve already written about ‘How to Season to Taste‘ and the ‘2 Most Common Seasoning Mistakes‘. If you need help with seasoning in general, they would be great places to visit.

But what happens when you add too much salt?

This isn’t a cooking mistake I make often. Basically, over salting is very difficult to rectify so I’m paranoid about not adding too much.

I always err on the side of under seasoning and have a jar of salt at the table for everyone to do the ‘fine tuning’ themselves.

But on the odd occasion I find myself with an excess salt situation, there is only one reliable method I turn to…

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asparagus bread torta-4

When I was studying biotechnology, (as part of my Food Science Degree) if you had asked me whether eating healthier could change your genetics, I would have automatically responded ‘no way’.

I used to think that our genes are something we’re born with. Something we can’t change.

So you can imagine my surprise when I happened across a study which showed the opposite.

Yes, changes in our lifestyles such as diet, exercise and stress levels actually change which genes are expressed in our bodies.

Amazing stuff.

In the study 30 men with low level prostrate cancer were tracked over 3 months where they changed their diets, exercised for 1/2 hour every day and engaged in stress management practices such as meditation.

As expected, the men all improved their health with lower blood pressure and weight loss. The surprising thing was they also changed the expression of around 500 genes.

Disease prevention genes were turned on and genes known to be linked to disease were turned off.

So next time you feel like getting pizza instead of cooking something fresh for yourself, remember this study.

Any positive changes you make to your lifestyle aren’t only going to impact your external health, it’s making a difference at the genetic level!

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