It's time for the first round of commodorified's "Cooking For People Who Don't" blog carnival! Because I misremembered the due date, and until a couple of days ago thought I had until the end of February (when in fact posts are due today), I have not managed to: (a) take any photos to illustrate this post, (b) get someone else to read this post over before I publish it, or indeed (c) plan this post out in any great detail. But hopefully what I have to say will be interesting anyway! (If it isn't, then go and have a look at the carnival round-up, which has links to other people's posts.)
The theme for this round of the carnival is "food security", and we were urged to interpret this widely. I've chosen to write about how to cook when you have plenty of money to buy ingredients, but very little time and/or energy to actually cook them. I'm also going to assume a certain level of competence in the kitchen — the ability to chop an onion, the willingness to taste and poke and prod things to see if they're done yet, or to try adding a spoonful of chilli oil here, a pinch of sugar there, to get the flavours closer to the way you want them.
When I'm tired after a long day's work, actually getting myself into the kitchen to cook can be the hardest part. One handy trick I've found is to just go into the kitchen and start chopping an onion. It doesn't matter if I don't know at this point what I'm going to do with it.
Often I get an idea before I've even finished chopping — I might remember that I have some chorizo in the fridge and a can of chickpeas in the cupboard, so I'll fry the onion in fat rendered from the chorizo, sprinkle in some paprika, throw in a can of tomatoes along with the drained chickpeas, and before I know it I have stew. If I haven't figured out what I'm going to do by the time I've got my onion chopped, I'll fry it in a neutral-tasting oil (e.g. sunflower oil) to keep my options open, and have a poke around in the fridge while it's cooking.
I can only remember one occasion where this procedure didn't result in something tasty and edible — I really was exhausted and my brain wasn't working at all — so I put the fried onion in a bowl in the fridge and used it the next evening instead. (I can't remember what I ate that evening; it could well have been a takeaway. Which is absolutely fine.)
Personalised recipe cards
Sometimes I don't have the mental energy to make stuff up as described above. When this happens, I fall back on one of my recipe cards. These are simple recipes that I've chosen as ones that I know I like eating, that I know I usually have the ingredients for, and that don't take very long to cook. I've written them up in my own words, printed them out (four to an A4 sheet), cut them up, and stashed them in the kitchen drawer. (I'd like to get them laminated, but I haven't got around to it yet.)
The advantage of having these recipes in my own words is that I know how my brain works, I know how I like to do things in the kitchen, and I know which steps need to be spelled out for me and which ones don't.
The advantage of having the recipes written clearly on a small piece of paper is that I don't have to have any laptops, smartphones, file folders, cookbooks, etc, cluttering up the place while I'm trying to cook. A piece of paper this size takes up essentially no counter space, and can easily be carried to the storecupboard when I'm getting out the ingredients I need.
The advantage of having the recipes written down, even though they're things I cook frequently and so perhaps "should" be able to do from memory, is that when I'm really tired, even a small reduction in cognitive burden is useful.
Versatile ingredients with a long shelf life
A lack of time/energy to cook often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of time/energy to shop. So it's useful to keep things on hand that you can make lots of meals with, but that won't go off. Some are obvious, like tinned tomatoes and tinned pulses (e.g. chickpeas, kidney beans), but here are some other ideas. (Also: piratemoggy! Where is your Extreme Cupboard Survivalist tumblr?)
Chorizo is very useful; buy it as a single piece (i.e. not pre-sliced) and it keeps for ages. You only need a little bit of it to make a stew or soup seem more substantial. Bacon is good too but doesn't last quite as long (though you can chop it, freeze it, and throw it in the pan from frozen).
Squeezy garlic (i.e. puréed garlic in a tube) is brilliant. It's salty, so you need to be careful of salt levels when using it, but it's a great way to instantly lift the flavour of your cooking. Some people prefer to get the chopped stuff in a jar, but I like the squeezy kind (no need to dirty a spoon!)
Tomato ketchup: saltiness, sweetness, tomatoeyness, all in one quick squeeze. Sometimes when a tomato sauce isn't tasting quite right, a bit of ketchup can fix it right up.
Pre-cooked, pre-flavoured pulses. One of my store-cupboard staples is Merchant Gourmet Puy lentils with porcini mushrooms and thyme. They come in a pouch, so don't take up much room in the cupboard, and in an emergency you can eat them straight out of the packet. If your need for food is less urgent, you can heat them up and serve them with chops or sausages (cooked in the oven); or you can put them on toast, top them with cheese, and melt the cheese under the grill.
Cooking is not just about making food happen
It's OK to eat out. It's OK to order in. It's OK to have a Subway sandwich with "all the salad please" for dinner once in a while. It's OK not to cook every night, or even most nights.
On the other hand, some evenings you might get more personal satisfaction and well-being from cooking something yourself, even if it's not a super-nutritous fibre-packed vitamin delivery system. Last night I made toast pizzas — toast a slice of bread on one side, turn it over, add pizza-like toppings, and toast again until the toppings are melted, warmed through, or crisped, as appropriate.
Some people might say this isn't really cooking, but it meant I could combine things just the way I wanted (plenty of anchovies, not too much cheese) and cook them just the way I wanted (with the cheese melted but not browned) — and it gave me the sensual pleasure of touching the dense sourdough bread and licking the anchovy oil off my fingers and smelling the toastiness of the melting cheese. I'm glad I did that instead of just ordering a delivery pizza. (Check my not really cooking tag on Tumblr for more along these lines.)
Using takeaway leftovers
Like I said above, it's OK to eat out, and it's OK to order in. It's particularly OK to do this when you end up getting more than one meal out of the bargain. Obviously you can just eat your leftovers as they come, but another option is to turn them into a completely different meal.
When I get a Chinese takeaway, I always ask for some stirfried green vegetables, usually with garlic or ginger or both. Then if there are any leftovers, I'll serve them with the pre-cooked Puy lentils mentioned above. Or I might chop them up and simmer them in a tomato sauce to go on pasta or rice.
Leftover rotisserie chicken, peri-peri chicken, or barbecue chicken is great in soups and stews; here's an example. You can even do this with leftover chicken wings; here's a video (with optional subtitles) showing how to get the bones out.
Spending less time chopping
This one is more of a long-term thing, but one way to spend less time and energy in the kitchen is to improve your knife skills. Helen Rennie of Beyond Salmon is currently in the process of making a series of cooking videos showing how to do various kitchen tasks with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. Helen's videos don't have subtitles, but I've used the excellent Universal Subtitles site to create subtitles for the three videos I think are most relevant here: Claw and Pinch Grip, How to Slice an Onion, and How to Dice an Onion.
Alternatively, you can say "to hell with knife skills", and buy pre-chopped vegetables. I won't judge you, and if anyone does, then you know who not to invite around for dinner again.
I have no neat little concluding paragraph...
...because I'm tired now, and I'm going to go to bed. Thank you for reading! Comments are most welcome. If commenting anonymously, please (a) sign your name or pseudonym so I can get an idea of who you are, and (b) accept my apologies for not being able to unscreen immediately (I cannot yet operate my laptop in my sleep).