Crushing it inside and outside of the modern kitchen
I love cooking and have spent much of my career in food & beverage, working for restaurant groups, wineries, and beverage companies around the world. However, until recently I’d stopped cooking as much at home since I was always on-the-go, bouncing in and out of my apartment and often tired by the time I did make it home for the occasional night in. I came to rely on takeout far more than my own pantry — which was expensive, unhealthy and less enjoyable in the long-term.
Personally, I’ve never been able to make Sunday meal prepping a consistent or enjoyable thing. I’ve heard it espoused as the secret to home-cooked meals amidst a busy work schedule more times than I can count, but it just doesn’t work well for me. I often find myself starting too late, so it drags into my Sunday night and crunches the start of my week. And then I get sick of constantly reheating the same food, which just isn’t as appealing when I’m tired and stressed and want something exciting to spice up my meal.
During the COVID-19 quarantine this spring, I rediscovered my love for cooking and built some crucial time-saving habits in the kitchen. A massive Sunday meal prep may not be the solution for me, but these hacks make weekday cooking more approachable and fun. As we return to busier, more social lives, I’m going to rely on these habits to help me stay in the kitchen more while also crushing it outside the kitchen.
Hack #1: Batch prep fresh ingredients (not full meals)
I may not like cooking everything on Sunday, but batch prepping ingredients ahead of time is a life-changer. For example, I can chop a bunch of fresh vegetables ahead of time and then store them in my fridge to throw into various recipes throughout the week.
Three reasons to do this:
- Taste: I get bored by the taste of reheated or soggy vegetables that were cooked days earlier, but you get the fresh taste with minimal work when you can just throw pre-chopped stuff in a pan or bowl.
- Cooking time: instead of spending an hour making dinner on a Wednesday night, I can spend a little more time earlier in the week then throw together a delicious meal in 15 or 20 minutes — which is often the dealbreaker for me when deciding whether to cook.
- Prep time: not only do you save time in the moment, but you save time overall. For example, if I need chopped scallions or bell peppers for different dishes throughout the week, chopping them all at once and then grabbing what I need each day is way more efficient — basic lesson of the Industrial Revolution, folks!
Finally, to do this most effectively it helps to build meals around several core ingredients for the week, even if their end uses are quite different. For example, I might use chopped bell peppers in fajitas on Monday, a veggie stir fry on Tuesday, and a fresh salad on Wednesday.
Hack #2: Streamline your movements with a few tools
Over the years, I’ve picked up a few simple tricks from chefs that save way more time than you might think. Here are my top three tricks:
- Discard bowl: next to your cutting board, keep a discard bowl to throw stuff into as you chop. While your trash can may not be that far away (especially if you live in an expensive city like I do), it saves a surprising amount of time and energy.
- Towel at your hip: again, your towel rack may not be that far but tucking a towel into your waistline supercharges your efficiency and keeps things clean.
- Pastry blade: this is a fun one! A pastry blade costs less than $10 and will make your life so much easier. Imagine you’ve just chopped an onion and need to transfer it to your pan. You can carry your cutting board over and awkwardly use the knife to shepherd the pieces into the pan without spilling all over your stove. Or you can use your hands, likely making several trips and dropping onion pieces on your floor. Or…you can use your pastry blade to scoop up the onion bits and carry them over to your pan. Voilà! Takes half the time and makes way less mess.
Between batch prepping ingredients and streamlining my movements, I also find I can more easily get into the flow of cooking — and even multitask if I want to. I struggle to chat on the phone, listen to a podcast or watch TV when I’m actually cooking a meal, but I can chop and peel no problem while doing any of these.
Hack #3: Leverage your freezer strategically
Freezing sauces is a great way to further elevate your cooking, adding complexity, texture and flavor in a pinch. Love chicken with mole but don’t have time to make the mole from scratch each week? Want to make lasagna from scratch but don’t have time to let the ragù simmer for hours? It only takes a few minutes if you’ve already got the sauce on hand. Same deal for pasta sauces, chili, comforting soups (you’ll thank yourself next time you’re sick), and so on. You can even buy these sauces (I get my mole by the pint from a Oaxacan food cart in my neighborhood) if you prefer.
Getting the portion sizes right is key here. If you’re like me and are often cooking for just 1–2 people on a given weeknight, having to thaw and use a big tub of something isn’t very appealing. But if you start with a big batch and then freeze it in smaller portion sizes, you can whip something up in a jiffy. One particular hack for this is to utilize your ice cube trays for sauces (mini tupperware also work well). Whether you’re saving leftover sauce or making a big batch specifically to freeze, this will give you so much more freedom.
In addition to basics like pasta sauce, here are three of my favorite bases to have on hand:
- Rick Bayless’ smoky chipotle paste: I’m addicted to this stuff and add it to marinades, salsas, soups, you name it! It takes me an hour or so to make it initially but then I have a jar of the paste in my fridge that lasts for months (and trust me, a little bit of this stuff goes a long way). Recipe here and you could do this with many other curry pastes, spice blends and sauces.
- Savory breadcrumbs: breadcrumbs can add flavor and texture to salads, pasta dishes, soups, etc. but most store-bought ones taste like cardboard. The good news is they’re easy to make, are a great way to use stale bread, and keep for several months in your freezer. Just set the oven to 250°F, tear the bread into chunks, and stick the chunks in a pan in the oven for ~60 min. Then pulverize the toasted bread with a food processor (if you don’t have one, you can wrap them in a towel and use a hammer or the base of a bowl). Store in an airtight container.
- Homemade chicken stock: use leftover chicken bones and skin to make stock with very little effort. Just add them to a pot of water along with salt, pepper, carrots and celery, then let it simmer for a couple of hours.
Bonus tip: on the topic of supercharging your flavors, it’s worth investing in a pepper grinder. Freshly ground pepper is seriously a thousand times better than pre-ground pepper, so spend a few bucks on a pepper mill.
Hack #4: Make the decision process easy and fun
Have you ever hit the inspiration wall? Perhaps it’s 6pm, you’re already hungry and tired, and the thought of deciding what to cook that night feels like climbing a mountain? I have certainly felt that way. That’s why it’s key to have a super easy and fun way to jog your memory.
- Create a google doc and/or binder with favorite recipes: I love reading food magazines. For years, I’d save magazines that had recipes I wanted to try — but I rarely ever did. Flipping back through the whole magazine looking for inspiration just took too much time and effort. However, I changed this when I started tearing out pages and putting them in plastic sheet protectors in a three-ring binder, essentially creating my own cookbook. Now I know exactly where to go for quick inspiration and I don’t get bogged down. I’ve done the same with a google doc where I save links to online recipes.
- Build your meals around the seasons: my current fave cookbook is Joshua McFadden’s vegetable-centric Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables. He breaks the year down into six seasons and each section is centered around a particular vegetable. The recipes are all incredibly flavorful and most are quite easy. Plus, if you’re trying to batch ingredients (asparagus, carrots, kale, mushrooms…) then you can easily build a week’s worth of different dishes around one or two vegetables.
- Plan out your weekly menu: I write out my menu for the week and tack it to my fridge so that I don’t have to remember or decide what to cook each night (or accidentally forget stuff in my fridge and let it go to waste). I also try to front-load the healthier dishes so that I have more indulgent foods to look forward to as the week goes on, which helps reduce temptation to eschew cooking for takeout.