Plan it, cook it, eat it

Call me crazy, but I love cooking big complicated meals for large groups of people.  (Which is probably why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.)

So I was more than happy to abandon my normal daily routine yesterday and spend the day in the kitchen, prepping, pounding, peppering and pan-frying for a group of friends and colleagues from the hubs’ office.

Want to know my secret for keeping the kitchen stress-free?  Post-it notes.

Laugh at me if you want, but it works. This is my go-to method for managing multiple recipes at once.  I call it Critical Path Cooking.

Back in my cubicle days, I worked in litigation consulting and we occasionally dealt with construction disputes wherein the parties were essentially fighting over what went wrong when (and of course whose should pay for it).  Analyzing such situations required a form of Critical Path Analysis: basically, the dissection of a project in to its most basic tasks and arrangement of those tasks relative to their duration and dependence on one another.

In other words: you can’t carve the Turkey until it’s done roasting.  And roasting a Turkey takes a while.

Whenever I undertake a complicated cooking project, I make a mini critical path on post-its and arrange it right in the middle of my counter.  (I prep stuff right on top of it!)  Here are the basic steps to Critical Path Cooking:

1) First, I go through all of my recipes in detail and write each major task on its own post it note.  I also include measurements and cooking times and temperatures, which saves me from revisiting the recipe over and over again.  For example: “Chop shallots for sauce (1/4 C)” or “Bake tartlets (25 min, 375*).”

2) Then, I lay out each recipe’s tasks in order across the counter, horizontally.

3) And then I rearrange the tasks in to an work plan that makes sense, making sure to keep the dependencies of each individual recipe in proper order – for example, the broth needs to be reduced before it can go in to the sauce, so those two must stay in that order.

4) Horizontal orientation = chronological.  Vertical orientation = simultaneous.  So I might have a vertical “stack” of three tasks that can happen more or less at once:  for example, “Boil Water,” “Chop Onions,” “Thaw Puff Pastry.”  Note that these tasks could be from three different recipes.

5) Some things to keep in mind:

  • Tasks that create something that can be made ahead and sit for a while should go toward the beginning.
  • Tasks that create something that should be served immediately go toward the end.
  • Pay attention to time-intensive tasks and schedule them appropriately.  One thing that I love about organizing my cooking this way is that it forces me to pay attention to potentially catastrophic details that are often buried in recipes: “Shit, that sauce has to simmer for an hour?  But dinner’s in fifteen minutes!”
  • Manage your burners and your oven.  Looking at my post-its, I can actually visualize what’s going to be cooking where, and when.  No more standing there with a pan full of something that needs to be simmered and four occupied burners.  And the efficiency!  Thing A cooks at 350*, then the temp goes up to 400* and Thing B goes straight in.  Saves a lot of pre-heating and re-heating.

A few more of the benefits to Critical Path Cooking:

It’s great for cooking with others. It is far more efficient to divide or delegate discrete tasks across multiple recipes, rather than just saying, “Oh, you make the chicken and I’ll make the potatoes.”  With Critical Path Cooking, everyone is on the same page.  No more competing for burners or oven space.  You can even have people initial the post-it note when “claiming” a task.  (I’m a nerd, I know!)

It’s far more efficient when cooking alone, too. Have a few minutes to kill while waiting for that butter to melt?  Take a look at your array of post-its and pick off something quick and easy.

It’s highly satisfying to cross off those notes.  And it really helps me keep a sense of my own progress as the day wears on.

It’s flexible.  Unlike a to-do list or written recipe or work plan, you can move the notes around.  I do this often, tweaking things as I go, often realizing that there’s a better way of doing things.

It’s kind of fun.  Seriously.  I mean, we’ve established that I’m a giant dork, but it really is rather enjoyable to sit down with my cup of coffee at the outset of a big cooking project and lay all of this stuff out.


Here’s last night’s menu:

Appetizer: Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Tartlets (via Food Network) [recipe]

Salad: Blood orange, shaved fennel and prosciutto over mixed greens with orange vinaigrette

Main: Chicken Marsala [recipe] and Fontina Risotto Cakes [recipe] (both via Epicurious)

Dessert: Cake Pops – yellow cake with chocolate and fudge brownie with blue vanilla.  (I know these are allllll over the interwebs but they are still so fun and pretty – I used this tutorial from The Kitchn as my guide)

No photos of dinner, because I think it’s kind of weird to whip out your camera when you’re entertaining.  But I did get some pics of cake pops:

Just adorable.

In the middle of all of that crazy cooking, I managed to get out for an easy 7.5-mile run.  My feet were aching from running around the kitchen all day!

Happy Wednesday!  My nose will be firmly planted on the grindstone this afternoon, in a feeble attempt to make up for playing with food all day yesterday.


26 responses to “Plan it, cook it, eat it

  1. Um, wow. And I thought that my spreadsheet method was intense. Now I want to go out and buy lots of post-its to plaster my kitchen with. Or I need to one-up you and Gantt chart my next dinner extravaganza. Also, I’ll make you a deal – you invite me the next time you make cake pops and risotto cakes, and I’ll invite you the next time I make mac & cheese and cake. Yes?

  2. I’m a list person. I write and rewrite them when I’ve got baking/cooking that involves multiple recipes and steps. Sometimes we all have to let out the nerd that lives inside. :p

  3. I got tired just reading this post. Sounds like it was a really busy day. Your cake pops tuned out great- like something you’d pay a lot for money for at a bakery or candy store.

  4. lifeisbeachykeen

    Holy crap. This is the most intimidating organized thing I’ve ever seen. I’m w/ RunBlondie, this wore me out just reading this!

    Those cake pops are adorable. My new goal in the kitchen is to be like Shelby. Wowsers!

  5. oh my, that is so brilliant! I love how organized it is. More often than not, I usually have food in varying stages of cooked-ness and mess when making stuff for a lot of people. I may try your strategy! The cake pops look adorable!

  6. You are amazing. Maybe this is what I need to avoid some of the dismal kitchen failures I’ve had?? Love the cake pops. They are honestly just beautiful. I’ll bet they tasted fabulous too 🙂

  7. Wait a minute, I thought you wrote a post awhile ago about how you weren’t organized!? You should patent this cooking system.

  8. Genius. That pretty much sums it up.

  9. This is great! Your cake pops are making me hungry!

  10. This looks amazing Shelby! We’ve often said half the fun of a large dinner party is the prep…glad to know we’re not the only nerds out there that find so much pleasure in the planning. 🙂 I might have to abandon my trusty notebook and checklist for the sticky notes. Stacking beats drawing lines and trying to keep track of columns. How did the risotto cakes turn out? I’d love to give them a try!

    • They were awesome! I actually made them a couple of hours in advance (um, do not want to be deep frying with guests hanging around the kitchen) and kept them warm in the oven on a roasting rack until dinner time. Definitely try them!

  11. I am so confused right now. I really don’t get organization.

    I do however, get the idea that CAKE POPS ARE TEH AWESOME.

  12. Interesting! The bf and I just went through a whole ordeal with meal planning and we made an excel spreadsheet. I’ll be checking out this method. I’m confused but I think if I give it a try it will make sense. 🙂

  13. um. you are awesome. love it!!!

  14. So I’m not a huge organized anal-retentive list person at all, but I actually really like your methodology here: the idea of the whole system, all laid out so that one can maximize efficiency, rearrange steps as necessary and not get punked by any of those “catastrophic details that are often buried in recipes.”

  15. That seems complicated to me, but if it works for you… 😀
    How many post-it notes do you go through a week? lol
    Cake Pops look yummy!

  16. Ok, wanna know my first thought upon seeing your post-it extravaganza? Jealousy. And then I started looking for post-its while simultaneously thinking about how I can use this system in SOOOO many ways! 🙂

    Point #2: I had this version of cake pops a few weeks ago and about died. My mom just made them for a Super Bowl party and people were stealing them to put in their purses for later.

    1 pkg Oreos
    1 brick cream cheese
    1 pkg white almond bark or white chocolate.

    Whiz Oreos to smithereens in a food processor. Add the cream cheese and whizz again. Make your balls and dip. Mmmmmm/

  17. Umm…Shelby? This is kind of nuts. In a not-bad way, but still, legit kind of OCD. Although, I have to say, the reality of Critical Path is a lot better than the sound of “Critical Path,” which could easily be some robe-wearing, flower-handing-out-in-the-train-station religion. “Come on our Critical Path…”

  18. I did the same thing in college with post-its. Everything I had to get done each week from papers to assignments to laundry to calling my aunt for her birthday got its own note, they were arranged in a square array on my desk, and each time I finished something I threw the note out.

    Felt. freaking. amazing. Every time. And I loved filling the desk up almost as much as emptying it off.

    I don’t think you’re nuts. I will totally try this. Thanks for posting!

  19. Speaking from personal experience, I would just like to say that this post it method really works well ….especially when you are in someone else ‘s kitchen trying to help them cook Thanksgiving dinner. All Shelby had to do was pull a post it from the counter and hand it to me and I knew exactly what help was needed.
    I was skeptical at first but quickly became a big fan.
    Smart kid! Glad that college education paid off!

  20. I love this! Post it scheduling is genius! I use post-its as to-do lists, but never thought of arranging them as a schedule!

    And cake pops, YUM!

  21. This is just sick.

    And I’m a little in love. And just a wee bit jealous.

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