It may seem a little counter-intuitive to start our learning how to cook journey by starting at the end of the process. But let’s be real. Even folks who love to cook (which ain’t me) generally hate cleaning up.
Yet, how you go about getting dinner on the table can make a difference when you have to get it off the table and into the dishwasher. We’ve all heard the old saw, “Clean as you go.” My mom loved that one and I hated it. Until I got my own kitchen and realized she was right. Now, it doesn’t make sense to hold up dinner while you wash the pots and pans right then and there. The food will get cold and that would be icky. But while you’re waiting for the noodles in the skillet casserole to cook through, you can certainly unload the dishwasher and reload it with last night’s dishes. Or make sure the counters and your cutting boards and knives are clean.
It’s especially important to clean your knives as you use them. For one thing, they are your most commonly used tools and you want your knife ready to go when you are. Secondly, letting them sit on the counter while waiting to be cleaned means they’ll bump up against all the other pots and dishes waiting to be cleaned and that can damage that all-important sharp edge. Thirdly, it’s a lot faster, easier and safer to clean a freshly-used blade than one that has something dried on and stuck. A sharp knife is a much safer knife, but it’s also a little scary to scrub hard to get that last bit of dried-on garlic off. Much simpler to run it under some hot water, wipe with a wash cloth and then a towel before the garlic gets dried-on.
As important as clean as you go is, there is one other mantra to mutter repetitively until it’s ingrained: “Don’t make any more mess than you have to.” The bowl or pot that you don’t use is the bowl or pot that doesn’t have to be cleaned. Or in our house, sit around on the counter until one of us (usually my husband) gets tired of all the dirty dishes and finally does something about it.
You know all those cooking shows with each ingredient neatly measured into little bowls? Don’t do that. It just means all those little bowls have to sit around until they get put into the dishwasher, then pulled out of the dishwasher, possibly dried, then put away. Let me demonstrate a better way as I walk you through a variation on the classic French dish ratatouille.
Ratatouille is basically zucchini, eggplant and tomato all chopped up and sauteed with some garlic, onion, herbs and white wine. Oh, and bell pepper. I hate bell pepper. I leave it out. Actually, I also detest zucchini and eggplant, but rather like them in ratatouille because the tomatoes and herbs cover up the icky flavors in the eggplant and zucchini.
In this case, I wanted some meat to go with dinner, but didn’t want to grill or cook something separately. I also had some romano beans (or whatever they call wide, flat green beans in your neck of the woods) that were gearing up for a quick trip to the compost bucket if I didn’t use them. What you can’t see in the photo above is that I had a pound and a half of ground turkey on the stove getting nice and brown while I cut up the onion, zucchini, a Japanese eggplant, and the green beans. And pressed a couple cloves of garlic – all of which I left on the cutting mat.
When the turkey was almost browned, I picked up the mat and slid the onions into the pan with the turkey. I stirred, let them cook for a couple, then did the same with the green beans, and then the zucchini, eggplant, the garlic, and finally, a can of diced tomatoes (no chopping to do and no juicy mess). I added about half a glass of white wine and drank the other half. I often pour the wine straight from the bottle, but that’s not the safest thing to do. You can also use the tomato can to measure your wine, which helps rinse it, as well – about half to a third full. Finally, I picked up some salt out of my salt cellar, sprinkled it over everything, measured about a tablespoon’s worth of Herbes de Provence into my hand, tossed that in, ground some pepper over it all, stirred, then let it simmer about 15 to 20 minutes to get the beans cooked through and all the flavors melding and playing nice with each other. Notice – no measuring cups or spoons to clean. Okay, one wine glass, but that was going to happen anyway. I cleaned up the cutting mat and the knife and put them away. Rinsed the can, put it into recycling.
To serve, I plopped the ratatouille into bowls and put those on the table. Boom. Done. No serving bowls to clean. It’s called plating, and it’s also very helpful if there are folks at your table trying not to eat too much. You’ve got automatic portion control, although that kind of goes by the wayside if someone gets up and fetches more.
So there you have it – a veggie-rich complete meal that’s respectably low in calories, very tasty, took about forty minutes when all was said and done (I’d forgotten to thaw the turkey again), cooked in one pan, with only one dish and a fork per person. And the wine glass. Which took all of five minutes to clean up after, or would have had we actually done so that night.