My cooking shortcuts

Getting a good dinner on the table by 6PM or so every night sometimes feels like an Iron Chef – level challenge. Most days, I rise to the occasion without breaking too much of sweat. And then there are those moments when 5PM hits and the kids are begging me for appetizers when I desperately need to be making dinner and I have NO idea what to cook. That is exactly when my patience runs thin and everything breaks down.

So over time, I’ve come up with a small arsenal of shortcuts to make my cooking life more enjoyable, and I thought I’d share. PLEASE feel free to add yours to the list – I can’t wait to see what great ideas you have up your sleeve!

The Top Five

1. Plan meals ahead. This is not a radical concept and has  been recommended by countless others, but you see, I loathe to plan meals, I much prefer to fly by the seat of my pants so to speak. Yet time and time again, the failure of my spontaneity has won me over to the more organized approach. Take a few minutes to poll the family about their dinner preferences for the upcoming week on Saturday morning, when everyone is in a happy, beginning-of-the-weekend mood. Or take it upon yourself. Either way, if you have a general plan you’ll feel much better equipped – actually buying necessary ingredients in advance is a bonus but not crucial. Its the ideas that count in my book!

2) Deal with garlic in advance. It always seems to take forever to peel and chop garlic when you can least afford to spend the time yet I love love love cooking with it and seem to need it frequently. Now, admittedly, I’m not a garlic press person and if you are, ignore this. But the rest of us, here’s my tip: peel and store cloves from 1-2 heads of garlic (however you are likely to use in 5-7 days time) and store in a glass or stainless steel container in the refrigerator. Chopping will seem like a breeze when you eliminate the peeling step.

3) Prep your “mirepoix.” Mirepoix is French for the crucial combination of diced carrots, celery and onions that form the basis for so many soups, stews, braises, etc. Store 1-2 cups of diced celery and carrots in one bag, and the same of onion in a glass container – they will be on hand for whatever you are cooking in the next 3-4 days.

4) The frozen food section. I do occasionally rely on store-bought frozen food items (see below for a case in point). But I prefer to create our own frozen food section in the fridge. I’ll freeze pizza dough, leftover soups and stews, ground beef and small steaks, sausages, fruit, butter, etc. Our freezer is unimpressive in size yet when I properly use the space, I’m always impressed with what I’ve got on hand. Ice cream is also a very important addition to this list, by the way.

5) Trader Joe’s potstickers. When in doubt, I bust these out. Pan-fried with sticky brown rice and green vegetables for a quick dinner, potsticker soup if you have chicken broth around, these work great for lunch or dinner (or breakfast, if you are Talia). I’m pretty sure I’ve been eating these on a regular basis since my early college years. And they still manage to satisfy.

What would you add to the list?

By Way of Background

It all started with nacho cheese sauce from the local movie theater. Making a homemade version became an obsession of mine during middle school and explained the many uneaten blocks of Velveeta, cheddar and American cheese overtaking my parents’ fridge (much to their dismay). My homemade attempts never lived up to my expectations (much to my dismay) and though my culinary taste has evolved since the mid-1980’s, I do owe my lifelong passion to those cheesy years.

Food is everywhere in my life these days. I am a sustainable food advocate fighting for food that is good, clean, fair and accessible by all. I am the primary “chef” in my family, responsible for planning and preparing most meals, most of the time. Then there is the eating part – living in a food obsessed town like San Francisco, I revel in the privilege of our food culture, where one can find excellent versions of cuisine from almost every country in the world, not to mention the most creative, delicious manifestations of our own contribution to the culinary canon, California cuisine.

As the years pass, I find cooking becomes a deeper and more nuanced passion for me. I cook to calm frayed nerves at the end of a long day; I cook as a creative outlet, never tiring of trying new techniques, flavors, recipes. Cooking is my most treasured way to nourish our young family.

Lately, I’m discovering a deeper connection to cooking by teaching others. Passing on the skills I’ve acquired through observation (thank you PBS cooking shows, and especially Jacques Pépin!) and more than 15 years of practice is a lot of fun. It also reminds how the art of cooking – home cooking in particular – has been lost as our food system industrialized starting in the 1960’s. Our relationship to food preparation is incredibly schizophrenic today. People cook less and less, yet spend hundreds of hours watching competitive cooking shows annually. This blog is my way of inspiring more people to return to their home kitchens, reclaim culinary traditions, and invent new ones.

Inspiration

Before I dig too deep into the specifics of recipes, it seems worth commenting on where I find the inspiration for our family’s meals. In the early days of family life, definitely before I was a mom of two, I spent decent amount of time watching cooking shows. Shows that focused on technique –  most on PBS – were a favorite initially, but as my confidence grew, I turned to shows that highlighted in simple terms how to make good food at home. Ina Garten and Giada deLaurentis were a couple Food Network favorites. I could never really tolerate Rachael Ray though Ava was obsessed around age 3-4 so I was forced to watch 30 Minute Meals for months on end.

Magazines like Sunset are visually appealing and inspiring, as are cookbooks of course, though the limited shelf space in our flat means reigning in the book purchases. And lately more than anything and like many of us who spend more time tethered to electronic devices than we would like, food blogs have become a must (do read the comments before embarking on a recipe – it helps so much with troubleshooting!).

But as the trajectory of my culinary inspiration ran its course, I settled on an approach that I have yet to waver from: let the ingredients in my fridge serve as core inspiration. This started in earnest when my husband and I decided to buy our produce primarily from a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program many years ago. For those not familiar with CSAs, they are a great way to broaden your dietary horizons, access local, organic food at an affordable price and support small family farms in one fell swoop. To find a CSA in your area, check out the Local Harvest site. Give it a go! Many farms allow month-long trial subscriptions for new participants. But I digress…

We signed up for our CSA box through Eatwell Farm, and with the exception of a couple of years when we lived a neighborhood with a weekly farmers’ market, we’ve been members for over a decade. Because the CSA box comes chock full of gorgeous, freshly-harvested fruits and vegetables, along with recipe ideas on how to use said produce, it makes cooking a breeze. All you need to have on hand is a stocked pantry (as basic or elaborate as you like), some fresh protein to pick 1-2 times per week (poultry, tofu/tempeh, grassfed beef, fish, dairy, often you can use these interchangeably) and an hour to cook. The rest is up to you! Let the produce be your guide – and it never hurts to have a great vegetarian cookbook on hand for those moments when you can’t think of another interesting chard recipe or have no idea what to do with that lovely kohlrabi that just showed up (as happened to us yesterday). Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has served as my cooking bible since my early grad school days, and I do turn to Chez Panisse Vegetables occasionally for more sophisticated fare. Nowaways, off course, you can rely on myriad Internet sources to serve this purposes. But I do love the look of a well-loved and well-used cookbook.