Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Simplicity in the kitchen

So, as my complicated life with a husband, 6 year old, and infant is about to get more complicated (returning back to work in two weeks), I started googling to find some suggestions on how to achieve simplicity in the kitchen.

That may seem silly coming from a woman who has got a simple cooking blog, and has had one for years.  But hear me out: as life becomes more complicated, you need new strategies, new tips.

I couldn't really find what I was looking for.  I found tips on simplifying your kitchen gadgets.  While that is helpful, I don't really need that.  In fact, there are some kitchen gadgets that aren't necessary, but make cooking MUCH simpler.  Think: bread machines, food processors, and rice cookers.

I also found tips on how to prepare your food more simply.  Clean as you go (a very good tip!) but also how to do prep work.  Meh...not what I'm looking for.

I also found tips on how to do meal planning.  Again, somewhat helpful, but just not it.

But nothing was really what I was looking for, so I decided to write my own so that I could refer back to it later.

I like to consider myself pretty efficient and a multi-tasker.  Parenthood has only strengthened those traits.  You really learn to get things done in 15 minute chunks.  I know it seems NICE to have a solid 3-4 hours to finish a project, or an hour to cook dinner, etc.  But reality with an infant is that you may get a 2 hour nap, you may get a 20 minute nap.  And that doesn't improve much when your kid gets older, unless you are REALLY willing to use the TV or video games.  Which I admit, I have been the last week.

So here are my tips for simplicity in the kitchen:
1.  Learn to break things up into 15 minute chunks.  Whatever you are making for dinner, how can you do this?  For me, it's always clean and chop the vegetables first, put them in the fridge.  Marinate meat.  Cook pasta if you are making a baked pasta dish.  Cook up the soup if it's one that needs to go into the blender (and reheat later...it's better then anyway).  Toast nuts.  Cook rice.  Steam greens.  Wash lettuce.

2.  Simplify your preparation.  I like making complicated dishes just like the next person, but those have little to no place in my life right now.  As in: once a week, tops.  Examples:
- vegetables: eat raw (wash/peel), steam (wash/peel/chop/micro), roast (wash/peel/chop/toss with olive oil S&P/roast/stir/roast), stir fry (wash/peel/chop/stir fry), or make a soup (wash/peel/chop/cook into soup)

- fruits: prep ahead when possible: washing berries, cutting melons, etc.

- rice: rice cooker instead of a pilaf

- beans: cook in a pressure cooker

3. Limit your diet.  I know we all like to have a varied diet, but it makes it more complicated.  Consider this: vegans eat grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts.  No meat or dairy to consider.  Paleo/primal folks have kitchens devoid of grains, beans, bread.  Your diet will be simpler this way, and there will be fewer foods to choose from/ go bad in your fridge and pantry.

But for those of  us who are omnivores that don't eschew carbs, it can be more difficult.  Or can it?  My meals growing up were pretty simple.  They were always cooked at home, and tended to be meat and potatoes or meat and pasta.  But usually potatoes.  We almost never had rice.  It was standard old American food.  And it worked.

In contrast, my meals today are quite varied.  I love ethnic food and enjoy cooking Indian, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Chinese foods.  These all come with their own spices and ingredients.  A far cry from my mom's pantry of garlic powder, salt, pepper, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, and pickling spices.  There are so many options.  It's cheaper to make these foods yourself instead of ordering in. But you may end up with a pantry full of bits and pieces.

grains: bread, bulgur, brown rice, white rice, oats, arborio rice, quinoa, pasta, etc.
beans: black, pinto, garbanzo, split peas, lentils...
meats: chicken, beef, pork, shellfish, fish...
cheese: goat, feta, blue, American, cheddar, parm, swiss, havarti...
yogurt: sweetened or not, large tub or individual...
nuts: almonds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, and don't even get me started on the nut butters.  And nuts go rancid if left at room temp for long.  You can keep them in the freezer.  But then you have a freezer full of frozen nuts.
vinegars: I make my own dressings.  Just saying.  My mom had apple cider and plain white.  I have at least 7 different vinegars.

So if you like ethnic foods, one way to keep a varied diet and a simple kitchen is to choose one ethnic food or type of food and stick to that until you are out.  You know, buy a bag of almonds.  When it's gone, switch to cashews.  Buy cheddar cheese, then switch to swiss.  Buy a bag of brown rice.  When it's gone, you can buy rice for risotto.  Buy the ingredients for Thai food.  Eat until it's gone.  But don't keep coconut milk in your pantry "just because".  If you have marinara, eat the marinara.  When it's gone, THEN go get more coconut milk.  Wait until you finish your tortillas to buy more pasta.  And choose only one kind of pasta.  Noodles or penne.  Not both.

4.  Consider frozen.  I have been eating a lot of frozen meals lately.  Truth be told, while it is more frugal, preparing your own from fresh is not as simple.  You have to clean and chop the vegetables, where as you can buy fresh or frozen already prepared.  The same goes for meats: if you buy in bulk, you either have to remember to defrost before you cook or buy fresh and shop more often.  Or buy in bulk, cook ahead and freeze, and try to remember what you have in your freezer.  Sometimes heat and serve is easier.  Having frozen vegetables is "simpler" than having to prepare fresh.  Having already cooked meatballs or chicken in the freezer is "simpler" than fresh.  It's generally not as frugal or as healthy, so you will have to choose which is more important.

5.  Set up  a regular meal plan: Chicken on Monday, soup on Tuesday, Pasta on Wednesday, etc.  This takes the thinking out of it.  Less planning when you go on autopilot.

6.  Keep a minimal pantry.  I have, at times, wanted to have 3 months food on hand for emergency.  I planned meals a month in advance, and didn't have children back then.  Keeping a stocked pantry makes it easy to "whip something together", but it's not so simple if it is so packed that the food expires or goes stale.  If it's effort to keep on top of it, it's not simple.  For some people, the pantry principle is THE way to save money.  Stock up when things are at their absolute rock bottom, and only then.  That does, however, take effort and planning.  For others, it's more money saving to only shop weekly for exactly what you need, and eat staples and foods on sale.

7.  Use up foods.  I have a problem with celery.  A few of my recipes call for a few stalks (soups and stews mostly).  But I have to buy the whole head.  And I have a lot of leftover.  I generally steam it and freeze if for later.  So.  I have a couple of bags of celery in the freezer.  That get buried because I forget about them the next time I make soup.  It's probably better for me to just cut it up and eat it with peanut butter or dip, rather than fill up the freezer.

8 . Use your gadgets: crockpot meals.  One pot meals.  Rice in the cooker with vegetables and a meat.

9.  Make a double (or triple) batch: if you are cooking anyway, leftovers are easier to reheat, if they even need to be reheated.  Something like a tabouli does not need reheating.  But soups, stews, chilis...double it.

10.  Cook ahead (and possibly freeze):  I know above I said to finish stuff off instead of cooking and freezing, as in the celery.  But that's ingredients.  I make an exception for meals/ completed dishes, assuming you will remember to eat them.  Sometimes it's nice to look into the freezer and realize that you have one meal's worth of soup or beans and rice just waiting for the microwave.  If it keeps you from ordering a pizza, then score!

Okay, what tips does everyone else have?  Because I implemented one tonight - I made risotto, and used up the rest of the arborio.  I won't be buying more until I finish off the brown rice and white rice.  I have two weeks to get back in the zone.


Debi at One Heart said...

Hi Marcia,

I'm not sure if my ideas are what you are looking for, but I've given some thought to this topic as well over the past several years. It can be a challenge to maintain fresh and healthy meals on a tight time schedule. I'm all for the more simple the dish the better! Here's my tried and true tips:

1. Make your own "salad bar" tray with a few choices of cut up veggies, chopped nuts, a mix of seeds like sunflower and pumpkin, grated cheese, chopped hard boiled egg - whatever your family likes. Put each choice in its own small lidded glass container and arrange on a tray that can slide onto a shallow shelf of the fridge. I use a rectangle as it fits best. Just pop in and out! And the best part, when the veggies are on the their last day they can be added to soup or a stir fry, so no waste!

2. I literally make cold finger food meals when I'm really tired and its too hot to cook. One example: I will arrange a nice plate of cut carrot sticks or other veggies (already in the fridge!), pecans, a few small slices of good cheese, sliced apple or applesauce. Often I have a cold salad I can build around. Maybe pasta or simply tomato & cucumbers chopped up with a bit of onion.

3. Keep a list of really simple salads for summer meals. I am living in Israel right now and have discovered many quick salad dishes that are mainstays. I have several recipes posted on my blog, if you feel like checking them out. A super simple and quick one: shredded cucumber, Greek yogurt, dried mint and a little S&P. Chill for a bit and done! It's fabulous right next to rice or meat and potatoes. It's a Persian dish.

Lastly, I do cook a big batch of rice, quinoa or soup and freeze most of it. Rice goes in ziplock freezer bags, labeled. What a lifesaver!! Same with pancakes or french toast. I double and freeze.

Cheers - Debi

Marcia said...

These are some great ideas! Last night we had celery with peanut butter and apple slices, and chicken. I like the salad bar idea.

Joanne said...

These are some awesome tips! I think the tip that I tend to not abide by but that would make my life so much easier is to read recipes beforehand! Nothing like discovering an hour long boil or a chilling step when you want dinner on the table NOW.