My routine goes a little something like this: Go to Trader Joe's on a Sunday and stock up for weeks on end; wait in line for about an hour; try to lug all of it home on public transportation and get stuck in the subway doors; realize I forgot at least three things, so I can't make the dish I wanted to; cook a big batch of a miscellaneous something and eat it for too many days straight; become traumatized by the whole experience and avoid going back to the store for about a month and a half. (By then, my local takeout delivery people know and greet me like an old friend.)
But I'd like to be better! I dream about all of the fresh and exciting produce I could be cooking with; the crust of a locally baked sprouted sourdough that could crackle under my serrated knife; the sweet, fresh mozzarella balls I could be throwing into my salads. The fragrant spices! The fresh handmade noodles! Nope. Frozen spinach with dried pasta and long-since-expired paprika for me.
That is, until I picked up a very special book that's just about changed everything for me.
Bon Appétit's food director, Carla Lalli Music, just released her brand-new cookbook, Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook. Ostensibly, the book is about, well, how to begin cooking: It's packed with guiding strategies and shopping lists; comprehensive instructions on seven all-purpose, need-to-know fundamentals, like boiling and simmering, steaming, sautéeing, slow-roasting, and making the most foolproof pastry dough; and 70 really tasty recipes that showcase the preceding tips and techniques.
And the lessons I learned from it have been interesting, to say the least—revelatory, even. Who knew I could pan-roast a wedge of savoy cabbage the exact same way as I would butternut squash? How could it be I've never thought to confit a bunch of lemon slices or a large can of whole tomatoes? Most importantly, why have I been hoarding a bunch of once-used spices, and continuing my Sunday ritual (slog) of big-batch cooking, and dutifully grocery shopping to feed myself for weeks on end, dragging all my purchases home and later finding tons of unused produce shriveled or spoiled in the fridge?
In Where Cooking Begins, Carla shows us that yes, there's a better, faster, more efficient way.
And luckily, doing things the Carla way turns out to be the way for me, too. Here are some of Carla's rules of thumb to menu plan, stock up, and make the most of your pantry as you cook (read: you'll get away with buying a lot less at the store!).
- Shop in person for the food that excites you. Shop small. Shop often. (Even better news: This way, less stuff will probably go to waste.)
- Go online to get the ingredients that barely change with the seasons or that come in a box, bag, can, or jar. (No more stressing out at the store to cross everything off your list, or hauling the heavy and bulky stuff home. Plus, if you're like me, setting and forgetting is a gift.)
- Keep a lean but diverse assortment of pantry items, seasonings, and perishables on hand. (Carla recommends her 15 must-have spices, and a small collection of other essentials, but I've tweaked these staples to jive with my own cooking habits and preferences.)
- Purchase only what you have room to store. (That Costco flat of soy milk and four-pack of industrial-size tomato sauce jars will have to wait until I move out of my N.Y.C. apartment.)
- Cook what you buy; finish it up. (I need this to be tattooed on my forehead. Limp carrots and dried-out half bunches of mint, it was nice to know you.)
- If you prefer a different flavor profile, change the recipe. (Carla, for example, says in the book that she loves dried fennel seeds. I can't stand them, and much prefer to use cumin. No freaking out here—this is no biggie.)
- If you're missing something minor, leave it out. (You mean I don't have to go to three stores to buy three different types of chile?!)
Beyond changing up the way I shop, Carla's tips have allowed me to look at my "usual-suspect" ingredients in a whole new light—and my cooking is the better for it. Read on for three simple, flexible, totally delicious meals that put these principles into practice. They'll make your cooking much easier, and a whole lot more fun.
I eat breakfast for dinner pretty regularly. I'm definitely no stranger to a plate of creamy scrambled eggs or a runny yolk sopped up with toast. But even for me, the ol' egg rigamarole can start to feel tired, and could definitely use a little seasonal update every now and again.
Carla's springy, smartypants solution to amp up an omelet involves velvety ricotta and a handful of tender, sweet pea tendrils. And these two things are probably all you'll need to buy from your local farmers' market or the store (eggs, Parmesan, olive oil, and S+P are likely already in your fridge/pantry).
And feel free to "spin it" any which way you choose: Use small-curd cottage cheese or cream cheese instead of the ricotta; baby kale or watercress in place of the pea tendrils; cheddar or Grana Padano swapped in for the Parm; sherry or cider vinegar, if you don't have white wine vinegar on hand.
I stick slivers of raw bell peppers in my salads almost every day. I eat them, cut into thin strips, with a load of hummus or yogurt-y dip or aioli. I char them on the stove till they're soft, peel and chop them, and put them in pasta. I pretty much always have them on hand.
But I've never slow-roasted them like this, with pantry-friendly olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon post-roast—and boy, have I been missing out. Their sweet, jammy selves would be at home in my usual salad or pasta, or really, by themselves, with ribbons of shaved Parm and slices of crusty baguette.
P.S. Swap out the red peppers in this recipe with just about any other vegetable you like or have on hand, and watch 'em get ridiculously melty and tender. Carla recommends halved fennel or beets with greens, hearty cauliflower, kabocha squash, unpeeled shallots, or drained canned whole tomatoes.
Spring means all the produce and long-awaited greenery, and all the greenery means all the ways to mitigate sad-sack salads. This little number uses a slew of pantry powerhouses (oil-packed anchovies, walnuts, garlic, red-wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, S+P) plus a few fresh, peppy accents (a splash of heavy cream and parsley, if you please) to create a silky, dreamy blanket for some sweet and crunchy spring lettuces.
You can use any kind of lettuce your heart desires (Little Gem, Boston, radicchio, or endive) and any kind of nut in place of the walnuts (almonds or pecans are Carla's suggestions). You can also use a few dashes of fish sauce in place of the anchovies. Either way, you'll find yourself eating the dressing by the spoonful—but be sure to save some for your veg.