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How to cook when you have money, but no time or energy [Feb. 2nd, 2012|10:19 pm]
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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.

Overcoming inertia

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).


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[User Picture]From: rozasharn
2012-02-03 04:15 am (UTC)
Cool and thank you!
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 02:44 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for commenting.
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[User Picture]From: nemosed
2012-02-03 05:15 am (UTC)
Thank you for this - since this is the situation I am in, very much, I'm glad fundamentally that someone has addressed how to work around it.

Hopefully this will help me get more motivated to cook more :)
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 02:50 pm (UTC)
I really hope the post does help you get motivated! I wasn't entirely sure whether it was going to be helpful to many people, since it does make the assumption that money isn't a problem (along with several other unstated assumptions) but I guess that's the joy of a carnival — multiple people posting means that multiple perspectives get covered. So thank you for letting me know that it's useful to you.

You may also like [personal profile] indywind's post: Food prep when you can't brain.
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From: piratemoggy
2012-02-03 09:29 am (UTC)
Whoops! I have a lot of half-written posts. Must go and post some!
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 02:59 pm (UTC)
Please do! I am very interested in this :)
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[User Picture]From: huskyteer
2012-02-03 09:44 am (UTC)
Oh, my mum always used the 'chop an onion and see what happens next' method of making supper!

I absolutely agree that toast pizza is cooking. So are cheese on toast, beans on toast, scrambled egg on toast, and anything else on toast that doesn't come straight out of a jar.
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 03:01 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to hear other people do the onion trick too! I thought I was a complete genius when I "invented" it :)

I had toast pizza for breakfast the other day, and it felt unutterably decadent even though I was only doing it to use up anchovies.
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[User Picture]From: sphyg
2012-02-03 10:03 am (UTC)
This is very useful, thank you. Bacon doesn't last very long in our house!
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 03:35 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it!

It's funny, but I'm always a bit reluctant to cook bacon-as-a-thing-in-itself, because I hate cleaning up afterwards. Whereas if I cut it up and cook it as the initial step in a stew, the deglazing step takes care of all the cleanup and saves on wasting any flavour. I pretty much only have a bacon sandwich if bob is having one too :)
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[User Picture]From: katstevens
2012-02-03 10:05 am (UTC)
This is a great post! As someone who is culinarily challenged I recognise a lot of these stumbling blocks, especially the chopping (for ages I had no idea that onion-chopping was 100% more difficult with a blunt knife, for instance).

Although I very lucky to have an excellent chef in the house already, if at some point I am forced to fend for myself I will try the lentil thing.
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 05:41 pm (UTC)
Sharp knives are so, so useful! I could have sworn that Helen also had a video on sharpening and honing knives, but I can't find it now so I think I imagined it. Only one of my knives is really sharp enough at the moment, but I'm not sure where to go and get them sharpened properly (I have heard of a place in Brockley that treats them properly but I want to find somewhere more local).

Also, I now have a vision of Rick going away for a week and you living solely on gin and packet lentils.
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[User Picture]From: tonight_we_fly
2012-02-03 10:25 am (UTC)
(I'd like to get them laminated, but I haven't got around to it yet.)

I've got a laminating machine (which hardly ever gets used), and also a pile of lamination pouches. If you come over to try out my homebrew when it's done then you could fulfil your laminating requirements at the same time!

I should have enough bottles to be ready to get started by the end of this weekend, so the current estimate is ready to drink by late February or early March if all goes well...
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 05:43 pm (UTC)
Ooh, that would be brilliant, thank you very much! Let me know when the beer's ready and I'll come round (I'm out of London 2–9 March though).
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[User Picture]From: evil_mel
2012-02-03 10:25 am (UTC)
Thanks for the post. I got fed up with long convoluted recipes a long time ago, and tips like this really help.

Frozen diced onion is the one thing that's made a big difference to me. I can't stand the smell of onions, so it's perfect.

The only problem is that all of my recipes that taste really good and are quick to do are pasta based. I cook for someone who needs high fibre, non-stodgy foods so it's not ideal. The bulgar wheat recipes that I have, for example, are ok, but I don't enjoy them as much.
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[User Picture]From: atommickbrane
2012-02-03 10:27 am (UTC)
Ha, if you could automatically post this every week that would be great...

Woman Who Has Lived On Toast For About Eight Months
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 10:12 pm (UTC)
Careful what you suggest, that way lies... Flylady!

Actually I have pondered setting up a thing to email me every afternoon at 4pm saying "Oh hey, you like food! You should remember to make some tonight!"
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[User Picture]From: lozette
2012-02-03 10:36 am (UTC)
Thanks for this! My issue is also that I never have time to go shopping, and am unwilling to commit myself to sitting in on a weeknight to take a delivery ;-) What I need is a housekeeper!
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 10:15 pm (UTC)
Oh gosh yes, working from home is so so so excellent in terms of being able to get grocery deliveries. Mind you, living within a couple of minutes' walk of multiple grocery shops that are open until 2am is pretty useful too!
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[User Picture]From: hoshuteki
2012-02-03 11:19 am (UTC)
Oh, good to see how to chop onions properly! This is a really good post in general, by the way. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-05 10:16 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it! So you're now prepared for the mise-en-place relay race I intend to stage at the next Top Chef weekend, right? :)
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[User Picture]From: ghoti
2012-02-03 11:47 am (UTC)
That's a really useful tip on the bacon, thankyou.

I tend to buy mini chorizo, because sometimes we want to eat them as a snack and they're nicer than pepperami (in fact, last time I got pepperami instead and J refused to eat it because it wasn't our normal mini chorizo). They seem to keep better than presliced (assuming we manage to avoid just eating the whole packet as soon as I open it), but also be low effort if you just want to throw some in a pasta sauce or stew.
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[User Picture]From: pseudomonas
2012-02-03 12:06 pm (UTC)
Capers in brine are my all-purpose added-flavour addition. Very few savoury things aren't improved by using roughly-chopped capers instead of salt :)
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[User Picture]From: j4
2012-02-03 04:22 pm (UTC)
☑ I read this! :-)

Lots of helpful suggestions -- thank you!

BTW I have a small laminating machine if you want to bring your recipe cards to laminate when you come and visit (this may not be the most efficient way of getting them laminated, so feel free to ignore, but the offer's there).

(The word "laminate" now looks completely weird to me.)
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-06 05:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you for the offer, but in the interests of not having to cart too much stuff to Oxford, I will take up tonight_we_fly's offer and use his!

(laminate laminate laminate laminate)
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[User Picture]From: lnr
2012-02-03 04:55 pm (UTC)
☑ I read this! (thanks Jan!)

Thanks, it's a great post.

My current strategy is at the start of the week to buy (say) 5 major main course ingredients - and when my shopping arrives I make a note on the side of the fridge of when each one needs eating by. So when I get home I can see at a glance: Tuesday I must eat chicken or fish today because they both go off tomorrow. I find this makes the decision-making process at the time easier. And if I decide I *still* can't be bothered to cook it reminds me to put something in the freezer instead so it doesn't go off.
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-06 05:56 pm (UTC)
Great idea! It isn't directly applicable to my situation, since my meals tend to be based around pulses more than around meat and fish, and pulses keep in the cupboard forever. But I like the way that it cuts down the "infinity of choices" that can sometimes be a bit paralysing.
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[User Picture]From: dragon_moon
2012-02-04 11:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you for your lovely post. I'm trying to get back into cooking again, and it's surprisingly hard to do. Your tips are most excellent - we do frozen bacon slices already and that's super handy. Going to have to check out the garlic tube though! Pre-chopped veggies are a life saver. :o)
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[User Picture]From: nou
2012-02-06 06:03 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked the post! The garlic purée I use is Gia garlic purée — it's widely available in the UK, not sure about elsewhere.
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