Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Game Design

Some people make a menu for a shabbat meal by sitting down at the table with a pad and paper and a bunch of cookbooks. I make a menu by looking in the fridge.

My first rule is to use up what's already there. Half a can of tomato sauce. Dill. Mint. Two grapefruits. A half bottle of white wine. Open can of mushrooms. Half an onion. Carrots. Broccoli. These ingredients are just sitting around and will spoil if they are not used.

The next rule: every week I make at least one thing that I've never made before. It could be a new recipe, or just something I make up. True, a half a can of something means that the other half was already used this week. My job is to use it in a way that whoever used the first half didn't.

I made chicken with mushrooms and wine a few weeks ago. What else can I do with the wine?

This week's idea: wine and grapefruit sections. Section the grapefruits, soak in wine, add sugar, mint, and cinnamon. Yum. It sounds good on paper, but how will it work out?

My first problem is trying to separate the grapefruit sections and take them out of their membranes. Apparently this is not one of my skills. About half of them I manage to get out two thirds of the way. The remaining half fall into pieces or crumble into their individual pulp sections.

The rest of it is easy enough, and it turns out to be tasty. Only, I think it could be better by having the grapefruits served in a more viscous syrup rather than just a liquid. I'll have to try again.

OK, what's next?

I have a bunch of potatoes to use up. I make potato kugel too often; what should I do with these? And that onion? My onions often dry out when I cook them with the chicken. And my chicken often sticks to the bottom of the pan. I decided to solve all of this at once by cooking the chicken on top of the onions in water, and then adding the onions to the potatoes.

The remainder of the meal is simple inspiration, but the timing has to work. Cook carrots in water, remove, mix with Moroccan spices. Barely cook broccoli in the same water, remove, rinse until cool, mix with Chinese seasoning. Cook "soup" noodles in same water, remove, rinse, toss with oil and set aside. Use veggie water as soup stock, add some salt, tomato sauce, dill, kohlrabi, chicken pieces and celery.

Brew an iced tea.

Shabbat Menu for 6

Tomato chicken soup with kohlrabi and celery, topped with noodles.
Chicken and mushrooms
Moroccan carrots
Chinese broccoli
Potatoes and onions
Grapefruit in white wine
Ice tea

The above was created ad hoc, so we have to rewrite the directions in order to streamline the preparations:

Ingredients: tomato sauce, mushrooms (fresh is best), chicken, onions, kohlrabi, celery, carrots, broccoli, cumin, tumeric, paprika, salt, pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil, veg oil, garlic, potatoes, teabags, grapefruit, mint, white wine, sugar, dill, short thin noodles, cinnamon, oregano.

1 - Add enough chopped onions to cover greased pan
2 - Add chicken pieces (save some for soup) and mushrooms, salt, pepper (opt: brown sugar)
3 - Cover pan and begin baking
4 - Add carrots chopped to 1 inch pieces into boiling water
5 - When carrots are half done, add broccoli chopped to 2 inch pieces
6 - Remove carrots and broccoli from water and rinse until cool
7 - Add potatoes to water and continue boiling
8 - Separate broccoli to bowl and add soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, and sugar to broccoli.
9 - Add garlic, cumin, tumeric, salt, and olive oil to carrots
10 - Remove potatoes when done and chop into chunks
11 - Add noodles to water for a few minutes; remove and toss with veg oil
12 - Place potatoes in greased pan and cover with paprika, oregano, salt, pepper
13 - Add salt, tomato sauce, dill, kohlrabi, chicken pieces and celery to soup and cook
14 - Brew teabags in 2 quart pitcher
15 - Separate grapefruit sections and place in bowl with wine, cinnamon, mint and sugar
16 - Remove chicken from oven when done
17 - Remove onions from chicken and place on potatoes
18 - Toss and fry potatoes and onions a bit
19 - Remove teabags, add sugar


Of course, all shabbat meals also include: challah and wine/grape juice. In Israel, they also include "salatim", such as hummus, red eggplant, and so on. And my wife always makes a green salad. Your own family may have different ideas of what makes a meal.

The timing is important. You don't want to cook the broccoli in the potato water. You want to cook the broccoli first. That way you don't have to rinse the starch off of the broccoli. You need to cook the potatoes before mixing with the cooked onions. And so on. It works together pretty well in the right order. If you change one thing, you have to consider the balance, timing and flavor combinations of the entire menu.

Another thing about timing is to ensure that the whole process doesn't take all day. By combining the elements in a staggered way and using various cooking techniques, I can have three things going at once. The whole process takes about two hours, not including cleanup, which is about right for a shabbat meal. That same amount of time would be too long for a weekday meal.

Of course, a menu can't be a success until it is tested. You will find that what you like doesn't always correspond to the likes of your family. You also have to be prepared to deal with leftovers, as a dish that is tasty right after it is cooked may not be as appetizing the next day. In the same vein, a menu that worked one day can become stale when repeated too often. Some people like to eat the same foods day after day. Some like to try something different all the time.

It is definitely possible to make changes. From my experience, every menu is really just the jumping point to the next one. After all, I came up with this one by accident. It is not the exact outcome that matters, but the basic ideas. All it takes is some style and a willingness to experiment knowing that you may have to throw away some mistakes.


1 comment:

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Ah, if only it were so easy.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), my menus come out ok with a more regular consistancy than my game designs.

But, yeah, that's about how I try to design a game.