The Meal Planner

I picked this cookbook off the shelf at my Dad's place last Spring.  I had accepted a full-time teaching position and knew that my life was about to get a WHOLE lot busier, but wasn't quite sure how to work in the dinner thing.  I read through this entire cookbook as if it was a manual.  I marked and bookmarked recipes to try, wrote down her strategies like Meal Kits, Morphing It (making one large recipe and then two to three subsequent recipes) and Dinner Express (less than 30 minutes) and even got ideas for how to adapt my own recipes into these strategies.  Since it was Spring when I was reading through it, I wanted to wait until the Fall when I was working full-time to really test out the recipes.  Do the strategies work?  Do the recipes taste good?  Can I get dinner on the table after working all day, picking the kids up from daycare and coming home exhausted?

Here's what I loved about this cookbook:

The ideas are fantastic and they do work.  I would spend an hour or two in the kitchen on Sunday afternoon while my kids napped, prepping meals, making "meal kits" and knocking a few recipes off the list.  When the week came, I was prepared.  Dinner was ready in 5 minutes with very little prep from this exhausted mom.  At first I was quite snobby towards the idea of pre-cooking then reheating pasta and the like, but it's really not horrible like I thought.  It actually tastes totally fine, and the time saved is awesome, like Angel Hair with Creamy Turkey Sausage and Wild Mushroom Sauce.  This dish was creamy and flavorful and the whole family liked it.  I tossed my pre-cooked pasta with the heated up sauce and dinner was on the table in no time.  In the same afternoon I made Baked Ziti with Turkey Sausage.  This was a casserole that I cooked and pre-assembled.  Later in the week, I came home and tossed it in the oven, quickly made a salad and then put my feet up while dinner baked.  

I also love that Miller thought outside the box in terms of what types of meals could be "morphed".  It's pretty typical to have a standard roast chicken recipe with subsequent shredded chicken quesadillas, chicken noodle soup, etc, but Miller's creativity is inspiring.  She morphs things like Herbed Fish Cakes, Roasted Salmon, Oven-Fried Chicken, Chicken Cacciatore and these Smoked Cheddar Stuffed Burgers.  These tasted great the first night and only took a few more minutes to prepare double what I needed, but then I was able to make Vegetable Beef Soup (called Vegetable-Beef Stew with Yukon Gold Potatoes in the book) and Spaghetti and "Meatballs" later in the week.  Neither "morphed" recipe had me overly excited...until I tasted them.  They were simple, good, comforting meals that my family loved.  

I was also happy to see that Coconut-Lime Chicken with Chiles from the Dinner Express chapter, actually took 20 minutes to make like it said it would.  Sometimes, chefs have a different idea of what can be prepared in 30 minutes than the average home cook does.  

Robin Miller is very experimental in her flavor combinations, which I love. Her recipes aren't typical and she is very cross-cultural.  Her un-typical recipes choices leads to some pretty amazing and exciting flavor combinations like Apricot-Jalapeno Chicken with Sesame Noodles.  The sauce for the chicken is made of pureed pickled jalapenos, apricot preserves and cilantro, and served over soba noodles that have been tossed with sesame oil, green onions and minced pickled ginger.  I would have NEVER thought to put all those things together, and yet it created this spicy sweet sticky chicken and all the flavors melded beautifully (this recipe for Honey-Jalapeno Chicken from her show on Food Network is very similar, except she swapped a fresh jalapeno for 1/2 cup pickled jalapeno, honey for apricot preserves and a rotisserie chicken for the chicken breasts....if you want to try it).  

She has a whole chapter on Simple Sides which is nice.  It's easy to do something like a pot of rice or a bagged salad as a side dish, but I liked that her ideas were still quick and simple, yet exciting. One of my favorite dishes I tried from this cookbook was her recipe for Teriyaki Bok Choy with Cashews.  I have a new favorite Asian side dish!  It's a simple saute of bok choy with sesame oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a bit of teriyaki sauce.  Finished off in 5 minutes with a sprinkling of cashews.  Dead easy and yet different than what I would normally do.

Other things to love about this cookbook: she has desserts!  This ridiculously easy Frozen Lime Pie I was able to make on the busiest night of the week and proudly serve dessert to my guests. I even had a couple people ask for the recipe!  Her Raspberry Banana Bread was also fantastic and I had it mixed up and in the loaf pan before the oven had even preheated.  Miller is also a nutritionist so I trust that her recipes aren't full of fat or calories.  
The raspberry-banana bread actually doesn't even have a drop of oil or butter in it and very little sugar, yet still turned out (and tasted) wonderful.  She likes to swap chicken broth for oil, which is okay sometimes (but not so great in salad dressings). 

Okay.  Some of the things I didn't love:

In a few cases, Miller is rewriting and offering up the same recipe over and over again.  Chicken Salad with Peanut-Lime Vinaigrette (pg 90) is almost exactly the same as Thai Chicken Salad with Peanuts and Lime (pg 106).  Roasted Salmon with Sweet 'n' Hot Mustard Glaze (pg 68; which we loved by the way) and Tarragon Salmon with Sweet 'n' Hot Mustard Sauce (pg 184) and Sweet Mustard Glazed Salmon Fillets (pg 185) were basically (as you can imagine) the same recipe.  She swaps tarragon for dill, or cumin and brown sugar for honey, thats it.  As a reader/purchaser of this book, I feel a little ripped off.  The book boasts "200 simple, delicious recipes", but if you rewrite the same recipe over and over it's more like, what....195 recipes? 192?  In both cases, it could have been one recipe with a note saying "swapping dill for tarragon is a great substitution" or "try brown sugar and cumin next time instead of honey".  

As much as I loved her creativity in the "Morph It" section, one of the flaws is the INSANE prices you would pay for the ingredients.  Red Wine and Black Pepper Glazed Filet Mignon requires you to buy FOURTEEN filet mignon steaks to then turn into Artichoke Steak Melts with Smoked Provolen and Basil Mayo, Steak Soft Tacos with Asparagus Spiked Guacamole and Steak & Marinated Vegetable Salad over Acini de Pepe.  Don't get me wrong, the recipes sound fabulous, I could just NEVER afford to buy those ingredients for 4 nights worth of meals.  Maybe this is a silly critique, since this book is not an "eat cheap" or "cook affordably" cookbook, it's about saving time in the kitchen.  And in her defence, she does save the home cook time in the kitchen and she helps us do a tasty job doing it.

In the end, I actually loved this cookbook more than I thought I would.  I'd had some flops before, having tried some of Miller's recipes from the Food Network website, and wasn't so sure she could convince me that this cookbook was both useful AND delicious. But she proved me wrong.  I might just have to steal this book a little longer from my Dad.

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2 Responses
  1. kylee Says:

    Oooh, that is good to know! Great review, thanks :)

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Hey just bumped into this wonderful meal planner!
    Always looking for a new idea- Really.... 365 days of different meals ! ohh yeah except a few holidays, anniversary's Birthdays....
    hmmmm Im looking for 2 kinda meals- meals for volume with protein carbs and veggies and meal 2 for those of us who hafta what what we eat - moms and dads!
    So any ideas for volume food for football players would really be helpful- 2 over 6'3 boys 188 lbs
    cant feed them enough! Got ideas? would love to see eating for Athletes what to do as a parent-