So let’s say you’ve decided that home cooking is a sweet deal after all and you’re giving those clam shells and pizza boxes a quiet funeral out in the back yard. But now what? How to make the switch from someone else (or hundreds of someones) feeding you to your own efforts?
Start by making dinner for a week – or let’s say, six out of seven days. To achieve this, you need some food in the house and a plan. What happens if you’re invited out during this home-cooking week? This isn’t a problem: of course, go out! The goal here is to make home cooking a desirable habit not a condition of house arrest.
This is a 5 step plan.
- The Master List.
- A Week’s Menu.
- A Shopping List
The Master List (you only do this part once)
The Master List contains everything you always want to have on hand. Whether it’s diapers, bird seed or aspirin, what you need in the house should be on your list. When it’s time to shop, consulting the master list will remind you what you’re out of. It will also remind you what not to buy. For example, by consulting the Master List, you will recall that you already have 3 different kinds of cheese in your refrigerator and the Frugal You will determine to use those up before buying more. Tape the list to the inside of one of your cabinets.
Here’s a brief example. Your list can be as extensive as you wish – but remember it’s not really a shopping list. It’s an inventory.
Spices, salt, pepper
The key here is keeping your menu very, very simple. Don’t stress over recipes, cookbooks or whether you think you’ll really want eggplant on Wednesday. Just write down some basic meals. In the following example, the menus may look slightly skeletal in their simplicity. This is on purpose.
If you find yourself toiling away composing menus, you won’t get to Tuesday in your home cooking plan. So just ponder briefly: Do I want fish twice this week? What about beets? Chicken? Okay. Plug some of these general choices into your menu. Just don’t repeat meals. A couple of salads are great but don’t count on eating the same vegetable every night. You’ll feel a lot more excited seeing a range of possibilities in the crisper than of 5 pounds of limp carrots.
A good tip: Keep a small notebook. Write the week’s menus on one page and the shopping list on the other.
Monday: Chicken, rice, salad
Tuesday: Turkey tacos, broccoli
Wednesday: Fish, red peppers, slaw
Thursday: Pasta with sausage, string beans
Friday: Pork chops, potatoes, spinach
Saturday: White pizza with artichokes, salad or… Something A Lot More Exciting
Sunday: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches
Desserts for the week: Yogurt, fruit, ice cream, cookies
On to your Shopping List
Organize your shopping list by category following your Master List . This will save a lot of time in the grocery. Here’s a short sample list using the master list and the bare bones menu.
Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheddar, Parmesan
Vegetables/Fruits: Onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, pears, bananas
Meat: Turkey, chicken breasts, pork chops, fish, sausage
Staples: Salt, cereal, peppercorns
Household: Paper towels, soap
Misc: Bread, tortillas, canned artichokes (in water)
The Actual Shopping
Here’s where things get a bit more creative. You’re in the store with your list but friends, you don’t need to be a slave to the list. Choose what looks good to you: you’ll be much more likely to cook it. You might think you want salmon but if the halibut is more appealing, that’s what you should get.
In other words, the list serves to remind you that you need food in the house. What’s available at your store really determines your choice. And be choosy: don’t buy produce that doesn’t look fresh. Don’t hesitate to make the guy in produce your friend. He will be more than happy to open a new case of string beans or (those magic words) ‘look in the back’ for more spinach.
Where to shop? If you want to get a jump on the week and cross a lot off your list, by all means, do a ‘big’ shopping trip. But once the basics are covered, you might make short trips to stores with high quality vegetables and meats. Stores like Whole Foods have quality meat, produce and fish but the prices are unreasonable and unfortunately, they’re looking more like cafeterias these days with all the troughs of prepared foods. Still, there are fewer aisles than the supermarkets. Bottom line: wherever you shop, hug the perimeter.
If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with farmers’ markets, CSAs*, food co-ops, or other stores that carry local products, your shopping may involve a few trips in order to complete your list.
How much should you buy? Not much but a lot of variety. For meat and fish, plan on 4 to 6 ounces per person. That means for a family of four, buy about 1 1/4 pounds of boneless chicken or one 3 1/2 pound roasting chicken. Pork chops? One each (not huge ones). When it comes to vegetables: indulge. Your salads can have 2 or 3 kinds of lettuce, some sliced fennel, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Buy lots of greens. One bunch of chard or kale will serve two generously.
What about your budget? If you cook at home for a week and limit your purchases to mostly fresh food, you’ll save money. And here’s an important part of the plan: spend more for your food but buy less of it. Anyone who has grown a tomato or eaten a fresh caught fish knows that quality counts.
Knuckle-cracking time! There’s food in the fridge but still, dinner seems hazy. If you’re really stuck for ideas, now is the time to get out a cookbook or go to a website like Epicurious. It’s amazing how quickly you can come up with something just by typing in an ingredient. If the recipe looks good, read a few of the reviews. Some are definitely wacky but you’ll get some ideas all the same. It’s 21st century back fence neighbor talk. If the dish turns out well, save a copy – it may become a favorite and of course, easier to make each time.
Say the idea of ground turkey tacos isn’t that thrilling. A few minutes of research later… Spicy turkey burgers! (See the recipe below) Sounds promising and the broccoli is good with that too.
But maybe, plain old broccoli is beginning to pall and this is where you pull out your stash of ‘accompaniments’. Toss it with some toasted pine nuts you keep in the freezer or make a little dressing with soy sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil. Even a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a small clove of chopped garlic and a spoonful of olive oil can make a big difference.
For our hypothetical week, I have purposely kept the menu, well, nearly generic. Depending on your time and how you feel, the ‘chicken-rice-salad’ might appear on the table as a zesty stir-fry or a cozy baked dish with salad on the side. Sundays are good nights for soup and a sandwich or – as they did in my family- breakfast for dinner: waffles or pancakes. After a long weekend and looking ahead to work and school, a simple homely supper is just right.
But hang on! What about Saturday night? Why not make things a little more exciting? If you have kids, feed them the pizza (see how below) and put them to bed. Shed the sweat pants and make yourselves oysters Rockefeller!
Did I mention dessert? It’s a good idea. If you’re eating meals with less meat and more vegetables and sticking to one helping, dessert makes a satisfying finish. If there are children in your house, the thought of dessert really does help that broccoli disappear. Plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam, honey, maple syrup or cinnamon sugar along with a couple of cookies (not huge) makes a good simple dessert. I’ve included a cookie recipe below. A dollop of ice cream on cooked or fresh fruit is another sweet idea.
Home cooking means real food, un-processed and cooked by you. Heating up the fancy deli’s lasagna doesn’t count. Neither does adding water to the Tandoori Rice Bowl.
Just to be clear: I’m not battling oatmeal, smoked salmon, olive oil or dried apricots. These are, of course, processed foods. What I’m talking about is what Michael Pollan, in an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine (January 28, 2007) “Unhappy Meals” describes:
“Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.”
Good luck with your cooking, I hope my suggestions help and that your week of home cooking turns into a second and then a third week. This is a challenging time of year to make a big change since we’re all beginning to get a little weary of winter. But take heart! Spring is just around the corner and in many areas, that means the farmers markets will be starting up and you may be planting your own garden. Soon there will be strawberries and asparagus and mushrooms… but for now, enjoy some soups and stews and the last of the season’s juicy grapefruits. Bon appetit!
*CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Customers buy a subscription or a ‘share’ of locally grown produce. Subscribers receive a weekly box of high quality, super fresh food directly from the farms which are, in turn, supported financially by the shareholders.
Here’s a good website to learn more:http://www.localharvest.org/csa/
Spicy Turkey Burgers
One kitchen gadget I have used constantly is the food processor. Grinding meat is one of the easiest things to do with this handy machine and you instantly have the best, freshest hamburger anywhere. Try this with turkey.
- 1 1/4 pounds turkey filets or ground turkey
- 2 plum (Roma) tomatoes
- 1 medium onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
Chop up the tomatoes, onion, garlic and half the cilantro to make a salsa. Use a food processor for this step if you have one but don’t make the mixture too smooth. Add the olive oil and seasonings and taste, adding more seasoning if necessary. Set aside.
If you’re using fresh turkey, cut it in a few pieces, put it into the food processor and pulse until ground but not minced. Combine the turkey and the salsa and shape into 4 burgers.
Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the burgers for about 3 minutes per side. Serve with lettuce and the extra cilantro and pass the hot sauce.
String Beans with ‘Accompaniments’
It’s the middle of July. You’ve just come in from your garden, your hair flowing in the breeze, a slight flush on your cheeks. In your arms, there are green beans. Minutes later, you and your loved ones are swooning over these perfect beans which are unclothed save for a dab of butter and a little salt and pepper.
Wait a minute! Stop the cameras! It’s February: add some flavoring and texture to fully clothe your beans and help everyone have a good meal. Keep a stash of various nuts, spices, and exotic things like lime or lemon oil (a tiny bottle lasts for ages). Fresh ginger, by the way, keeps a long time in the fridge if you wrap it in paper towel and then in a small closeable plastic bag.
- 1 pound green beans
- 1/4 cup walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 1 small piece of ginger, peeled and grated
- A few drops of lemon oil
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Bring a big pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, wash the beans and snap off the ends. Cook the beans for 5 to 8 minutes or until just tender. (Check by fishing one out and tasting it) Drain the beans and put them back in the pot.
Toss with the remaining ingredients and taste for seasoning. Can be served hot or room temperature.
Super Fast Pizza for the Kids
Grown-ups like this too!
for 2 servings
- 1 -2 small whole wheat pitas
- 1 can artichokes (you’ll only need 1/2 can)
- 1 slice ham or prosciutto, diced (optional)
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan or shredded mozzarella
- Olive oil
Heat the oven to 325. Split the pita into two halves, brush with a little olive oil and warm it up a few minutes on a cookie sheet. If you have trouble separating the pita or if it’s very thin, use two. Drain and chop up about half of artichokes. Divide them between the 2 pita halves, add the optional ham or prosciutto and top with the cheese. Bake about 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with a few cherry tomatoes on the side.
p.s. the extra artichokes? Halve them and wrap in a slice of prosciutto, ham or cheese. This can be your hors d’oeuvre while you make the oysters….
This Saturday night special serves two but you can easily double it or make a lot for a party. Buy your oysters the same day you cook them. My take on this classic involves a lot of spinach. Serve with champagne.
- 6 to 8 large fresh oysters
- 2 slices bacon
- 1 bunch spinach
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons Pernod or Herbsaint liqueur
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs
Fry the bacon until it is about halfway done. Drain on a paper towel.
Wash the spinach thoroughly, cut off the stems and chop roughly. Saute the shallot in the butter until soft and add the spinach stirring until it is wilted. In a strainer, drain and squeeze out the water with the back of a spoon. Put the spinach back in the pan, warm it, stirring and add the Pernod, cooking a minute or two to evaporate the alcohol. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Turn the oven on to broil. Arrange the oysters, rounded side down, on a baking sheet. Broil just until the shells ‘pop’ or look open. Remove from the oven, loosen the oysters with a knife, taking care not to spill the juice and discard the upper flat shell.
Place a mound of spinach on each oyster, a spoonful of the crumbs and top with a square of bacon. Broil the oysters (not too close to the heat) just until the bacon is crisp. Watch it like a hawk!!
Pop the champagne cork, tuck a white napkin into your pearls and dive in!
My friend Valerie’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Valerie Hill was the pastry chef at the Morrison Clark Inn in Washington, DC when I worked there. This is her incredibly good recipe, and you’ll find it makes several rolls which store well in the freezer. These are buttery but not overly sweet little cookies that melt in your mouth.
- 1 1/2 pounds butter, unsalted, softened
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 5 cups (1 1/4 lbs) cake flour, sifted
- 4 3/4 (15 oz) cups oats
- 2 1/4 cups (12 oz) golden raisins
Cream butter and sugar. Sift baking soda over mixture and blend thorougly. Mix in the remaining ingredients. I use a mixer for this. Shape into long rolls and wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate until firm. Slice into about 1/4 inch rounds and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. I bake cookies on parchment paper so I don’t have to grease the cookie sheet.
The rolls can be frozen and baked as needed.
Cheers and xoxo, Mary