Monday, May 3, 2010

How to Make Your Life Easier

I think another discussion about weeknight dinners is warranted. Michael Ruhlman, a noted food writer, agitated the food world a couple of weeks ago when he claimed that we shouldn't be focused on 30 minute meals, or 20 minute meals, or for that matter quick meals of any kind. As he put it in the Huffington Post, he "called bullsh*t" on the idea that we're too busy to cook. His answer? Roast a chicken for an hour and use the time it's in the oven to do homework with the kids. I'm not even going to start.

On the way to this helpful "solution," he disses both Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver, both of whom seek to teach people to use healthy ingredients and cook at home, even with limited time and budget.

Many food bloggers have taken up the cause in response to Ruhlman's parry and have declared that they will now blog about the boring day to day dinners they make when pressed for time, in hopes of helping other busy people cook healthy food at home. I guess this is why my blog has such a limited readership. I've been doing this all along. Most of the food I include here isn't at all sexy or fancy, or even photogenic, but hopefully some recipes are speedy enough for weeknight healthy eating. I'm inspired to renew my efforts to provide more quick recipes that still taste great and include fresh and healthy ingredients.

To begin this effort, I'd like to go back to my pantry post from last year. One of the biggest problems with weeknight cooking, and one of the main reasons to throw your hands up and order a pizza, is not having a sufficiently stocked kitchen. I learned this first hand when I was forced out of my extremely well-stocked home into a furnished rental for a month last summer. I had very limited space for pantry items and very little in the way of pots and other cooking implements. And we definitely did order pad thai much more frequently.

Perhaps part of what people mean when they say they don't have time to cook is that they don't have time (or energy, really) to shop. This is a tough one, because though many stores are open earlier in the morning and stay open later in the evening, it requires a great deal of discipline to force yourself to do the grocery shopping before or after work. I think the key is organization. Limit the trips to once a week, if possible, with a quick extra stop for fresh milk, fish, fruit or veggies if necessary. Go armed with a detailed list of pantry items that are running low and items for easy weeknight meals. Try planning a couple of meals out during the weekend - maybe a stir fry or some roasted salmon with rice. Add those ingredients to the list.

My list doesn't vary much week to week. Certain items are staples in our house: milk, salad ingredients, vegetables, orange juice, bread, yogurt bananas, fruit, etc. When I worked full-time and had au pairs living with us, I kept a notepad in the kitchen for the grocery list. Those staple items were always on it. In addition, whoever either finished an item or noticed one running low was responsible for putting it on the list. If it wasn't on the list, it probably wasn't going to get purchased. Late in the week one of us might have made an emergency milk run, but generally, we made it through the week.

I'm a semi-professional shopper now, and I am able to hit more than one store a week, but I still use a list and keep a substantial pantry. During the growing season, I do my main shopping at farmstands on Saturday or Sunday. From a bulging bag of vegetables, I can plan ahead for the week. Even if you're serving pasta and jarred sauce, a fresh bunch of sauteed kale or roasted carrots or turnips can take the meal up a notch.

One thing I'd like to encourage for pasta eaters is to keep a few jars of really delicious sauce around. In a pinch, some Rao's or Cucina Antica marinara on penne with some fresh shaved Pecorino, and maybe some crunchy grissini or breadsticks can feel like a restaurant meal. These sauces are a bit more expensive per jar, but if it saves you from ordering in,and keeps you healthier, it's probably cheaper in the long run. I am careful to check for ingredient lists that only include real food that I would use myself in a home made sauce, and to check for those lower in sodium. I recently discovered Cucina Antica brand which is on the lower end of the sodium spectrum.

A rotisserie chicken can also be more than the sum of it's parts, so to speak. Many markets now roast them without all the seasonings so they are both lower in sodium and versatile to use in recipes. I've shredded the meat of a rotisserie chicken for everything from faux mu shu using flour tortillas and hoisin sauce along with pre-shredded cabbage to "tacos" with corn tortillas, shredded lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes. Chunks of the meat can go into soups and stews as well. Recently, I used an unseasoned rotisserie chicken to make a mayo-free Spanish style chicken salad which was delicious on a bed of baby spinach with a sliced avocado and a couple of olives alongside.

Frozen rice is another great time saver. Trader Joes and many grocery stores sell boxes with individual bags of pre-cooked and frozen rice (with no additives) ready to microwave. In three minutes you can have brown or jasmine rice to serve with your quick cooking shrimp or salmon and veggies.

Bagged salad used to be staple, but it's too iffy these days. I stick with actual heads of lettuce and keep a salad spinner on the counter top for quicker rinsing and drying. Grape tomatoes don't need any cutting so are an easy addition to the salad.

Please share your tips with everyone in the comment section!!

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