I take food seriously, as you noticed. And a serious business requires serious management. At the beginning of my adventure with cooking, I took the process for granted. I come from a community where mothers and grandmothers cooked everything at home, from meals to desserts and they rarely went to restaurants. Cooking happened most days of the week, just after coming from work. Most recipes would use seasonal produce and it would follow the same pattern.
Today many of us are living in big cities and mega metropolis and this man made landscapes have changed the way humans feed themselves. We are busy, we are surrounded by concrete, steel and glass. We see more nature on tv screens and with the help of technology rather than being close to the source of our survival; we have limited access to and connection with the produce that becomes are food. We tend to be disconnected or estranged from the complex experience that is food preparation, from nurturing seeds and feeding animals to laying the final product on our plates. Moreover, we are putting all our trust in humans we have never seen to feed us food we have not touched or smelled in the process. I find this human collaboration extraordinary, I adore living in a big city and I am grateful for the whole mechanism that allows me to eat fresh tomatoes in winter and produce that only grows hundreds and thousand miles away. However, we all know how this impacts on our planet and we are aware of the incredible resources deployed for the few of us who are lucky to live in developed countries, with free markets and decent national security.
We might feel helpless as individuals in the process of safeguarding the planet from the damage we did as humans and we ask ourselves if just a few little changes can make a difference. However, by making food, we are performing cultures, we are makers of traditions that can change the world. An therefore, rethinking the way we feed ourselves, the way we produce our food and the way we eat may contribute not only to the health and wellbeing of our families and communities, but to the protection of our planet.
And it could start in our kitchen.
I would like to share with you a few ideas I am using in order to make my cooking time more efficient, to reduce resources consumption and avoid waste. They might not be perfect techniques and they might not work for many of you. However, if you find any inspiration or help in the following, I’m glad to share.
As I was confessing in the previous post, parenting proved to be challenging in respect to managing cooking time. I am also aware that those working outside their homes find managing their time even more difficult. I have opened this topic to be of help for those who would love to cook more at home and for those who get overwhelmed in the kitchen.
The most helpful and spectacular tool in my kitchen proved to be a soup maker. I have been always in love with creamed soups and I was amassed to discover how the flavour of vegetables and spices is maintained beautifully through the steaming process. It only takes 21 minutes to have a soup from scratch after just throwing big chucks of veggies and all herbs and spices. The result is a glorious, chef made, posh restaurant like soup with a heart-warming twist!!! In addition, you control the quantity of ingredients and count your calories if you are into it, you don’t have to use another tool, you don’t have to fry or perform complicated tasks while washing up it’s a matter of seconds. It actually feels like making a coffee. It’s a waste and trouble free way of cooking. And now comes the actual hack: I have started to use it for sauces and bases for other recipes. Adding less water gives you a creamy sauce you can use for pasta, curries and stews. You can also use it to prepare chunky soups if you favour them and therefore you are not limited to creamy and paste like results. And I promise you: nobody will guess you have not fried the onion or the spices or that you have added all the ingredients in one go.
One of my favourite tools these days is the slow cooker. I find it to be the easiest and safest way of cooking while watching the baby and running up and down the house to accomplish the multitude of tasks parenting involves. There is no fire, there is no smoke and the smell is absolutely dashing. The food does not burn nor losses flavour and textures are so balanced. In addition, food is kept warm for longer and therefore, if your family is late for dinner, they would still enjoy it at the right temperature with less hassle. The slow cooker is easy to clean, economical and practical.
Another shortcut I am using from time to time is the microwave. I have discovered you can decently sauté onion or boil potatoes and other vegetables, especially if you are using them in more complex dishes like a pie or a stew. I favour this method as having a baby around the house doesn’t give me a lot of time to wash dishes or keep a stove burning. If you need to run to your crying baby, by using the microwave, you don’t have to stop the cooking process for matters of safety. Not to mention that strong smells and excessive heating are efficiently avoided. Some of you will be reluctant to use a microwave due to suggestions that is not safe; however the World Health Organisation states that microwave is safe when used according to manufacturer’s guidelines. One consideration however, as they advise, is that depending on the texture of foods, cooking may not be even and therefore not all bacteria is killed in the process. And this is why I use microwave only for precooking, heating and defrosting food that will be cooked.
My last addiction is the steamer. Researching for best ways to cook baby’s food, I found that steaming is considered the greatest way to maintain the qualities and the integrity of food. I bought an electric steamer which is so incredibly easy to use and vegetables are done so fast and clean that it makes it wired to call it cooking. My husband love casseroles and stews, especially during the colder months. But they take so much more time. However, since I have the steamer, I precook the vegetables and the meat until they are tender, I assemble them with the sauce and the spices and cook them for just a few minutes. And you know what is the greatest thing about using the steamer to precook, apart from reducing cooking time at least in half? Individual ingredients in casseroles or stews tend to loose flavour because of the long cooking times in the oven or on the stove. However, by steaming, each piece of vegetable or meat maintain the whole aroma and the meal becomes a symphony with incredible accents.
Finally, another shortcut I am using, but only if time is limited and I want to skip shopping too often or having spoiled produce into the fridge, is cooking with frozen or canned vegetables. And truth being said, it is a cost, waste and time efficient method because the product is precooked or ready chopped. I never use canned or frozen meat, though. When I lived in London, I found extremely useful to buy ready chopped vegies and I did not have to use frozen food. Again, for matters of safety, I used the ready chopped veggies only for cooking, not to be eaten raw, because due to manipulation, ready chopped vegies may present with some unwanted bacteria. It may seem more expensive at first, but I noticed that it helps reducing waste as the portion are matched to the servings and you can avoid having spoiled vegetables in the fridge. And this reminds me that I miss London for it’s ready cut onion. I have never liked cutting onions!
Parenting also comes with more spending. As someone who is indulgent with her appetite and who craves for a large variety of foods, I used to buy more than I was actually able to cook and eat. As we moved back to Romania from London, we maintained the same shopping style. However food is here so much more ridiculously expensive, especially if you are used with international foods or produce packed in a ‘western way’, such as lettuce or baby spinach. In the first few months we managed to spend at least two times more money on our weekly shopping compared to London, in a place on earth where people earn ten times less than UK but pay for food two or three times more than any other European country. Therefore I had to seriously reconsider my habits and the way I am cooking. Thanks to the European free market and to my friends, I bought my favourite spices and cheese from London at a lower price compared to Romania. And for the rest, I forced myself into the most obvious solution to cut spending and waste: buying food only when there is nothing else in the fridge or freezer to cook from. You may say this is elementary, but the reality is that modern consumers are very rarely left without lots of stuff forgotten in the freezer or in a corner of their fridge. To keep track of the produce I have in the house, I keep a blackboard in the kitchen where I write down what foods I can cook with the produce I have in store and as I cook them, I cut from the list.
Seriously, this is the last shortcut I am sharing in this post. My family thinks I am a bit weird, but when I am incredibly busy and I know I need to plan my week with the scrupulosity of a clockmaker, I add reminders on my phone with the exact recipes, portions and time of cooking planed for a whole week. I make the shopping on Sunday, I only buy what I need for those particular meals and in quantities matching the needs of the recipe and portions plan. Of course, it may take away the pleasure of improvising or being extraordinary creative, bunt discipline is blissful when you need to count every minute.