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Menu Planning

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Menu Planning

By Janet A. Zimmerman (JAZ)


"Planning a menu" can mean several different things, depending on whom you're talking to. Some cooks think of menu planning as something that only occurs on special occasions, while others plan menus for several days or even weeks before shopping for the ingredients. Factors to consider in menu planning can range from whether the meal is nutritionally balanced to how a meal looks and tastes to how easy it is to serve to a crowd.

The first consideration, nutritional content and balance, is not something I'll address here. Later on I'll discuss the logistics of various types of meal service and menus, but for the most part, this class will concentrate on the gustatory elements of menu planning: how to design a meal that tastes good from beginning to end.

For me, menu planning starts with analyzing individual recipes or dishes in terms of flavor profiles and textural elements. Trying to combine dishes into a complete menu without understanding what each contributes to the whole is likely to result in a haphazard collection of food, rather than a progression of complementary dishes. And although there are plenty of times when my "menu planning" consists of opening the refrigerator and pulling out whatever lies within, I try not to inflict that process on my dinner guests.

Taste and texture

Some of the elements of taste to think about are

1. how strong the flavors are, and how complex;

2. whether one taste dominates or several blend together;

3. and which of the basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami if you’re inclined to treat that as a separate taste) are present.

This last part is crucial, because the basic tastes interact and influence your palate in very definite ways. Overt sweetness tends to dull the palate; acid tends to "wake it up." A little salt can whet the appetite, but too much is deadening. Likewise with bitter tastes -- a little bitterness can be a great palate cleanser, but too much can overwhelm it.

Aside from the basic tastes, you should keep in mind that very strong flavors -- garlic, some herbs and spices, very ripe cheeses -- can also overwhelm the palate, which can mean that too much of them too early in the menu will lessen your ability to appreciate what comes after.

Textural elements include

1. how rich the dish is;

2. the acid content (which plays a crucial role in the mouthfeel of the dish);

3. whether the dish is crunchy, smooth, chewy or crisp (to name just a few of the possible textures);

4. and a whole host of sensations known as "chemo-sensory irritations" -- the burn of chiles, the heat of mustard or horseradish, the bite of mint and the tingle of carbonation (in drinks).

Probably the most important textural element is the balance of fat and acid, not necessarily within each dish, but within a menu. Fats and oils are wonderful ingredients -- they carry flavor, provide a nice "mouthfeel" and give one a sense of satiety. But too much of this very good thing can be cloying and seem to coat your mouth most unpleasantly. Too much acid alone is likewise just nasty. But a touch of acid to cut through the fat (or a bit of fat to round out the acid) provides a balance that works. It's one of the reasons that a simple salad with a tangy vinaigrette is so often served (at least in France) between a heavy meat course and a rich cheese course.

Another element to consider when planning a menu is the complexity of each of the dishes. If you have a very complex main dish – either one with several elements or one with multiple layers of flavor, you might want to consider serving simpler starters or side dishes. For example, if I’m making chicken breasts with a reduction of vermouth and orange juice and finished with cherry tomatoes and capers, I probably don’t want to serve it with a gratin of potatoes and cheese or a complicated risotto. If I really want to make the risotto or the gratin, I’ll be better off going with a simpler roasted chicken.

Something you've probably noticed is that many of the "main" ingredients we work with as cooks are relatively neutral in taste and malleable in terms of possible textural elements. That is, chicken, beef, tofu, pasta or potatoes can be prepared in very different manners, which will give them different flavor profiles and different textures. Crispy fried chicken will thus suggest different accompaniments than will, say, Thai chicken curry or rolled, stuffed chicken breasts.

Once you've analyzed your individual dishes for these components, you can begin to combine them into a menu.

Balance, continuity and contrast

From a gustatory standpoint, a well-designed menu does two things:

• It stimulates the palate but doesn't confuse it.

• It provides a sense of continuity but keeps one's interest with contrasting elements.

Continuity is something that often seems to get lost in many American menus. We draw upon so many different ethnic cuisines that it can be difficult to stick to one (witness the disaster called fusion food). Consider the following menu:

First course: Thai-influenced chicken soup, made with coconut milk and garnished with peanuts

Second course: Salad of sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella topped with basil.

Third course: Lamb skewers with mint yogurt sauce

It's not that any of these dishes were bad on their own. But going from Thailand to Italy to the Middle East is a dizzying journey in the space of one dinner. Unless you have a very good reason, stick with one general cuisine type throughout the dinner.

Also for continuity’s sake, it's best to stay with what's seasonal. This doesn't mean that I won’t use tomatoes in the winter, but it does mean that I try to stick with dishes that "feel like" summer, or winter (or whatever season) or are at least neutral on that front. Following a spiced pumpkin soup with pasta primavera, for example, is disconcerting to the diner.

Before I started to pay much attention to this sort of thing, I served the following menu to some friends. I had fallen into a trap: I really, really wanted to try out a new idea for a salad; but at the same time I'd had a request from one of the guests to make one of my "signature" dishes, beef braised with onions and porter; and I tried to do both. So to start, I had an Italian salad with several types of peppers (including some with a little heat), cherry tomatoes, onion, and olives, garnished with basil. I then followed it with the beef, which I served with mashed root vegetables.

Thus, with one menu, I broke both of the continuity rules. The salad was summery and Mediterranean, while the beef dish (Belgian, incidentally) had a much more fall or winter feeling to it, as did the root vegetable mash. No one complained, but it struck me quite forcefully during the dinner that I'd made a big mistake.

It wouldn't have been tough to remedy. I could have kept the salad but switched to a more Mediterranean preparation for the beef -- braised in wine with tomatoes and onions, perhaps. Or, as I've since done, I could have begun with a cabbage salad with carrot and apple, dressed with a warm caraway-studded vinaigrette and garnished with toasted pecans and crumpled crisp bacon.

Finally, think about the level of (for lack of a better word) sophistication of the dish. If you start out with foie gras on savory french toast or caviar and creme fraiche on new potatoes, it's probably better to stick with something on that level, rather than following with a country stew. Such a stark change can be an unwelcome break in the continuity of your meal. And it's just as true in reverse -- if you start out with a more rustic dish, you don't want to follow it up with a lobster thermidor (if people actually make that anymore). The good news is that it's pretty easy to give minor tweaks to many dishes to move them up and down the sophistication scale.

Okay, so you want some elements of continuity in any menu. But, naturally, a menu that has no contrasting elements will fail just as miserably as one with no continuity. Of course you can provide contrast with flavor combinations. And textural components that involve the way food breaks against the teeth -- whether it's crunchy or smooth, crispy or chewy -- should provide plenty of contrast. No one wants a meal that's uniformly smooth and creamy, or so unrelentingly crunchy that it seems more like a dental exercise than a dinner.

But I think that the most crucial type of contrast in a menu is the balance between rich, creamy, fatty foods and acidic or bitter components. Let me illustrate the point with this menu:

First course: Cream of portobello mushroom soup garnished with a chevre/creme fraiche mixture

Second: A caesar-type salad (no egg in the dressing, but very thick) with parmesan and croutons

Third: "Pan roasted" chicken breasts with sauteed mixed mushrooms folded into a sherry cream sauce, served with polenta enriched with cheese and butter

Dessert: an apple and cherry galette topped with cinnamon ice cream

The main flaw with this menu is the sheer volume of rich dairy products. Too much, and too much the same: cream, cream and cheese in the first course; cheese in the second; cream and cheese again in the third and ice cream in the dessert. Not only is the menu incredibly filling, there's no break for the palate: it starts out with major rich and creamy elements and every course repeats them. Overall, even though the dishes themselves may taste fine, the menu is just like a hike across a not terribly scenic plateau: no ups and downs and no relief in sight.

Can it be fixed? It can certainly be improved with some modifications. If you really want the soup, fine, but maybe garnish it with herbs to refresh or some crisped prosciutto (which, yes, is rich, but not creamy, and which would at least add some texture). Then go on with a salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. Some bitter greens or maybe toasted walnuts would also help to refresh the palate after the soup. For the next course, well, if you were set on the mushrooms, then roast them and use them as a base for the chicken breasts (I'd ditch the cheese and cream in the polenta too). A pan sauce with a little sweetness and acid could make the dish much more interesting, and if you felt the need for some fat, you could still enrich it with a little butter without repeating the creamy mouthfeel of the soup.

Progression of dishes

In most cuisine traditions, menus progress from subtler to more intense flavors, from light to heavy mouthfeel, and (often) from cold to hot dishes. The traditional French haute cuisine menu progression from fish to poultry to red meat may be cliché now, but there are valid reasons for it. As I mentioned previously, too many aggressive flavors can overwhelm the palate, lessening the impact of what comes after. Rich, heavy dishes early in the menu can satiate the diner too soon.

Also, think about this: you want your guests to stay interested in your dinner all the way to the end. If you start out with a showstopper, chances are that your next course will disappoint. Which is not to say that your hors d'oeuvre or first course can't be exquisite; it certainly can be. But it should function as does a good opening chapter in a novel: it draws you in, but leaves you wanting more.

Dinner styles

Before planning your menu, you'll need to decide the format of your dinner: buffet, family style, serial courses, or some combination of the three.

A buffet is, from a service standpoint, the easiest of the three to pull off for a large crowd. From a practical point of view, a buffet works well for a group with differing dietary needs. If your guests include some vegetarians, a cardiac patient, and an Atkins practitioner, a buffet with some dishes that each of them can eat could be your answer. The larger the group of guests, the harder it can be to plan a sequential dinner where the guests can all eat each of the courses.

The drawback to a buffet is that since your guests will be eating the various dishes all more or less at the same time, the progression of courses is all but non-existent. Thus you're going to want to prepare a menu of dishes that taste good together, or at the very least, don't clash with one another.

A family style dinner shares some of the elements of a buffet dinner in that your guests can take what they want and skip what they don't. They won't necessarily eat everything together, but the sequence of dishes is not guaranteed. A modified family style dinner can start out with a plated first course (soup, for instance, or a composed salad) and continue with the main course served family style. Such a dinner requires a bit more time for service than does a buffet, but not too much. It gives you some control over the sequence of dishes, but not absolute control.

A dinner with serial courses (usually plated) is the most labor intensive, from the standpoint of service. It also allows (or requires, depending on your viewpoint) you to plan the sequence of dishes with a great deal of control. It will put your guests in the position of not being able to skip any of the dishes without being obvious, so it can lead to some awkwardness if they have any dietary restrictions. It also limits the time you will be able to spend with your guests, unless you have help serving. If you want to serve a serial multi-course dinner, think hard about the amount of last-minute preparation that each dish will require, and plan accordingly. Get as much done in advance as is humanly possible and write out a detailed timetable for the rest. To keep the pacing of your dinner smooth, it's great if at least one of the courses can be prepared entirely in advance.

The practical side of menu planning

So much for theory. Now, how do you take all that information and actually come up with a menu? You can start from any of several points: a type of cuisine (Italian, Thai, Mexican), a particular ingredient or ingredients, a particular recipe. Unless you're planning a tasting menu, it's probably easiest to begin with the idea for the main course and work from there, but you can begin with any of the courses. Whatever the dish you begin with, think about the season, the ethnicity of the dish, the flavor profile and the textural elements, and then think about what other dishes will complement it.

I think the best way to explain this is to give an example, so here are a couple of menus I prepared along with the planning processes by which I arrived at them.

Menu #1 (plated, sequential)

First: Sliced jicama, red and green peppers, and blanched carrots tossed with a lime and jalapeno dressing

Second: Rock shrimp quesadillas with guacamole

Third: Pan grilled salmon with a cumin-coriander rub, topped with an orange and chipotle salsa. Served with rice.

For this dinner, I started out with two ideas. I wanted a Southwestern/Mexican menu, and there'd been some great salmon in my local market. Salmon, unlike some other fish, can stand up to some strong flavors, so I started thinking about a spice rub and some type of chile peppers. The orange and chipotle salsa, which also contains lime juice, red onion and cilantro, is something I'd made before and I thought it'd go well with the fish. Since the dish would be pretty complex, I decided on plain rice to accompany it.

I thought about starting with the quesadillas and then serving the vegetables, but the flavors in the dressing -- lime, chiles, garlic -- seemed too similar to the flavors in the salsa. And even though salmon is fairly rich, it still would have been an overload of acid. So I began with the vegetables and kept the quesadillas pretty mild, flavor-wise. The richness of the cheese and guacamole provided a nice contrast to the sharp flavors and acid of both the dressing in the preceding course and the salsa in the last course.

Menu #2 (modified family style)

First: Trio of salads: Roasted eggplant and zucchini salad, Moroccan garbanzo bean salad, Tabbouleh

Second: Lamb curry served over couscous

For this menu, I began with the dietary concerns of my guests (one trying to watch calories, the other trying to increase his consumption of whole grains and vegetables). For some reason, grains and vegetables suggested Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food to me, and I started playing around with some ideas for salads. I couldn't make up my mind about which of several to serve, so I finally decided to serve them all, as one course. The curry was made with yogurt, so it was relatively low in calories, yet it provided a creamy texture which, together with the richness of the lamb, balanced the acidity of the salads.

As you can see, neither one of these menus was particularly complex. Your menus don't have to be either. Start out small -- two or three courses. Plan family style or modified family style dinners if you find that easier. Remember, you don't have to plan eight- or ten-course tasting menus to rival the French Laundry's. But just putting a little thought into the dishes you prepare, their flavorings and accompaniments, and the order in which you serve them can turn a haphazard meal into a well designed dinner.

Suggested reading for more information:

Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

Ethnic Cuisine by Elizabeth Rozin

Copyright 2003 by Janet A. Zimmerman

Post your questions here -->> Q&A

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