Because I know you’re, like, so totally interested in what I do every day.
We’re having a snow day today! There is very little snow on the ground, none on the roads, and the kids have a whole day off. Being that I work from home my life is still a PJs and tea and internet, but it still feels kind of fancy.
Also I’m having lunch with my sister who is a teacher and never sees adults during the day. So totes a snow day.
Anyway, I always hear people saying that they can’t cook because they let things go bad, or can’t adjust recipes and it’s too expensive to buy ALL the ingredients they need, etc etc. I totally get this, so I thought today I’d share a kind of hierarchy – things I think about FIRST when deciding what we’re going to eat, and how I go about making those thoughts into a whole meal.
This was sort of inspired by Chopped, which naturally we watched for 3 hours last night while it “snowed.” There was an amateur round on which made me want to enter SO FREAKING BAD, but it might stress me out so much that I’d die, so maybe not. That #alexguarnaschelli, though, man. Love that girl.
So here’s what I do when I’m thinking on food, roughly in order of importance (most important first).
- What needs to go? I always start here, because I HATE wasting food. Currently there’s a cucumber that looks sort of….iffy….in my produce drawer, so you bet your bootie I’m making marinated cucumbers ASAP. This same thing goes to random leftover that I save – tiny bits of sauce, etc. In addition to picking one or two items from the produce/protein section of my fridge, I think about the one inch left of taco sauce or whatever and sometimes work from there. I find it incredibly satisfying to empty things out of the fridge, so…yeah. I’m weird.
- How much time do I have? Sometimes I’ll remember that I have a massive piece of beef in my freezer at 7pm and it’s frozen solid in the freezer. So maybe I think in my brain and put it in the fridge for the next day, but obvs 7pm isn’t the time to start thinking about big meat. If I have 30 minutes, I make a variation of these burgers, 45 minutes is great for this baked pasta, and if I have an hour or two I make this chili because it’s SO good after it simmers on the stove for 30 minutes to an hour.
- What did I already eat today? This isn’t an absolute, but it makes for a more varied diet to give a tiny thought to what you’ve already consumed. Most folks don’t need a huge amount of protein at every meal, so if I’ve already eaten chicken I might go veg, or if I have leftover pasta for lunch I’ll make a big salad or soup for dinner.
- Does Jay Care? Sometimes after I’ve narrowed down a few options, I’ll say something like this to Jay: choose between Mexican and Asian flavors! And then I’ll use the ingredients and time frame to cook based on his answer. This happened the other night: I wanted to use some leftover tofu, some brown rice, and lime. I was between Mexican Rice Bowls or Fried Rice, and he chose Asian so there we go. Either flavor profile would have worked. Jay gets third billing here because if I ask him what he wants for dinner first he replies with 78 different ingredients that I then have to flesh out into a meal. He’s simply too creative but also doesn’t know what we have in the fridge, so having some parameters is helpful.
- What do I want? Here’s where I play a little, especially if it’s early in the day and I can get to the store. My deal with myself is usually that if I’m using up something partially moldy or old, that I add something fun and sexy to offset the responsibility of throwing out food. Random bits of expensive cheese I keep around, small amounts of decadent meat like pancetta or chorizo…little add-ons that aren’t the main component of a meal but make me feel all chef-like and don’t cost a lot because usually I get really small amounts – expensive meats are still delicious if you only get 1/3lb!
- Do I have an idea? Sometimes I give myself an ingredient that really either isn’t appealing to me that day or I can’t figure out how to make it work with the other things I want to use, and THEN I GOOGLE. Simple. Why do you think all of us food bloggers spend so much time preaching to you? Use us. We want to help.
- So let’s cook! Once I know what I HAVE to use, how much time I have, Jay’s preferences, and what I GET to use, I figure out how it all works together – sometimes as I go, sometimes before I start cooking. When I’m planning, even casually, I work backwards from the time I want to be eating to figure out about when I need to start elements of the dinner. I also make anything that can be made way in advance (a sauce that needs to simmer, salad, assembling garlic bread to bake) the second I think of it, even if it’s 2pm. Then it’s done! And I don’t feel like I’m attacking a whole meal right at dinnertime! You can do that too: Make one or two components of a meal the night before if you think of it, or right when you get home from work – I especially like letting things work for me while I do other things such as starting pasta water to boil the second I walk in the door, then by the time I change clothes and heckle the dogs it’s boiling!
It is my very humble opinion that cooking in this fashion accomplishes a few things. First, it holds me accountable for things I already own: not wasting by basically forcing myself to use older products first. It also encourages creativity: this might sound hard, but I promise once you do it a few times your brain will learn what works with what and what dishes are conducive to certain cooking times. Finally, it’s kind of fun if you enjoy cooking even a little bit – the feeling of using up things that need to go but also producing something new (not like just warming up leftovers) and delicious! Everyone wins! Including the moldy cucumber!
Now tell me how to improve my process. I’m thinking a robot to do dishes would be great.