Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slow Food Fast

Cooking real food doesn't mean having to spend all day in the kitchen. Life is full and rich and busy, and as much as I enjoy cooking, there are times when it just isn't convenient, or I'm sick of being in the kitchen.

There. I've said it. Sometimes I'm just tired of cooking. And I bet I'm not the only one.

Still, I want real food. I just want it fast and easy.

There are plenty of frozen stir fry mixes, lasagna, pot pies and Indian food. Eh. Most aren't exactly "real" food, full of preservatives and fillers. And they certainly aren't local. The really good stuff -- organic, no preservatives -- is pretty expensive. However, if you have a Trader Joe's nearby, they do have some terrific frozen stuff, as do most natural food stores. They've saved my culinary neck on more than one occasion.

Once upon a time I tried one of those dinner-to-go places. You go online, choose the menu items you're interested in, pay your money and show up at an appointed time. Armed with recipes and a pile of aluminum tins, you then set off down the assembly line of ingredients, throwing together Swiss steak, kung pao chicken with rice, pork-and-hominy stew, and the like. After forty-five minutes you tote a dozen aluminum pans out to your car and later into the freezer. It's quick and easy to pop one of your creations in the oven when you get home from work. The menu seems limited, though, and the ingredients, at least at the place I tried, weren't exactly inspiring. And forget local. I'd be interested if there are any of these businesses that specialize in local, real food.

In the meantime, technology and technique to the rescue. Here are a few other ways to spend less time in the kitchen.

Slow cooker. There is something wonderful about being away from home all day and opening the door to the scent of something savory burbling away. Okay, this isn't exactly fast, but it doesn't take much actual time to get something going. However, finding really good slow cooker recipes can be challenging. Ham and beans, lamb stew, and chicken cacciatore are my current favorites. I recently picked up The Gourmet Slow Cooker by Lynn Alley, which looks promising. I'm not recommending it yet as I've only tried one recipe from it so far. She also has a vegetarian slow cooker cookbook.

Pressure cooker. These devices have gone out of style, but can still be found in kitchen and department stores. Some people simply find them frightening, thinking of them as pressurized bombs on the stove. But I'm a convert. Just read the directions, and make sure your seals and valves are clean. We have three, but almost always use the eight-quart.

Again, stews and soups do very well in a pressure cooker (the vegetable beef soup we made last weekend is K's specialty), but they're also quite versatile. A beef roast takes 45 minutes and is fall apart tender, and chicken cooks even more quickly (and is even more tender). I've recently discovered how easy grains and beans are (add olive oil to the beans to keep them from foaming) and am looking forward to trying a risotto recipe soon. I really like Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna Sass for contemporary and interesting recipes. She also has a vegetarian version.

Plan for leftovers. Make a lot of something and eat off it for a few days. Soups and stews are perfect for this. Or cook for one meal (roast beef and mashed potatoes), and then use the leftovers in other dishes (shepherd's pie with the mashed potatoes on top, bbq beef sandwiches, roast beef hash, even chili). This happens to most of us whether we plan on it or not.

Cook ahead. Much like the dinner-to-go idea, but completely under your control. There are several cookbooks with make ahead meals, though I don't own any. The idea is to spend one day in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for the next two weeks or even a month. I'm less likely to spend a whole day doing this, but there are certain dishes I double or triple and freeze the excess for a quick pop in the oven. They include lasagna, chili relleno casserole, calzones, and chicken pot pie. I'll be posting the chicken pot pie recipe here on Friday.

Have a few quick, simple meals in your repertoire. This, along with planning for leftovers, probably goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway. It's a good idea if these quick meals are the sort of thing you generally stock the ingredients for. Off the top of my head omelette and salad, grilled [steak, pork chop, chicken breast, lamb chop] with baked potato and steamed veg, quesadillas, and spaghetti top my list.

I'd love to know your tips and tricks for saving time in the kitchen without resorting to take out or pre-packaged food. Or with family and job and just trying to keep up, is time simply too valuable to bother?


  1. I love my slow-cooker, mostly for soups. I'll take some chicken pieces (or a rotisserie chicken carcass) and make some broth for four hours or so, then I'll remove the bones and add veggies and beans/lentils and barley, etc. Easy to make and usually there's plenty for leftovers.

    I have a pressure-cooker, but I'm in the scaredy-cat category. I'm not sure I've ever used it!

  2. I have a vacuum sealer that I use to freeze my squash, soups, sauces...those food items that take awhile initially to cook. Last night I prepared a bag of butternut squash that I froze last fall (part of my CSA). For liquids like soups and sauces, I freeze them first in bread pans, After they're frozen, I submerge the outside of the pan in warm water to loosen the "ice" and then use the vacuum sealer. Sometimes I do two seals for insurance purposes, just so the contents don't come out in boiling water. Then these items are stored in my freezer. When I want them, they're ready in about 15 minutes, usually less time than that. I have shrimp etouffee, beef barley soup, butternut squash, buttered beets..the list goes on and they're all "leftovers."

  3. You have intrigued me with your pressure cooker. I grew up eating pressure cooked potatoes every day. That is all I can think about with pressure cookers.

    Maybe you can share your favorite crock pot recipes?

  4. Alan, that sounds like the perfect slow cooker meal, and I love that you use the chicken carcass.

    Oooh, Linda -- I have vacuum sealer envy. I used to have an ancient one that had to go away. For now I just use zip bags to store things like that in the freezer. Problem is you can't heat them in boiling water. And isn't that one of the absolutely best ways to cook when you're camping?

    Pieces, I'll be happy to share some of my favorite slow cooker recipes. Thanks for asking!