What helpful habits/routines enrich your cooking life?

Need efficiency. I would like to make meals more interesting by making more different dishes for at least a couple of dinners a week. An entree and a salad is all I can find time for. Not complaining, it's usually healthy and always tasty, but I long for ways to get more done in the same amount of time.



Bevi May 10, 2012
I like to prepare parts of recipes in advance, like making a sauce, or marinating meat, which is usually enhanced by a longer time in the marinade. Studying a recipe makes me feel more confident, and if there is technique that is new to me, I will refer to cookbooks or go online to research. Many recipes I am familiar with I will change up to add interest, or to play with ingredients and spices. I think cooking is like anything else - it takes practice, and you always learn from anything you consider a "mistake".
Raquelita May 9, 2012
Sauces! As a dressing for steamed or sauteed veggies, as a component in an elaborate sandwich, etc. When I make a complicated sauce, I make sure there will be extra to play with later. Also, before bed or before leaving for work, I check in with myself about what I might be able to soak or defrost (I store a lot of ingredients, summer's harvest and leftovers from bigger batches of elaborate dishes in my freezer). That acts as a major stress-reducer when I realize my next meal is already in motion.
Jacalyn O. May 8, 2012
A well stock pantry is key! Cooking is my therapy. I never know what beautiful produce or protein I'll find at my farmers market that will inspire my latest and greatest weeknight meal. Having all my dry goods ready to go makes 'cooking off-the-cuff' efficient.

Want to braise some lovely pork for carnita tamales? I have masa ready to go.
Brown butter, butternut squash pasta? I'll grab a bag of orecchiette off my shelf.

Pegeen May 7, 2012
So many great responses. Another thought: don't be shy... ask for recipes for dishes you love. Don't waste precious hours trying to recreate them (unless that's your bliss).
Cameron May 7, 2012
Every answer so far is helpful! I'll stick to some unaddressed aspects of the efficient/creative challenge:
Develop the habit of keeping your kitchen ready to be used. Empty the dishwasher & sink before you begin to cook. Clear the counter of clutter. Keep your knives sharp and your tools organized.

Make your pantry, fridge & spice rack work for you. I purge these areas regularly - once a month for the larder/spices, once a week for the fridge. And any time I get frustrated looking for the peas in an over-stuffed freezer! Go through these spaces often enough that you really know what's there and toss anything that is only taking up space. You will feel so happy every time you open that door!

After that purge, identify some items you want to use and follow up. The spice or sauce or funky pasta that you bought on a whim can be the starting point for building a new version of that entree/salad standard.

Figure out how to Invite others to work with you. Kids or partners can feel that they are in the way or that they don't know what needs to be done next. As you are thinking through the meal, note tasks that can be done by someone else - washing the carrots, picking the leaves off the parsley, opening the wine. When someone offers, you'll have a ready answer, the meal will come together a bit faster and everyone will feel some ownership of the result.

Consider combining entree and salad. My husband's perennial dinner request is 'protein on greens with some veg'. But I play with this all the time - - last night was salmon with a compound butter on top of wild arugula and asparagus, last week it was grilled sausages on top of lentils and a mass of kale at the bottom. If that combo feels doable, you might have time to include a fun dessert - a little pudding or home-made ice cream. These can feel like real luxuries and they can add to more than one meal.

Lastly, keep hold of the joy feeding your self and your family can bring. Of course it's work, but I find that when I can remember that I'm cooking for the people I love, the tasks all seem easier!
mensaque May 6, 2012
Here's something fun for you to try:let's say you're going grocery shopping or to the market.Before you leave,grab some menus or just ask yourself what would you order if you where in a restaurant.Chosen your feature meals to that week,you go on-line for recipes,and try them at home.If it takes a while for you to pick up the pace or the skills...then have a late dinner once in a while!What's the harm?At least you had fun!
Lauren's P. May 6, 2012
All good tips previously.....1 more. Visualization. Know what you're going to make for at least three days of the weekday and then plan for it. Don't stress about it.
puresugar May 6, 2012
Wow, you guys are so great! Thanks for all these thoughtful answers and encouraging ideas!
Emily H. May 6, 2012
This may have been covered, but my best tip is to make a large batch of some sort of protein at the start of the week. As the week goes on, you can use this to build all sorts of dishes. Let's say you make a slow cooked shoulder of pork, beef, lamb, whatever. With basic seasonings.

Monday: Eaten straight up. With roasted potatoes or some other side, veggies.
Tuesday: Tacos. Simple salsa, toppings.
Wednesday: Fried rice. Veggies, meat, etc.
Thursday: Sandwiches
Friday: Ragu/pasta with whatever leftover meat there is.

So in a week, you've explored a number of cuisines for dinners [or lunches - I do the same thing for work lunches]. You get to enrich your evenings with a little bit of cooking - making a salsa, sauteing vegetables, whatever. But the heavy lifting is taken care of on the weekend.
Foodelf May 6, 2012
Very similar to the excellent responses above - Advance everything. I brown meat & poultry in advance, either on the outside grill or stove-top. Prepping anything else that is a little time consuming is the make-it-or-break-it midweek meal for me. I don't always get home from work in a timely fashion, so if I'm faced with the need to create everything from scratch, I'm not necessarily in the mood nor do I have the energy. However, if the chicken thighs are browned and the leeks already cleaned and chopped - my sanity is saved and the cooking-therapy begins!
petitbleu May 6, 2012
You should read Tamar Adler's book, An Everlasting Meal. It's pretty phenomenal, and it deals largely with cooking frugally, but she gives a lot of beautifully-written advice that overlaps with cooking efficiently.
Otherwise, sarah.reinertsen is right--dealing with veggies right when you get them home from the store or market is such a time-saver for me. You'll always be tempted not to do it because you're tired and just had to deal with the chore that shopping can be, but separating beets from their greens, carrots from tops, washing dirty veggies, etc. will really cut time later.
Another Tamar Adler suggestion is to buy several types of veggies and roast them all at once--beets, carrots, onions, shallots, garlic, squashes, eggplant...the list of things you can roast seems unending. With those roasted veggies, you can go in so many directions: gratins, roasted veg sandwiches (with goat cheese, roasted garlic, fresh bread--it might not sound like much, but it's downright luxurious), pasta dishes, rice bowls, soups, salads...it's amazing what you can come up with when you have an arsenal of succulent, roasted produce on hand.
Can I also recommend a pressure cooker? While not ideal for some things, the pressure cooker has changed the way I cook. Being able to cook dried beans in 25 minutes and make stock in an hour or less is unreal. At first, it takes a little getting used to, but you pick up on it very quickly, and pressure cookers these days are very safe. You can also use them to cook stews, which I don't do as much, but I know that lots of people use pressure cookers this way.
Finally, have some recipes memorized. When I memorized my first recipe (a basic, all-butter pie dough), I felt so liberated! I could whip up quiches, free-form tarts, and pies at a moment's notice. Find some basic but good recipes (ratatouille is another good one to memorize), commit them to memory, and you'll be surprised at how far you can go.
linenlady May 9, 2012
I'm thinking about investing in a pressure cooker. Any more suggestions on what I can make in it? Or even a cookbook with pressure cooker recipes? Thanks!
drbabs May 4, 2012
I would say that my cooking life is enriched by constant learning. This site of course, various blogs, the food section of the Times. I read cookbooks almost as often as novels and think about food a lot. I second Sarah's suggestion about knife skills. I recently took a knife skills class, and it has made my life so much easier.
drbabs May 4, 2012
I would say that my cooking life is enriched by constant learning. This site of course, various blogs, the food section of the Times. I read cookbooks almost as often as novels and think about food a lot. I second Sarah's suggestion about knife skills. I recently took a knife skills class, and it has made my life so much easier.
Reiney May 4, 2012
This is a pretty basic one, but breaking down the vegetables after the grocery shopping helps a lot. Not talking chopping up onions on Monday for cooking on a Friday, of course - but washing the fruits and vegetables, cutting up the pineapple, perhaps taking kale leaves off the ribs, roasting and peeling beets, blanching green beans, etc. Having those simple things done for the week can help a lot.

Well-made and frozen stock in 1, 2 and 4 cup portions can be defrosted quickly used to braise greens, stew meat, or make risotto.

Memorizing ratios and techniques for standards - pesto, risotto, cream soup, braises, etc - means you can be as creative on the components as you like (and have the mental energy for), without having to refer to a recipe every step.

Also, anything you can do to improve your knife skills will really cut down on prep time.
healthierkitchen May 4, 2012
I think in terms of coordinating efficiency with a desire to branch out, I try to limit myself to one new dish per meal for a busy weeknight. Or certainly, only one dish that requires a lot of steps. So, if I'm making a new and different sauce for pasta, I might be sure to do a plain vegetable (steamed, roasted, grilled) until I see how prep goes. If I'm doing a more complicated and interesting vegetable such as absurdly addictive asparagus for example, I might serve a simpler roasted piece of fish. I also try to see the week's planning as a dance (love that, Nozlee!). Sunday morning at the farm stand (and this works at a grocery store, too) I see what looks fresh and good and start to plan around that. I usually buy a big bag of vegetables and some fish, eggs, chicken or chicken sausage and then come up with about four or five meals based around them and what's in my pantry. I jot down some ideas and then make a list of any items I don't already have. So it's often something new based on the season, or what just jumps out at me, but within certain weekday parameters for a quicker cooking meal.
Benny May 4, 2012
most of the meals I make tend to take at least two days of preparation. I have personally developed a system of doing prep work for the next night in conjunction with making dinner for that day. it just takes a little bit of planning.

you can braise, portion, chop, make sauces, marinate and many other things in advance to make tomorrows meal a snap. Having worked in restaurants, I'm pretty good at multitasking and getting ingredients ready to just throw together.

Additionally, I always make enough for left overs. I'm actually only making about 3-4 dishes a week. I don't mind eating the same thing two days in a row.
AntoniaJames May 4, 2012
A lot of the points made in the comments to Merrill's recent posts on make-ahead meals apply here. My greatest efficiency boosters involve making double batches, not just of things like soups, stews, braises, etc. that can be frozen, but also of ingredient groups. E.g., chop onions and garlic for three different meals and cook them in one batch before dividing and adding aromatics, herbs, etc. If I haven't the time to make all three dishes -- though in most instances I'll at least start the second one -- the cooked onions go into a pint Mason jar or covered glass bowl in the fridge. They'll last for four or five days, to jumpstart another meal. Making ahead and cooking in part from the freezer or from prepped ingredients in the fridge frees up time for new and fun other dishes. As others have noted, planning ahead, with a written chart of what you're going to serve and when, is essential, but of course, use it only as a guide. My meals over the course of a week almost never look like what's on my menu plan, but the plan anchors me, freeing up my energy and imagination to try new things, if the circumstances permit. Finally, my most important activity, both for efficiency and for adding interest to my meals, is daydreaming for a few minutes, at least several times a week. I just put my pen down and stare out the window, letting my mind free associate. (This incidentally is a proven method, at least in my law practice, for solving gnarly analytic and/or tactical challenges. The point here is to get your right brain involved by just letting it go to work for you.) ;o)
boulangere May 4, 2012
Funny you should ask. I'm ruminating over a blog post on the very subject. I try to maintain a decent pantry for nights just such as you describe, when I need what I refer to as a "pantry dinner" - literally determined not by what I may want, but rather by what I have on hand. For example, I always have rices, pastas, a few varieties of dried mushrooms, onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, a couple of kinds of cheese (always Parm and lately Feta). Given those staples, I can usually pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Voted the Best Reply!

Sam1148 May 4, 2012
Don't be shy about using a store bought thing (and don't give me that Sandra Lee Look).

One of my favorites is a Rotisserie Chicken purchased from the store. Cut up, and brushed with Hoisin sauce on the skin. Broiled skin side up. (watch it and don't burn!). Then slice up green onions. Brush small tortillas with sesame oil; Do them in pairs 'face to face' with oiled side being the 'face'. cover the batch with a damp towel and microwaved 15 second to warm.
Serve the crispy chicken on the tortillas with some more hoisin and green onions, a mock peking duck). Some good frozen steamed dumpings and a quick egg drop soup completes the meal.

Another one is using "Popeye's" chicken nuggets; which are actually pretty good and not pressed chicken bits. And use them for a sweet and sour stir fry. Making a sweet sour sauce is trivial---breading chicken and frying it is a pain. Here's a bit on that.

I'll stock up on bags of frozen pot-stickers and other dimsum at a good Asian market. So those are most always on hand. I tend to steam rather than fry the pot sticker and it's easy to makes up a dipping sauce for those. Sometimes those with a salad and a miso soup is all that's needed.
Kristen W. May 4, 2012
Not a model of efficiency myself, but one thing that has helped me a lot with that recently is making-ahead certain time-consuming add-ins that can fit into a variety of dishes and freezing them. A couple of months ago, for example,I made a batch of Rick Bayless's Salsa Negra (which is a-freaking-MAZING, BTW) for a particular recipe and froze what I didn't use. Now I have that liquid gold pre-made and ready to instantly turn something simple, like a pot of black beans, into complex, sweet, smoky, spicy deliciousness.

Same goes for a batch of slow-cooked sofritto, for example. So many applications for it once it's made and portioned out in the freezer, and it adds so much depth to dishes. Kind of like modular cooking, to an extent...anyhow, hope that helps.
SKK May 4, 2012
Enrichment and efficiency always don't show up in the same sentence, so your question has me think. I love Nozlee's analogy with cooking as a dance. And I have to include the enjoyment of purchasing the ingredients before preparing them. When I get stressed is when purchasing shows up like a burden or a problem rather than its own dance and discovery. When I love the ingredients it is easy to prep them for the week and find the recipes that show them off.
Nozlee S. May 4, 2012
I find that reading the recipes beforehand and visualizing step by step how I will cook a multi-part meal -- while I'm on the subway, walking to work, showering, or falling asleep at night -- really helps for when I walk into the kitchen to start cooking. Thinking about cooking as a dance rather than a series of executed steps helps everything go more smoothly -- beat the eggs while the onions soften, warm the sauce in the same pan used to boil the pasta, chop all the onions together and divide for two dishes, etc.
Slow C. May 4, 2012
I know it seems so simple, but what works for me is to plan in advance. (Since I'm not so great at this, I have my children do it for me, works well for us, they are happy, I am happy!). I very rarely cook from cookbooks, but, especially if I'm in a rut, I go to some of my faves (or send my girls to the books) and have them thumb through and pick out their heart's desires and make a shopping list. If I have a list that carries me through the week I can wrap my mind around advance prep and make sure all ingredients are in the house. After all these years of cooking it still amazes me how much more quickly I can come home and prepare a "more interesting" dish than even a quick simple one if I have thought it out beforehand. It's fun because each member of my family has different tastes so there is a good amount of variety. (And, if you don't have children who you can send to the books, maybe that means you have time to peruse for yourself, ahhhhh, the luxury! Time to browse all of Food52's archives? That would be nice...)
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