As you may have gathered by now, friends, I really like to cook. It’s a place for creativity, a way to nurture the people I care about, and a favorite way to unwind: I’ll put on some music, pour a glass of wine, let my brain meander, and stir. But like anybody, I fall into ruts (sweet potatoes again?) and with a busy schedule, there are plenty of nights when cooking feels more like a chore than a gratifying entertainment.
Cookbook author Nina Simonds visited the shop recently to tout her new book, Simple Asian Meals, which shares thoughtful tips on how to simplify weeknight cooking. It got me thinking about the essential tricks-up-my-sleeve for those nights when I’m riding the all too familiar fence between take-out and a quick, infinitely more healthful home-cooked meal. In lieu of a recipe this week, I thought I’d share some ideas for making weeknight cooking easier and more enjoyable. I’d love to hear yours!
- Prep your pantry. Keep a cache of dried pastas, beans, grains (quick-cooking couscous, farro, rice) to throw quick meals together. Shelf-stable items like chicken stock, shallots, anchovies, capers, vinegars, wine and sauces can add flavor and depth to easy meals. (Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food has a great chapter on pantry-friendly items and menus to pull from them.)
- Plan ahead. Use the weekend or your coffee break to think about what meals you’d like to fix for the coming week. I’m far less likely to stray from the stove if I already have a plan and the ingredients in my fridge. Think about ways to stretch ingredients from one meal to the next: shred Tuesday’s leftover rotisserie chicken for a salad on Wednesday and use the leftover baguette for homemade croutons. (Less waste for the compost bin, fewer trips to the store and more money in your pocket.)
- Chop chop. Rinse greens and lettuces when you get them home from the market. Chop quantities of herbs and aromatics (onions, garlic, celery, etc.) ahead to speed things up at meal time. (Keep other veggies whole so they hang on to their nutrients.) Prep as much ahead as your recipes and your schedule allow.
- Leftovers are your friend. Even thought there’s just two of us at my house, I rarely scale recipes down but aim to get two meals out of one. If I’m entertaining four friends, let’s say, I’ll cook for six to eight people; I might as well get extra meals out of the effort, especially if they’re more elaborate “for company” preparations. Having a break from cooking means I’m refreshed the next time I’m in front of the stove.
- Freeze with ease. Stews, chilis, soups and casseroles all freeze very well; double your recipe and freeze half. We have chicken at least once a week in my house, so I typically have a whole bird for roasting and a package of thighs ready to defrost. (Not having to deal with the grocery store feels pretty great when I’m busy.) Once a month or so, I’ll set aside a few hours to make big batches of soups or stock (portioning them out in pint containers), my favorite turkey burgers, savory tart doughs, etc. to stock the freezer. Use a Sharpie to label containers with their contents and the date to keep organized.
- Multitask. If your grill’s on for tonight’s salmon, throw some vegetables on to serve over rice for tomorrow’s dinner. If your oven’s preheated, toast sliced almonds or pecans to garnish salads later in the week. Hang on to your pasta water for blanching veggies. Mince garlic and dice onions for several other meals while your cutting board’s already out.
- Eat seasonally. There’s a million good reasons for this one (it’s better for the environment, you’ll support your local economy, and on and on) but for weeknight cooking, it also means you won’t have to fuss with your produce as much: in-season, locally grown fruits and vegetables taste better! A perfect summer tomato doesn’t need anything more than a little salt and pepper. The same principle applies to humanely raised meats, dairy and eggs; healthy animals raised in a natural, less stressful environment produce tastier food. (More money up front, yes, but worth every penny.)
- Support your CSA. Consider signing up for a community-supported agriculture delivery. Local farms pack a box with seasonal produce (no guesswork there), and it’s up to you to decide how to cook it. And in many places, the boxes come to you, with suggested recipes. No fighting with parking lots or wonky shopping carts!
- Bookmark. Whether it’s online or in an actual folder, maintaining a stash of “to try” recipes in the same place means you can scan them quickly and pick one out before you head to the market. Save the weekend warrior projects for your Saturday, but trying a new, quick recipe each week will stretch you as a cook and add variety to your plate.
- Clean as you go. Waiting on the water to boil? Wipe down the counter and load the dishwasher. Roast in the oven? Rinse off the cutting board and the chef’s knife. (I’d rather linger at the dinner table than face a mountain of dishes.)
- Practice. The more I cook, the more comfortable I am in the kitchen; techniques and prep that seemed daunting to me as a novice cook quickly became second nature after a few go-rounds, and now go much faster. And every good cook I know has a few favorite go-to recipes she can make with her eyes closed and her attention on something else, which comes in very handy during a busy week.
- Delegate. If you don’t live alone, round up your kids or partner or roommates and have them help you in the kitchen. Even the littlest kids can help stir or peel potatoes, and it can encourage picky eaters to try new things if they’ve had a hand in prep. In my house, I usually cook while my husband’s on his way home from work, and he does the dishes. Everybody wins!
- Set the table. Turn off the television, put down the smartphone, light some candles and focus on your food and the company you’re with (yes, even if it’s “only” you). Slowing down and setting meals apart from the rest of the day (and even if it’s only twenty minutes!) makes them feel special and worthy of your efforts in the kitchen.
- Enjoy yourself. Pour that wine, turn on that music, take a deep breath and stir.