People always tell me, "I don't have time to cook like you do!" Which is to say, delicious homemade meals without any processed items. Truthfully, when friends come to dinner I do put forth some extra time and effort - I mean, guests! Fancy! However, we do manage to eat out infrequently and most of our meals are made at home, whether or not we're home when we eat them. Most of it has nothing to do with actual cooking and everything to do with planning.
Here are some nuggets of wisdom for maximizing your cooking and minimizing your time spent:
- Get the kitchen organized. Put all the oil and vinegar within easy reach. Alphabetize your spices. Get rid of unnecessary utensils and put the useful ones by the stove. it's an ongoing process, so feel free to change it if something's not working.
- Before grocery shopping, plan every meal for the week. This sounds like a waste of time, but it is worth the 30 minutes to not have to think about it the rest of the week. I have this quirky pad magneted to my fridge - I mark down what days we're planning on eating out, what days I'm cooking, and what days we're eating leftovers. We can see at a glance what is in the house to grab quickly for lunch or breakfast, and it doubles as a shopping list.
- Stock your kitchen with staple ingredients. I always have: onions, garlic (not the packaged crap! pffft), spices, oils (extra virgin olive and a neutral flavor at least), vinegars (balsamic, apple cider, rice, red & white wine), condiments (soy or tamari, mustard, tomato paste, tahini, miso, honey), eggs, pepper, and kosher salt. You'll come up with your own list, but if you have the basics you can always come up with something for dinner even without a plan.
- Take one hour out of your week or weekend and dedicate it to food prep. Chop up onions, garlic, peppers, broccoli or any other vegetables you like. Wash all the lettuce and other leafy greens (hello, salad spinner). Doing this chore will make it easy to just "grab, toss, cook, eat". Weeknight stir fry or salad takes about 5 minutes if you already have everything ready to go. Restaurants chop and prep their ingredients ahead of time to deal with the rush - why shouldn't you?
- Be willing to spend 30-60 minutes cooking and cleaning up. I usually spend about that (and that's without benefit of a dishwasher). Food is the fuel for your body and health - it's worth that amount of time.
- Cultivate knife skills. You will not get things done quickly and without frustration with a paring knife or serrated slicer. You just won't. Invest in a good chef's knife or santoku (you won't have to buy another one, ever). Take a knife skills class, get a friend to show you, or watch one of the bazillion knife skill videos on YouTube.
- The duller the knife the more likely it is to slip and cut you, so keep your knives SHARP. It's as important as a good knife. I don't mean using the honing steel that came with your knife block (though, by all means, use that frequently). Get a good stone or sharpener and learn how to use it, or take your knives in to your local kitchen store. Do this the second they don't easily cut through a soft tomato. Actually before then. It's not expensive to get them sharpened, usually a few dollars per inch of blade. But if you do it yourself you won't have to wait a few days.
- Learn a few basic techniques so you can make things up. If you're not looking at a recipe, languishing in angst about the ingredients, and shopping for them, you're spending that time actually cooking and getting food in your mouth. One of my favorite books to get you up to speed is How to Cook Without A Book. You can also watch some cooking shows - some of my favorites are Good Eats, Lidia's Italy, Barefoot Contessa, and The Minimalist with Mark Bittman.
- Let go of preconceived notions. Your food does not have to look pretty or be from an actual recipe. Ultimately all it needs to taste good, be nutritious, and fill you up.
- Think about food storage. When we're putting away the leftovers, we always put them into portable sized food containers (our favorite by far are Lock and Lock brand). That way, on your way to the office you just grab and go. Of course that only works if you have a microwave where you're going or are willing to eat it cold. Prepare non-leftovers lunch when you do your food prep for the week.
- SLOW COOKER. Get it. Know it. Use it. If you are cooking for 1 or 2, I suggest just a 3.5 quart size (I have this one). For any cooker you get, I like the oval shape better since it fits chickens and roasts more readily. It's so nice to have dinner ready when you get home.
- Love the leftover. It's so easy to eat a home-cooked meal again! Just reheat it in the microwave or on the stovetop, or concoct a new meal (like an omelet with the bit of leftover stir fry).
- Be bold - make mistakes and learn from them. I can't tell you how often I've overcooked the roast, undercooked the chicken, or forgot salt. Shit happens, so don't let it ruin your day.
- Be patient. It takes time to develop any skill, and being quick in the kitchen is one of them. I've been cooking since I had my own kitchen in my first apartment in college in 2001, and have had lots of instruction from both parents up until then (and after). You will get there!
Counting up the time above, I've come up with roughly 5-9 hours per week of your hands-on time. Most Americans watch nearly 20 hours of tv per week. Cooking at home is WAY cheaper, infinitely healthier, and can be a fun social activity. So turn off the TV (or move it into the kitchen), pump up the jams, and get your chop on!