Only The Sum of Its Parts: Planning a Menu That Works Together
Putting together a meal is like putting together a team. You can take team to mean sports, work, trivia, or what have you. The important thing is that a team of any kind is most successful when all of the members/parts work together. Some parts are the leaders or stars… others have supporting roles. When two parts start to compete with each other, problems ensue. This all pertains to menu planning. In my blog post Menu Planning: Having Guests for Dinner, I cover the basic things to consider when planning a menu for dinner guests. This time, I will focus more on making sure the different elements of your menu are working together as a team and not conflict with one another.
Determine what is the “star” or “leader” of your meal. This may or may not be your main course. There should only be one though. Too many stars, or to give a food appropriate adage “Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen”, can cause your dishes to compete with one another. And why go to all the work to make multiple star dishes for a meal and have them cancel each other out.
Mind your flavor combinations. Think about what foods go well with one another. And which ones don’t. Just because you like two different dishes does not mean that they work together on the same plate. They belong in two different teams. Pick one and save the other for a different meal. Or — set up a buffet. Then it is a free for all!
Sauces — less is more. If your main dish has a sauce, maybe your side shouldn’t have a separate sauce which could affect the way your taste buds respond to the other sauce. With that, one sauce that can handle multiple dishes can be a big winner. For instance, my cheese sauce does double duty if I make both steamed broccoli and our potato wedges. And then I usually combine that with a simple meat prep. The sauce has become the star!
Time is precious. If one of your dishes takes up a lot of time and preparation, consider having your other dishes be quicker and easier to prepare. That way you’re not spending all your time in the kitchen and ignoring your guests.
Sweet verses Savory. If you have a sweeter item on your menu (like our brown-sugar glazed carrots), make sure you have some savory to balance it.
Heavy verses Light. Make sure not to weigh down your meal with too many heavy (rich and filling) dishes. Make sure there is a balance so the meal does not get over-whelming. And make sure to take dessert into this equation. If your main meal is looking a bit on the heavier side, offer a lighter option for dessert.
Plate Presentation…What colors do you see? This is completely based on preference. But I like to see a little color variety on my plate. So for example, if we’re having chicken I usually won’t make cauliflower unless one of them has a red sauce going with it.
Test things out. In a lot of cases, you won’t know what dishes work well (or don’t work well) until you try. Take time to experiment with your day to day meals. See what flavor combinations work best for you. And just think, if no one ever experimented we would never know about chocolate and peanut butter!
Last night I made some seasoned ribs that we got from our beloved local butcher, Westphalia Market. The ribs were great, but pretty simple. That gave an opportunity for a side dish to be the star. Enter mashed potatoes. But not just ordinary mashed potatoes. Oh no. To reach the star spot, I mashed them with sour cream, aged cheddar, and bacon. Then topped them with fresh chives! I then took the bacon flavor idea and carried that into the green beans. After blanching the green beans, I then sauteed them with shallots and a little dollop of bacon grease! The whole meal took on a bit of a Southern feel. The flavors complimented one another perfectly and there was a great balance. And of course, to top off our meal… our Cornbread with Roasted Jalapeno Butter!!
The main take-away is that a meal should be an awesome party for your mouth. Make sure that your taste buds, and those of your guests, are dancing around, excited about your menu choices.