Most of the recipes that I make are easy, but they do take a fair amount of vegetable preparation: chopping, dicing, slicing, and mincing. Recipes that use lots of vegetables and taste really great usually taste that way because of time spent preparing the raw ingredients. One thing that’s going to help you here is to have a good-quality SHARP KNIFE. I’ll admit, I’m lousy at sharpening a knife. But I insist on having very sharp knives all the time. So I have one of those little hand-held knife sharpeners with 2 little blades set in a V-shape. Every time I start to cook (I’m not kidding—every time I set out to cut an onion), I pull that little sharpener out of the drawer, drag my knife over the V a few times, and voila! a sharp knife. It makes all the difference in the world. Using a dull knife is dangerous (the knife is more likely to slip and cut you), and it is NOT FUN to slice and dice with a dull knife. So, get yourself a decent 9” or 10” chef’s knife and a 4” paring knife, and keep them SHARP by using a sharpener obsessively. I promise, you’ll have way more fun in the kitchen.
mise en place
Have you ever seen the term “mise en place” in a cookbook, or in a book about food? It’s a French term [say it “MEEZ-en-ploss”] that literally means “put in place.” What it means to you as a cook is: “get all the ingredients prepared first, before you put anything to the fire.” The idea is to chop, peel, dice, slice, or grate your ingredients first, and then when you start to actually cook, everything is ready to be added at the proper time.
Are you thinking that’s a waste of time? Maybe I can hear you saying “But it saves time if you chop the onions, and then while they brown in the pot, you can chop the carrots and celery.” Here’s my answer: I’m more than likely to scorch the onions while I’m chopping the carrots and celery. And I think it’s stressful chopping carrots while trying to stir onions and then remember that I have to mince the garlic first before I put the carrots into the onions… and oh, shoot, where is that ungrateful garlic press?
When all my ingredients are ready, combined in bowls that contain all the ingredients that need to be added at one time, I can relax and enjoy the cooking part. And isn’t it always more fun to be relaxed? I enjoy cooking more when I give myself the time and space for it.
If I have a chunk of slow time while I’m cooking (for example, when those onions are browning and I only have to stir them occasionally), here’s what I do: work on washing the dishes. When I have time to do the clean-up between cooking steps, instead of frantically chopping ingredients and rummaging around in the refrigerator or pantry, by the time I sit down to dinner, the counters are pretty clear! Most of the cooking dishes are done, and all I have to wash after dinner are the plates, utensils and glasses! How great does that sound? So do yourself a favor—tie an apron around your waist, and give yourself the gift of enough time to do your mise en place. Or as the pros say, “do your ‘meez.’”
cooking in large batches
My mom taught me to bake (cupcakes, pies, and bread), but she didn’t teach me to cook. I learned that when I went to college, when I began to share cooking responsibilities with a group of twelve friends from the cross-country ski team. Even now, cooking for twelve feels comfortable to me… which translates into a double or triple batch of just about anything. This makes seconds for my family of three, plus a nice amount to freeze for later. I freeze my extra soups, beans, and vegetable dishes in plastic containers, carefully labeled with a Sharpie pen on an address label sticker. I try to include any notes about what to add at the last minute, or what I’m supposed to serve it with. For example, “winter veggie soup; add peas,” or “mushroom/tomato ragout, serve over polenta.” That ensures that I have the proper accompaniment before I thaw it out.
side by side dishes
I don’t worry much about the question “Where do you get your protein?” because I get plenty of protein in the beans, grains, nuts and vegetables I eat. Some of my favorite meals are combining a couple of colorful vegetable dishes, and maybe a bean dish or soup alongside. I try and keep lots of healthy vegetable dishes and yummy homemade salad dressings in the ‘fridge. And I always have plenty of frozen bean soups and stews stacked in the freezer. Then when I need a quick meal, I can combine them: beans, a vegetable or a salad, and maybe a slice of toast or a grain dish. I come up with recipe pairings by asking myself these questions:
- 1. What will taste good together? For example, I might follow a Southwestern theme, an Asian or Indian theme, or a European/American theme.
- 2. What will provide a varied and interesting meal? For example, I think about serving two very different vegetable dishes (one starchy vegetable and the other leafy), or a vegetable/bean combination, or a vegetable/bean/grain combination.
- 3. What will look beautiful on the plate? I love to serve vibrantly-colored and contrasting dishes together, so the plate looks lovely and the meal is packed with nutrients. One classic combination is orange vegetables with dark greens, but don’t stop there! Imagine what color the dish will be, and then think about what foods would provide good contrast.
- 4. What is seasonal? It’s hard to go wrong when you serve fresh foods in season, or, for that matter, storage vegetables in season—they just taste good together.
Make the recipes TO YOUR TASTE! As I make recipe, I taste it, often—and then I decide if needs more of something… salt? honey? vinegar? garlic? When you have a final product you love, write notes in your cookbook or on the printed-out recipe so you can remember how you changed it next time you make it. Or, if you don’t like a recipe, write that down, as well! As you cook the recipes I share with you, add seasoning to your taste! As you proceed through a recipe, just stick a spoon in (or your finger), give it a good solid lick, and see what you think. The more often you taste and adjust the seasonings, the better you’ll get at knowing what a certain recipe needs to bring it up to perfection—for you!
be creative (or, don’t be afraid to wing it)
What do you do if you find a recipe that looks interesting, but you don’t have all the ingredients? Try it anyway, omitting the ingredient, or think of something to substitute! What do you have hanging around in your refrigerator that needs to be cooked? Sometimes the recipes become very different than the original—and wonderful, too! Write down your final solution on the page if you want to remember it for next time!