The Game Plan
Let's start by learning how to read a recipe. The ingredient list is organized in order of use, stating amounts in package sizes, cups, tablespoons, and weights. Be sure you have all of the ingredients on hand.
Read through the recipe twice so you understand all of the preparation steps. Make sure you have all of the necessary utensils and equipment. Use a food glossary to look up terms you may not understand.
The directions are written with time saving in mind, starting with the preparation that takes the longest. It may help you to add notes to the recipe to mark the jobs you can “multitask” and those that require constant attention.
When you start learning new methods of cooking, measuring, and preparing food, go slow. It will take some experience before you can peel and chop an onion in less than a minute. Learn how to prepare foods properly and your speed will increase as you become more comfortable with new techniques.
Learn how to visualize a recipe as you read through it. Literally try to see yourself collecting the ingredients; pulling out pots, pans, and utensils you will need; prepping ingredients; and cooking the food. This “dress rehearsal” in your head will teach you how to streamline preparation techniques and will help ensure that you understand the recipe.
These recipes all require five ingredients or less, not counting flour, sugar, cornstarch, oil, water, baking powder and soda, and seasonings like salt, pepper, vanilla, and dried herbs and spices. Those are basic, inexpensive ingredients everyone should have on hand. Fresh herbs are counted as an ingredient. Many recipes use different parts of the same food to decrease the ingredient list. For instance, Ambrosia uses canned mandarin oranges in the salad and the juice from the oranges in the dressing.
These basic ingredients do have expiration dates even if they aren't marked on the package. Dried herbs and spices lose potency after a year. Baking powder becomes less effective after about six months. And flour, especially whole wheat flour, can become rancid in a few months. Mark the dates you buy these products on the cans and packages and discard them after these time periods.
Since these recipes use so few ingredients, the ingredients must be top quality. You won't be able to disguise limp broccoli or soft apples in these recipes. And the short cooking time, too, requires that the ingredients be premium.
Fruits and vegetables should be heavy for their size and bright colored, with no discoloration, wrinkling, or soft spots. Fish should smell sweet and the flesh should be firm. Meats should be bright red, with even marbling and little juice in the package. And chicken should be firm and pink, again with little juice in the package.
Cook Once, Eat Twice
Leftovers are not only desirable when quick cooking, they will save you time tomorrow. When you're making rice to go with Sweet and Sour Pork Stew, cook twice as much as you need. Then tomorrow night you can make Chicken Fried Rice in about 10 minutes since the rice is already cooked and chilled. And it doesn't take any more time to cook more food, unless you are microwaving. Be sure to cover and chill or store the extra food you're saving before you get dinner on the table. Label it so you know what's in the container. Use the leftover foods within two to three days for food-safety reasons.
Every kitchen is planned and arranged differently, but there are key principles to follow when organizing your work area. Whether you have a small galley kitchen or a huge gourmet space with restaurant-quality appliances, any kitchen will benefit from some scrutiny and planning.
Kitchen organizers focus on the “work triangle.” This is the shape formed when you walk from the sink to the fridge to the stove. For best efficiency, the length of each leg should be no more than nine feet and no less than four feet. If your kitchen isn't laid out this way, you can create your own triangle, or triangles, for different tasks. Many kitchen designers now think that having two or three smaller work triangles is more efficient than one large one. Put a cutting board between the stove and sink and you've created a small work triangle. Place a rolling butcher-block counter near the refrigerator and you can create a small work triangle with the pantry.
Every piece of equipment should have a home it returns to after being used. You'll always be able to find your kitchen shears and your can opener if they have a specially designated area in a designated drawer and if they are returned to that spot every time after they are used and cleaned.
Be sure your equipment and measuring utensils are kept in an accessible place. Keep pots and pans near the stove, towels and dishwashing materials near the sink, flour and sugar near your baking center, and can openers and spoons near the pantry and work surfaces.
Professional organizers recommend that you literally plot out the steps you take and the movements you make when working in your kitchen. This takes only about an hour to do while you're making a recipe. It may help to have someone watch you cook to make suggestions about streamlining your methods. If you find, for instance, that you walk between the pantry and the drawer containing your measuring spoons many times, it will help to move those spoons closer to the pantry.
Paper management can be just as important as equipment management in a kitchen. Keep all your loose recipes together, keep similar cookbooks together on your bookshelves, and have a place specifically set aside for bill filing and paying.
Grocery shopping is one of the most time-consuming aspects of cooking. To streamline your shopping trips and use the time most efficiently, there are several things you can do.
Try to plan meals at least a week in advance. By doing this, not only will you be able to better balance your family's nutritional intake, but you can take advantage of sales and specials at the grocery store. You can include some of your family's favorite recipes and try a new recipe or two each week.
Always keep a running list of staples along with another list of foods specific to recipes you will be making each week. The staples list keeps track of foods that are currently in your pantry that you use regularly. For instance, olive oil, flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, milk, butter, and bread may be on your staples list. Whenever you use up a staple food, add it to your list so you won't run out of these items when you're cooking.
Organize your coupons in a small expandable folder. You can organize them by type of food and arrange the folder so it follows the pattern of your supermarket. Be sure to go through the folder twice a month to use coupons before their expiration dates and discard any past that date.
Use the menus you have planned for the week along with grocery fliers and your collection of coupons to plan out your weekly list. Try to arrange it according to the layout of your favorite supermarket. Go shopping at less crowded times of the day, like early in the morning or later at night. Clean out your pantry, fridge, and freezer before your weekly shopping trip. Discard products past their use-by dates, wipe down the shelves, and organize food items so they're easy to find. After your shopping trip, think about prepping some foods after you unpack.
Use a cooler to store frozen foods if you live some distance from the store.
Divide hamburger into patties, wrap, and freeze.
Cut larger pieces of meat into serving-size pieces, rewrap, and label.
Wash herbs, shake dry, wrap in paper towels, and place in plastic bags.
Wash, peel, and chop hard vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Wash salad greens, dry thoroughly, and store in plastic bags.
Go shopping with kids in tow, if at all possible.
Shop when you are tired, hungry, or ill.
Take the long way home. Perishable food should be refrigerated promptly.
Rinse delicate fruits like strawberries and raspberries.
Prepare fresh mushrooms or any fruit that can turn brown after cutting.
Let perishable food sit on your counter for more than an hour; refrigerate or freeze these products immediately.
Most convenience foods were introduced to the American public after World War II. Companies had developed many products like canned meats and freeze-dried foods to feed armies, and they now wanted to sell those products to the consumer.
One of the best ways to limit the total number of ingredients used in a recipe is to use convenience foods that combine several ingredients in one product. For instance, frozen bell peppers and onions are packaged together and sold as a stir-fry ingredient. And cooked ground beef in a spicy tomato sauce is available in the meat department of your supermarket; this one product substitutes for eight or nine ingredients needed if it was made from scratch.
Make sure that your family likes the convenience food before you stock up. When you find a winner, buy multiples and fill your freezer and pantry. With these foods and the recipes in this book, you'll be prepared for any occasion.
Have multiple sets of utensils that you use frequently. Every kitchen should have at least two sets of nested measuring cups and spoons. Glass measuring cups that are angled so you can accurately measure by looking straight down into the cup will help shave minutes off prep time. Have more than one whisk, several heat-resistant spatulas, wooden and metal spoons, forks, knives, slotted spoons, and hot pads.
How do I keep track of the timing when more than one food is cooking at a time?
Purchase a multi-use timer. These electronic gadgets allow you to keep track of at least three different cooking times at once. Write down on the recipe which task is number one, two, and three so you don't get confused. And practice using the timer before you begin cooking.
You may want to invest in a food processor, a convection oven, or a stand mixer with attachments, depending on the food you cook most often. A rice cooker needs no attention and cooks rice to perfection very quickly. Steaming food is faster than simmering or boiling it, so a few bamboo or stainless steel steamers may be a good addition to your kitchen. Immersion blenders and countertop rotisserie cookers are other appliances that may be put to good use in your kitchen. Egg slicers and apple corers make quick work of preparation chores, and mini food processors are great for quickly chopping and mincing ingredients.
Then there are garlic presses, bottle and jar openers, grill pans, dual-contact grills, strawberry stemmers, and shrimp deveiners. Think carefully before purchasing new equipment. If you really think you'll use it often, buy it. But if it isn't used several times in a month, have a garage sale and use the money to go out to dinner!