lessons from the kitchen
last night as i was making dinner, i found myself mulling over my own personal evolution as a home cook. preparing meals seems so routine now, but the truth is that 10 years ago, i didn’t know how to make anything, really. senior year of college [off of the meal plan — definitely a poor choice!], i subsisted on black bean & cheddar quesadillas made on our little george foreman, and pasta with jarred sauce. the tastes [i thought] of independent adulthood! but they got old fast.
as i venture into the next phase of cooking responsibility — eventually feeding an entire family — i think this past decade has prepared me well. while i don’t know if our baby girl will grow up to be incredibly picky or completely open-minded, i know that i will continue to try my best to provide her with healthy meals made at home.
yes, hopefully even early on!
things i’ve picked up over the past 10 years
i am FAR from an expert chef. i have no ‘knife skills’, and i would fail miserably on chopped, because i tend to stick to the ingredients and types of recipes that i know i will be able to make successfully [usually with time constraints!]. my year of martha did force me to branch out and gave me some much-needed experience with preparing different cuts of meat, but i still prefer not to deal with the mess of a whole chicken or the tediousness of homemade ravioli. especially on a weeknight.
but in general, i get food on the table — usually fairly healthy fare with a decent amount of flavor and a minimum of mess. i’m proud of how far i’ve come! so here is the advice i feel like i could have used 10 years ago . . .
PLAN IT. ~90 minutes on a sunday afternoon is generally all it takes [time to make a quick list + do a grocery run], but without this time investment i find myself hopelessly unable to follow through the rest of the week. i’ve written an in depth post on how i like to go through this weekly ritual, so i won’t belabor those points. but for me, having a plan and the ingredients at home is of utmost importance. without it, we end up spending far more $ and likely more time procuring takeout.
choose recipes wisely. i pay a lot of attention to prep time guidelines on the recipes i select, and as a general rule favor 30 minutes [or less] for weeknight meals. exceptions are soups, chilis, and the like, as these creations take time to stew but it’s not active cooking time. i probably spent 25 minutes throwing last night’s dinner together and then got to relax while it simmered away.
poblano-jalopeno chili, march 2012 cooking light
mise en place: within reason, of course. i don’t necessarily feel that EVERY ingredient needs to be precisely measured out and prepared before starting to cook [after all, those 30 minutes of simmering are a perfect opportunity for grating cheese / making salad / chopping parseley / etc]. but when i started cooking, i’d often fail to read ahead in my recipe and realize 20 minutes in that i needed finely chopped onion or minced garlic for a later step. this freestyle method is frustrating, annoying, and not conducive to great outcomes.
generally, i skim the recipe and then spend the first 10-15 minutes of any dinner prep time just chopping/dicing/mincing. only one knife/cutting board need to be used that way, and it makes the rest of the process so much more pleasant! it feels as easy as it looks on cooking shows — only in this case, i’m generally my own sous-chef.
control the heat: i used to burn things more than i do now. it’s just so tempting to turn those burners up to ‘HIGH’ when you’re hungry and want dinner to be done 20 minutes ago. but after my 300th or so chicken breast blackened on the outside while remaining raw in the middle [not to mention the sad smell of singed garlic], i finally understood that lower heat is often the answer.
if i’m feeling impatient, often i work on another task or get started on cleanup. generally, with distractions cooking times seem to fly by MUCH faster than without!
little touches can add a lot: and they don’t have to be fancy! the chili from above went up about 6 notches when some sliced radishes, grated cheddar, and greek yogurt were layered on top.
clean up as you go: this is essential for me because there is nothing i hate more than eating dinner KNOWING that i have a huge mess to tackle afterwards. unless we’re throwing a fancy dinner party, there is no reason why most of the dishes can’t be dealt with already by the time the meal is on the table. i try my hardest not to be redundant with saucepans and skillets [we don’t have very many, which helps!] and often we just throw the main pot into the fridge once we’re done for leftovers the next day [ie, no need to portion into extra containers just to create more dishes to wash!].
be flexible: i used to fret if i didn’t have a specific ingredient — say, a particular spice or vegetable. i’d even consider a quick [and annoying] run to the store! now i have completely let go of the need to ‘perfectly’ recreate a given recipe. it’s just a guideline, right? and it can be more fun to come up with substitutions that work really well. it’s only dinner, after all.
have a few of your own standards: super-easy, healthy dinners that can be whipped up with minimal effort. here’s one of ours:
be realistic: this really goes back to planning, but i feel like this deserves one extra mention. i think i’ve done a much better job in the recent months tailoring my plans to the amount of time/energy that i’m truly likely to have on any given night. sundays are for the more elaborate recipes, and there is DEFINITELY a time and a place for restaurants and takeout! this week, for example, is going to be pretty hectic [although fun], and i didn’t plan very many at-home meals.
that’s pretty much it for the kitchen wisdom i’ve gleaned over the past decade. as always, further contributions/tips are welcome!