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Spice It Up! Integrate Cooking into Your Daily Life

I have a theory that the more often one cooks, the easier it is for one to cook more often. I know from experience that this is true for me. Back when I worked at night in the restaurant business, I loved to cook at home on my nights off. Being a busy student and worker, my refrigerator was always bare so I’d pore over cookbooks, decide what to make, and then head to the store (or stores) for the ingredients. Every time I cooked, I’d have to start from scratch with just the right spices, herbs, grains, cheeses, etc. Then I’d spend the entire afternoon cooking … and about twenty minutes eating. I enjoyed it, but this was no way to actually feed myself on a regular basis.

Now I have a different approach to cooking. I cook more seasonally, inspired by the market, rather than a cookbook, and I cook regularly. This means I always have food to eat or the remnants of a meal on which I can build a new meal. It’s so much more pleasurable to be able to feed myself (and sometimes-unexpected guests) with healthy whole foods without any fuss.

Many of us end up in front of the prepared foods counter at the grocery store more often than we’d like, but we also know that if we only cooked more we’d save money, we’d know exactly what’s in our food, and we’d probably consume fewer unhealthy calories and more healthier ones. The challenge is fitting cooking into our busy modern lives, but it’s a worthy challenge. When I can feed myself, even on the busiest of days, I feel a sense of triumph in the midst of the chaos that sometimes overtakes my life.

A few weeks ago, we talked about how to actually shop the farmers’ market. Since we can’t live on fresh vegetables alone, today we’re going to talk pantry, paraphernalia, and planning. You’ll see how a wide variety of foods on hand, the proper kitchen tools, and a little advance thought can turn your kitchen into the most important room in your home.

Pantry Basics
Your personal pantry will depend on taste, dietary needs and cooking habits, but here’s a good start for developing a pantry full of real food.

Basic Oils:

  • One refined oil for high heat cooking like stir-frying: peanut, avocado, or safflower are good choices
  • One good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • One unrefined oil for general use in dressings and low heat cooking: safflower or sunflower are good choices

Optional:

  • One nut oil for special salads: walnut or hazelnut oils are good options (must be refrigerated after opening as they go rancid quickly)
  • Toasted sesame oil for cooking with Asian flavors

Basic Vinegars:

  • Good red wine vinegar
  • Cider vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar

Condiments:

  • Dijon mustard
  • Soy sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Chili paste

Spices:

  • One gourmet salt
  • Everyday salt for cooking, like kosher or iodized sea salt
  • Whole and ground cumin
  • Whole black pepper
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Cayenne
  • Pepper flakes
  • Cinnamon
  • Bay leaves

Canned Goods:

  • Canned wild salmon, sardines, herring, and anchovies
  • Canned beans and chickpeas
  • Canned whole and diced tomatoes
  • Coconut milk
  • Chicken or vegetable broth

Dry Goods:

  • Three types of pasta: one regular, one buckwheat or whole wheat, one rice noodle
  • Cornmeal
  • All-purpose unbleached flour
  • Whole-wheat flour
  • Lentils
  • Two types of dried beans—one white and one black or brown
  • Oats
  • One white long-grain rice
  • One brown rice
  • One interesting rice, like red or black
  • One to Two types of quick cooking grains like quinoa
  • One to Two types of longer cooking grains like wheat berries, faro, kamut
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Dried chilies
  • Sea vegetables
  • Nut butters
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Agave and/or sugar

Refrigerator Pantry:

  • Capers
  • Anchovies
  • Eggs
  • Tortillas
  • Butter
  • Basic cheeses: one feta, one hard grating, and one everyday like cheddar or Jack
  • Plain yogurt
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut

Freezer Pantry:

  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds
  • Frozen berries and stone fruit for smoothies and healthy desserts
  • Sliced bread

Other:

  • Lemons
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Shallots
  • Potatoes

Paraphernalia
The right tools can mean the difference between fun and frustration. Here are a few basic things that every cook needs. Feel free to embellish.

Utensils:

  • Good quality chef knife that is kept sharpened
  • Paring knife
  • Sharp serrated knife for use on bread and tomatoes
  • Tongs: restaurant quality, locking tongs; one long; one medium
  • Sturdy whisk: One small; one medium
  • Metal spatula
  • Rubber spatulas: Two or three different sizes
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Wooden spoons: several in different sizes
  • Large metal spoon
  • Slotted spoon
  • Ladles: One large; one small
  • Potato Masher
  • Microplane for grating hard cheeses and lemon zest

Tools:

  • Strainer
  • Colander
  • Small hand juicer
  • Mortar and pestle for spices and garlic paste
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Box grater
  • Salad spinner
  • Nesting mixing bowls, metal or glass
  • Cutting boards: One for meat and seafood, one for vegetables and aromatics like garlic, and one for fruit
  • Blender or food processor
  • Hand-held mixer

Cookware:

  • One small saucepan
  • One medium saucepan
  • Large pot for boiling pasta and making soup
  • One ten-inch cast-iron skillet—great for non-stick uses as well!
  • Steamer or vegetable steamer basket
  • Baking sheets (at least two)
  • A selection of glass or ceramic baking dishes: casseroles of different sizes and pie plates
  • A Crockpot or slow cooker will make cooking ahead easier.

Planning
Spend a few hours cooking on the weekend, add simply cooked fresh vegetables you’ve purchased at the farmers’ market, or received in your CSA, and feed yourself all week.

Depending on the size of your household, make:

  • One big pot of stew, soup, or pot of beans—use a Crockpot if you want
  • One batch of grains—rice cookers are great for this task
  • A batch of roasted vegetables
  • A quick, basic vinaigrette
  • Meat eaters can roast or simmer a whole chicken or pop a meat roast in the oven.
  • Time allowing: another project like jam, pickles, salsa, or a pesto, red pepper puree, or other condiment.

All of the foods above lend themselves well to repurposing and quick meals. This is a good way to cook ahead for families who don’t enjoy eating leftovers. One pot of beans can become tacos, enchiladas, salads, soups, pasta dishes, dips, sandwich spreads, and more. A batch of cooked grains like brown rice or wheat berries can be used throughout the week in one-dish grain bowl meals with seasonal cooked greens, roasted squash, or sweet potatoes. Cooked grains can also be added to salads or soups or used in stir-fries.

If you’ve cooked meat, use the meat in tacos, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and grain dishes throughout the week. It really is all about cooking main meal components ahead of time.

Casserole type foods like lasagna take a bit longer to prepare but can also be frozen in portions or eaten all week with an array of quickly prepared, seasonal, vegetable accompaniments.

So there you have it: Want to cook more and eat out less? Just cook. These are just some ways to get started. You will surely develop your own repertoire over time.

By Vanessa Barrington for EcoSalon

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