Simplify Your Cooking

Cooking sure can get complicated. Sometimes we're trying to emulate the cooking we see on TV. Sometimes we’re learning more and more, so we’re trying to test ourselves. Sometimes we're just trying to do too much at once. Sometimes at my house I feel like things in the kitchen are just getting too involved - taking too much time, requiring too much attention, causing too much frustration. How about you?

So, my challenge to you (and to myself) this week is to look for ways to simplify our cooking and our time in the kitchen. And to get you started I have a few ideas to share:

Quit Last-Minute Add-ins

OK, I freely admit it. I'm an adder, a tosser-in-er - or whatever the phrase might be. I have this tendency when I cook to toss something in at the last second. "What if I toss in some spinach?". "Wouldn't some more onions be good in this?" "Hmm, what would it taste like if I throw in some of that new spice I just bought?" "Maybe a few minutes under the broiler would be a great way to finish this dish off?" And so off I go to chop onions, find that spice, heat up an oven etc. So what? you ask. Cooking is for the creative. Well, true. But sometimes that creativeness in us can make things unnecessarily complicated.

When I do that the result is usually just fine (maybe even a little better). But sometimes it just throws things off. A few extra minutes at the cutting board (sometimes while the dish is already cooking), or digging through the cabinet for the smoked paprika I swear I just saw, or the 5-10 extra minutes while the oven preheats.

A lot of times the dish is better, but maybe only slightly. Was taking my eye off the ball truly worth it? Did my change really pay off? Too often I’d have to say no. If nothing else I added some unnecessary stress to my cooking. If you're like me, it might simplify your life if you stick to your original plan more often.

Fewer Dishes at Once

Now I live in a mixed family that includes one vegetarian (me), a bunch of meat-eaters, a teenager, and a few children. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. Sometimes the combinations can get waaaaaay too complicated. A few times we’ve even had to write down everyone’s preferences just to get it right. And timing can become an issue - and some things cook more quickly than others, at different temperatures, etc.

So how can you get around all that? How can you avoid having to act like a professional chef with myriad dish combinations - but without the kitchen staff to back you up?

Plan ahead when possible and try to develop meals that overlap as much as possible. Can you make a sauce that can be used on several different dishes? Can everyone share one big salad (with different toppings and dressing options that they choose themselves)?

Sometimes the easiest way to deliver a meal to the table is not to deliver it at all. Think about self-service. Create a base (pasta, rice, salad, etc.) with different add-in options and allow each person to serve themselves and customize the dish the way they want. Provide enough variety to keep everyone happy. And they make it exactly the way they want it. Win-win.

Make it Overlap

If you MUST (or just want to) make more than one dish, find ways to overlap them. Combine techniques like chopping, baking, or roasting in batches. Overlap ingredients by using the same ingredients (say chopped onions) in more than one dish. Look for ways to make your life simpler.

Can you have more than one dish in the oven at once? Sure. Find dishes that bake at the same temperature. You’ll probably need to make some small adjustments as two dishes can absorb more of the oven’s heat; leaving less for either dish independently. Usually that means increasing cooking times by a small amount (maybe 5-10%). But the trade-off is usually more than worth it.

We have a chicken enchilada recipe our family loves. The only problem is….well, me, the vegetarian in the room. But by a small adaptation we make it work. Instead of making two completely separate recipes, we make everything the same way except a portion of the chicken filling is made with veggies or a meat substitute instead. A couple of toothpicks mark the vegetarian ones. Everything goes into one baking dish and bakes all together. Problem solved. Very little additional time needed.

Cook Ahead

Always be on the lookout for dishes that you can cook (or partially prepare) in advance - and either warm up to include in your dishes or that can be kept warm as you finish the other parts of your meal. This works especially well with base ingredients like grains, sauces, and pasta. You can make them in advance and refrigerate or freeze them. Then you just take them out when you need them.

One tip to make things even easier is to package these foods in serving- or recipe-sized portions. For example, make five cups of rice on a Sunday and freeze them in five one-cup bags. Then when you need a cup of rice just pull out and thaw a bag. Easy!

Clear it Out

Too often our cooking involves moving things out of the way to get to the things we need. How often do you have to dig through a utensil crock to find the spatula you want? Or how hard is it to find that slotted spoon you need in an overpacked drawer? Chaos and disorganization are stressful. There are entire books, podcasts, websites, and blogs written about simplification and decluttering. And I love them! I won’t try to replicate all that here. But I will pick up on a few ideas that I think can be super-helpful to your life in the kitchen. Begin with one overriding thought: learn to part with things you just don’t need (no matter how much you think you love them) . So, how does that apply to your kitchen and to cooking? A few quick ideas:

1. Unused Items. Take a moment and think about all the things in your cooking space (drawers, countertops, utensil crocks, cabinets, etc.) that you haven’t used in 6 months or more (or even 3 months). Take them all out and put them in a bag or a box. Put that bag or box in the garage or a closet. Set yourself a reminder 3 months from now. When that date arrives, just get rid of the box/bag. Don’t even bother to look inside. If you didn’t need its contents for months, you don’t need it.

2. Duplicates. Do you really need three spatulas? Is it important that you have two hand-held strainers? And, honestly, how many cheese graters does one cook need? Only save ONE of those duplicate items. Put the other(s) in the box or bag you put together in the step above.

And while I'm talking about duplicates, it's time to get rid of those old and duplicate spices. Trust me. You don't need three containers of black pepper. That ingredient you bought for a recipe two years ago (and haven't used since) is most likely lost it's flavor. It's just taking up space. Toss it.

3. Clear off your countertops. So much stuff accumulates on kitchen counters - mail, keys, coffee makers, toaster ovens, microwaves, decorative items, and on and on and on. They are shrinking your cooking space. And we sometimes add things a little at a time; so we don’t even notice that our cooking area has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. Until you realize you can barely squeeze a normal-sized cutting board on your countertop. Until you can't find a place to lay down that dish you just removed from the oven. Really. Make room. Look for things you can get rid of…and get rid of them. Put items away in cabinets or even in the utility room or the garage if they are used infrequently. You'll love all the extra space you open up!

Ahhhh simplicity. Live with your “new” kitchen/cooking life for a week. Can you feel the difference? I did some of these a while back and it really helped. Of course, you (I) need to do it again every once in a while. I hope this makes your time in the kitchen a whole lot more fun!

I sure hope you are enjoying! Please feel free to leave any additional comments and/or ideas you have. And I'd LOVE it if you would share the blog or this post with anyone you think would love it too! Thanks! :)

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