I plan to grow this section over time, and include a variety of things from measurement conversion charts to money saving tips and my philosophy of flavor, but … for now … to start …
Cooking is something that takes time to learn. I’ve been cooking since I was a child and still learn every day. Practice and routine will help you learn to cook.
Some people burn water and others are old pros, but all can and will learn more by getting into the kitchen and burning stuff. Our best lessons are learned from our mistakes. So, don’t be afraid to make some. If you can … you can eat it, too!
In order to take stock of your way of eating, you’ll need to spend more time in the kitchen. In my experience, cooking 95% of my meals has saved me time and money. Sure, it requires more effort, but so did trips to the store, money in the gas tank, etc. Those pizza delivery tips added up, too!
Practice practice practice. It’s a good thing, any which way you look at it.
This is a terrible word. Yuck. Who wants discipline? It sounds like work and like something I’d totally like to avoid. However … here’s a little secret … discipline is a real time saver and a reducer of stress!
When cooking, there’s a loose protocol that I always follow:
If cooking from a recipe, read the recipe.
Read it from top to bottom and visualize in my mind the steps I’ll need to take. This is important. Imagine starting a recipe, get it half way completed, then notice that the 8th step suggests, “Marinate overnight”, but you’ve got your mother-in-law coming for dinner in 30 minutes. Whoops! Should’ve read that recipe!
In order of priority, always start the long projects first.
If you’re going to make a complex soup and a simple salad, sure making the salad might seem easy to just throw together and set aside, but you’re doing yourself a disservice. Start the soup. Get it simmering away and developing flavors. It’s always better to have the complicated and time consuming things done first, and in process. Worst case scenario, your visiting Spanish cousins can help throw together the salad at the last minute, when they arrive, but if that soup isn’t done … NO SOUP FOR YOU! I can’t stress enough how important it is to start the big projects first. Save the little quick, simple easy projects for last. That salad would’ve wilted, anyway …
When cooking, save yourself steps.
It may sound silly, but walking around your kitchen, opening the refrigerator repeatedly, getting one ingredient at a time, as you need it, reaching into low hanging cabinets for pots and pans, over and over … this wastes a lot of time. All these little steps add up. Stop it! Think ahead a little bit. If you’re read your recipes and thought through the steps you need to take, you should have a fairly strong sense of what you’ll need to use throughout the cook. When reaching into the cabinets, grab ALL the pots and pans you’ll need for the day. When looking for spices and other pantry items, grab everything you’ll need, all at once. Make a nice tight little pile near where you plan to work. Do the same thing with your refrigerated items. Open the door once, save a little on the electric bill, and grab everything you’ll need. Unless it’s going to rot, wilt or melt, a head of broccoli sitting on the countertop for 30 minutes isn’t going to hurt anyone, you’ll save some time and the broccoli is just happy to feel some warm air on its florets, anyway. Point being, do as much as you can, in consolidated steps. Do more in less time. If you always strive for this, in a very short while, you’ll clearly see the benefits … plus it’ll become second nature!
Be organized and consistent.
This is maybe too much information, but it’s a bit of a mantra for me. There’s a French term in professional kitchens, that is relentlessly pursued and followed. That term, or concept, is “Mis en Place”. It means “Things in Place”. I’m not sure how relevant this is to the home cook, but it’s a concept that runs deeply through my veins. So, I imagine it’s worth sharing. Ultimately, it’s a term that suggests everything has its place in your kitchen, during your preparations of food, the way you prioritize yourself and travel through your kitchen, etc. They say “mis en place” is physical, just as much as it is mental. There are serious die hard cooks, sweating in fast paced kitchens in Manhattan, right now, who will swear, as they dance through their routines, that “mis en place” has taken on an almost spiritual nature for them. It is the keystone for any good cook. Be organized and consistent. If you have a salt shaker and want to season your food, put the salt shaker back where it belongs. It has a place. Always … ALWAYS … return the salt shaker to its rightful home, in your kitchen. Imagine, you’re about to burn something on the stove, and you need to season it right before you remove it. You reach for the salt and … IT’S NOT THERE! Now, you’ve very probably burned your food AND you’re now wasting time trying to find the salt. If the salt were where it belonged, you’d have a quick and almost effortless meal. This extends to how you organize your kitchen, from the canned goods in the cabinets, to the way you stack your bowls under the counter. It’s important that these things stay in the same spots, as much as possible. Keep things clean, organized and within reach, as you cook. IT WILL SAVE YOU TIME AND MAKE FOR BETTER FOOD.
Clean as you go. Or, put another way, “Work Clean!“
This has a double meaning. First, there’s always going to be moments between moments, where you can wash a dish, or two. If you put a pot on the stove to start boiling, and there’s no immediacy in any of your next steps, take a moment to scrub a dirty pot. Always use little breaks to wash and dry dishes. If you plan to use it again, leave it out and put it in your pile of things to use. If you’re done with it, put it away (hopefully with a lot of other stuff, at the same time … putting things away, one at a time, can also take extra time). It’s also intended to imply you should keep things sanitary. Wash your lettuces and melons. Wash your hands. Don’t cut raw chicken on a cutting board, then cut salad tomatoes on the same board, with the same knife, without washing it. This is a quick way to make people sick. And, even though I’ve already said it … wash your hands! Dirty hands are the number one reason for food borne illnesses. Work Clean!
Ok, that’s pretty much it.
Odds and Ends
The only other two things that seem appropriate to list here might be:
I tend to cook a lot on Sundays. I make things like soup bases, sauces, lasagnas, casseroles, shredded/cooked (not the good fast delicate stuff, but the overcooked, soft, shreddy kind of stuff) on Sundays. Then, I vacuum pack it and freeze it. During the week, I will pull out a soup base and throw some quick fresh veggies into it, and warm up a casserole, for example. I do my big cooks on the weekends, and plan accordingly. Plus, this always leaves me something in the freezer, for nights when I get caught off guard and simply don’t have time to cook. Then, as the week progresses, I mix and match quick fresh stuff, with the defrosted and reheated stuff from the freezer. It’s a real time saver and keeps me always eating home cooked meals. Finally, when I get surprise visitors, it’s also really easy to whip up a full feast for them! (defrost mode in a microwave is something you may want to familiarize yourself with)
Make a checklist.
When I have a lot to do, I make a list of everything I need to do. This may sound like overkill, but it’s actually a great exercise. First, it forces you to think through every little thing you need to do, including the details, but it also minimizes stress. You can plainly see everything that needs done. Finally, it’s a ton of fun to strike the pen though the items, as you cross them off, one by one. I love that!
Finally … Seasoning
Cook things properly, in the right order and season as you go.
In general, food should be cooked properly. I could make the case that it’s better to UNDER cook your foods, than it is to OVERcook your foods. Undercooked foods tend to have more nutrients, your body needs to work harder to process them (meaning you’ll probably absorb less sugar into your blood stream), you’ll have more texture and color, and more vibrancy of flavors. There are many people who eat purely raw foods and swear by it. Work towards a fresher style in your kitchen. Also, salt, sugar (or … more specifically a sugar equivalent, like Erythritol) and acid (lemon juice, vinegar, wine, etc.) are all flavor enhancers. If you are making a recipe, involving multiple steps, throw a little smattering of salt into each step, or a light squeeze of lemon juice. Allow these flavor enhancers to permeate the food and get deeper into whatever it is that you might be cooking. This goes A GREAT distance towards making food worth talking about. Season as you go, even if the recipe doesn’t fully call for it … always season, taste and cook things properly.
Ok, I’ll add more later, with more efficient sections, but … this is a pretty solid start. If you focus on just these things in your kitchen and how you cook, you’ll cook more food, more often, in less time and people will be MUCH happier with the results! Perhaps pick only one or two of these topics, practice it and work it into your mind, then … roll in another topic!