How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Chop an Onion

Wow. It feels like forever since I’ve a done a Dark Side of the Fridge post. And it probably has. Nonetheless, I’m adding a new basic cooking skill to the mix. The idea, as I have explained before, is that there’s a world of difference between cooking and simply following recipes. So the more basic cooking skills you have under your belt, the easier it is to adapt recipes and to get a healthy dinner on the table fast.

Since an awful lot of dishes, from soups, stews and casseroles, start with chopped onion, it only makes sense to focus on getting one chopped evenly and quickly without loss of digits or skin.

Your first step is to cut the onion from stem to blossom end


Like so


Then cut off the stem end (it’s the end that does not have all the scraggly root bits).


Next, lift and pull back the papery peel.


Now, placing the knife edge perpendicular to the onion, make a series of radial cuts around the onion half.


Like here…




And here. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’ve made lots of cuts, about a quarter inch apart, all along the onion half.


Now, slice the onion across the rings. See how the little diced bits just fall off the knife.


Ta dah! A perfectly diced onion, ready for the pot. And in about two minutes, too. Okay, it may take you a little longer, but don’t worry. Keep cooking and you’ll get plenty of practice.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Cleaning Up Tips for the Holidays

cleaning up tipsLet’s be real. Cleaning up is the absolute worst part of cooking. And after a full-on holiday feast, the last thing you want to do is haul yourself up and wash a larger than normal pile of dishes, not to mention the icky, greasy pans.

The funny thing is, with all the holiday help tips out there, no one, but no one offers tips on how to clean up your kitchen after a big holiday meal or party. I suspect it’s because it is such a dreary chore that there really isn’t much that can be done to make it less so. But there are a few things you can do to make a little easier.

Cleaning up Tips

First, don’t make such a big mess in the first place. You can read my post here on how to do that. But the important part to remember is that if you don’t absolutely need that dish or pan, don’t use it! Clean as you go, too. If you’re waiting for the potatoes to boil, you can clean up the peelers and other dishes. There will be less to do later.

Make sure to de-glaze the roasting pan. That’s usually going to be your greasiest and ickiest. De-glazing is easy. You get the drippings and grease boiling, then add some broth, wine or other liquid, get it boiling again and as it does, you scrape all the stuck-on bits into the liquid and use it as a base for your gravy. If you’re not going to make gravy or some other sauce, either pour all that goo into a container and save it to make a sauce later, or feed it to the dog. Or, if you’re not going to make a gravy, squirt some dish soap into the pan and use that to boil and scrape everything up.

If someone else offers to help, accept. Now, I get that there are times when this isn’t feasible. But even if that surly relative is only asking to be polite, accept the help. Women have used clean up time for millennia as a chance to gossip about the rest of the relatives. You can, too.

Sometimes listening to a good comedy podcast or other show helps ease things a little. Sometimes the noise is just annoying.

Get all the plates scraped off as you stack them on the counter. Make sure any paper towels or other wrappers are in the trash, and any containers that you’re going to recycle are ready to be rinsed.

When you’re packing the leftovers, be sure you have the lid next to the container. I can’t tell you how many containers I’ve had to wash because I dumped the leftovers in, then couldn’t find a lid to fit.

Wipe down any counter or workspace that will serve as a landing area for clean dishes. You don’t want to go to all the trouble of washing something then have it pick up crumbs or globs of sauce dribbles. I like using a large towel over our worktable rather than the dish rack, which is always too small.

Wash the least dirty to the most dirty. In other words, if you wash your glassware first, it won’t pick up grease from the wash water and your suds will last longer. Nor will it pick up the tiny bits that were left on any plates and pans. Get everything loaded into the dishwasher that can go into it and don’t worry if you miss a fork or two. Those are easy to hand wash.

Let as many dishes air dry as you have room for. Your good glassware will probably need to be dried right away or it might get spots, and there may not be a lot of room in your kitchen to leave pans out. But whatever you can leave out, you may as well.

A nice glass of wine can help or it can increase the odds of something breaking.

Finally, once you get the plates scraped and the leftovers put away, you can come back to most of it in the morning. If any of your pans are crusted with something starchy, you may want to soak those in some cold water overnight. Greasy pans should get the soap treatment (see above) while they’re still hot. But unless you’re going to risk your drains by pouring the soapy grease down right away, along with lots of hot water, you’ll probably be better off wiping up the mess with some paper towels once they’re cold, and then washing them.

Hope this helps. And please, feel free to share any cleaning up tips you have. We could all use the help.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Roast a Turkey Redux.

This is a post redux from my series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner. Thanksgiving Day may be on Thursday, but you may want to start thawing your bird now. Really. And here’s how to roast when it’s thawed.

It’s all about The Bird. Roasting a turkey is pretty easy. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 165 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. Then you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.

The trick is roasting the turkey so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys are so big, they take a lot of time to roast. Not to mention ovens get cranky and depending on how cold your bird is before you put it in, it may take more or less time to get cooked all the way through. And you want it cooked all the way through because undercooked poultry is icky and because it can transmit salmonella, which is no fun at all.

I shoot for a slower cooking time – it’s easier to adjust for the timing of your meal. And it’s a much bigger problem if your bird is done too soon. Holding it in the oven or reheating it can dry it out and that’s not tasty. If it does happen to you, don’t despair. That’s what gravy is for. Just go ahead and slice the bird up and put it in a roasting pan or oven-safe dish, and cover it tightly with foil. Turn the oven to warm and if you can find the room (and you should, since the bones will be mostly gone), slide a pan of water on the lowest rack in the oven or on the floor. This will keep things somewhat moist.

A lot of folks recommend brining, and I used to be one of them. Until I discovered just how freaking hard it is to find a bird that hasn’t already had salt and other flavors injected into it. If your local turkeys are unbrined and you do want to, there are plenty of recipes out there on the Internet. But it is an extra step, plus the hassle of finding room in the fridge. Unless you’re in a part of the country where it’s below 40 degrees at night, in which case, a cooler on the back porch, securely closed, will probably do just fine and keep things perfectly safe. And speaking again of safety, you really want to make sure you clean any surface the raw turkey has come into contact with, and that you wash your hands before touching anything else. It’s a bit of a pain, but better than making your guests sick.

One note – because the stores hadn’t gotten their turkeys when I did the photos, I’m doing the demonstration on a chicken. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. You’re going to be roasting it at 300 degrees, so figure it’s going to take 15 minutes for each pound of bird you have. I have a 12-pounder, so that’s 12 times 15, which is 180 minutes, divided by 60, equals three hours. You have a 20-pounder, that’s 20 times 15, which is 300 minutes, divided by 60, and that’s five hours. You want dinner at three. Bird goes into the oven at 10 a.m.-ish. If you’re going to stuff your bird (which I do not recommend because it takes longer and it’s harder to tell if the stuffing got cooked all the way through), then figure 20 minutes per pound.

It’s okay if the bird goes in a little late. Because I haven’t shared with you the one trick that will pretty much guarantee (as much as anything can) that the birdie will come out when you want it to. You’re going to blast it with high heat at the end of the cooking cycle. I learned this from watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on making turkeys, and I forget why he likes it. But I think it makes the skin crispier to blast at the end and I know I get a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinner time and the thermometer in the bird hasn’t crept past 100 degrees? Start blasting. Things cooking a little too fast? Turn down the heat until closer to dinner time, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.

Which brings me to another major point – you will need at least an instant read thermometer. If you rely on the little pop-up that some birds come with, you will get over-done, dried out bird. Also, you won’t be able to tell when to turn the heat up. I like a probe thermometer, because you stick it in, put the bird in the oven and it stays. The wire drags out of the oven to the read out, but you can see exactly where your bird is at any time. And you can use it for any roast, meatloaf or even bread that you put in the oven.

Now, turn your oven to 300 degrees and prep your roasting pan, which means finding something to keep the bird above the fat and other goodies that drip to the bottom. This allows air underneath the bird and it doesn’t get so greasy. Or so I’m told. If you don’t have a rack, a small plate turned upside down will do just fine.

How to cook a turkey

Using a small plate on the left, using a rack, to hold the bird up and away from the drippings.


Wash and dry the turkey both inside and out. This is one of those rare occasions when a paper towel really does the job better than anything else.



Now, you want to season the skin. You can use oil, with salt and pepper and/or other seasonings, use only plenty of salt and pepper, or my fave: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s Thanksgiving and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Do cut off the half stick of butter before you use it because you’ll just contaminate the whole stick and butter ain’t that cheap.  All you do is scoop up a chunk of butter, warm in in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.




Then flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. It’s like I said in one of my earlier posts, that image of everyone ooing and ahhing at the perfectly browned bird? It’s a terrible way to roast a bird. All the juices drip into the back, which you don’t eat. Roasting a bird breast down doesn’t give you the pretty presentation, but all those lovely juices drip into the breast and helps keep it moist and delicious. I know which I’d rather eat. And you’ll be slicing this sucker in the kitchen to further spare you the embarrassment of doing a bad slicing job. One other benefit of roasting the bird on its breast, you don’t have to tie it up (even if you do stuff, which I do not recommend), nor do you have to worry about putting foil on the wings so they don’t get over done. No, as you see in the photo below, the wings tuck in very nicely on their own, as do the legs.

Do remember, however, to butter the backside of the bird, and generously salt and pepper it.



Insert your probe in the breast, away from any bone. Folks say put the probe near the thigh. I always hit a bone or the cavity and my bird ends up underdone, which is bad. If you plan to roast to 165 degrees, then everything gets done, but not overdone, and carryover heat (that final bit of cooking that gets done outside the oven while the bird is resting) takes care of the rest.



Set your probe thermometer to 140 degrees, or plan to check the turkey about every hour it’s in the oven. Put it in a 300 degree oven, but don’t stress if your forgot to turn it on earlier. Just turn it on now. It’s not going to hurt anything. That bird is going to be cooking a while. In an ideal world, you’ll be cooking it until the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees (about the time the hors d’oeuvres are set out), then blasting it with high heat until the internal temp reaches around 165-167 degrees. As noted above, if it’s cooking too fast, turn the oven down and check again in another half hour or so. If it’s cooking too slowly, give it about 15 to 20 minutes, then start blasting. And by blasting, I mean turning up your oven to its highest heat, around 500 degrees. Do keep an eye on things. My oven takes freaking forever to get to 500 degrees, even when it’s been cooking at 300 degrees. You may want to turn your oven on before Thanksgiving and see how long it takes to get to 500 degrees. It should only take about half an hour for the blast phase, but again, you can’t cook by numbers. Watch the birdie.

Oh, look. It’s done. You’ve strong-armed the bugger out of the oven. Now, using a couple sets of tongs and/or some long forks, pull it from the pan and set it on a cutting board (we like to put our cutting board on a half-sheet pan to catch all the juices) and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests. Now, we like our wooden cutting boards. We clean them with extremely hot water and a little bleach after every use and rinse them again. There are those who say that’s still not enough – and if you have someone among your guests with a compromised immune system, it may not be. You can also use a plastic cutting mat. One other note, you may want to cook some broth in that messy roasting pan, scraping all the bits off the bottom and sides, then pour everything into a jar, which you’ll put in your fridge once it’s cooled. It may be too salty for the gravy, but just salty enough to perk some up or for extra gravy later. Or you may have to toss it. But your roasting pan will be a lot easier to clean.


Now, to the cutting (and let’s thank my Beloved Spouse for demonstrating this part). First, your remove the legs, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and set them on your serving plattter, cut the meat off the thighs. Remove the wings next.


Cut the bird vertically along the breastbone, then cut the slices of breast meat from the front to the back. Repeat on the other side.



Seriously. That’s it. Serve the turkey forth, sit down and drink a big glass of wine. You’ve earned it at this point.

Catch the whole series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner here. Scroll down for all the links.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Making Lentil Chili

A friend of mine recently hosted a large number of her relatives at her place thanks to a death in the family. So to help her out, I sent over some lentil chili. It’s a dish I make fairly often. It’s hearty, healthy (for the most part) and it tastes really good. Plus I often make it vegan for those folks of that persuasion.

Apparently, my friend’s relatives really loved it and she asked me to get the recipe for them. Um. Oops.

That is the downside to not cooking with recipes. Sometimes, folks want to know how you made something and it can be tough explaining it. That’s assuming I remember. The other downside to not cooking with recipes.

Oddly enough, my lentil chili did begin with another recipe, in this case, a copycat recipe for canned chili, such as Dennison’s or Hormel. I’d had a yen for some and when the copycat recipe came pretty durned close, I analyzed it. According to the person who posted that recipe, what made the chile taste the most like the canned stuff was Fritos corn chips. I looked at the ingredients on the corn chip bag and there were only three: corn meal, salt, and safflower oil. So I tried the recipe again, adding corn meal. Not even close. Turns out, it was the salt that made the copycat work. There’s a boatload of salt in Fritos, which makes you wonder just how much there is in canned chili.

So I started wondering how I could make a similar version that would be healthier and come up with the idea of adding mushrooms (for meatiness) and collard greens (for the health benefits) to lentils, which cook quickly and are pretty good protein-wise. I added mostly the same spices and came up with my lentil chili.

It’s a pretty straightforward process. Chop half an onion, then get your collards and mushrooms chopped. Instead of the collards, you can use any leafy green you like (or don’t like – the good thing about this chili is that it hides the nasty flavor of kale).

Add some oil to a saucepan, and get the onions cooking until translucent. About this time, you add the chopped greens and mushrooms. Then you want to add one to two tablespoons of a chili powder you like, about a teaspoon of garlic powder, another half to full tablespoon of ground cumin, plenty of salt, and some pepper.


Get it all stirred up, then add the lentils. I’ll sometimes add a pat of butter or two if it’s only going to be me and the Beloved Spouse eating it. Butter makes it not vegan, so leave it out if you’re feeding any. Give the lentils a good stir, then add a couple cups or so of water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Don’t worry about it not being thick enough at this stage. The lentils will thicken the chili as they cook, which takes about fifteen to twenty minutes at a soft boil. I’m about to add the second part of what makes this taste so good.

Yep. That’s corn meal. Once the lentils are almost cooked, I start sprinkling in corn meal by the handfuls.

You can sort of see it above. The idea is to keep stirring as you do so that the corn meal doesn’t lump up, but thickens the chili up evenly. Not thick enough, stir in more corn meal. Too thick? Add a little bit of water and stir. Give it a taste before you serve it and see if it needs any extra spice or salt. And that’s pretty much it.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

I Have a Lot of Cookbooks

cookbooks, cooking, eatingEvery time I want to get a new cookbook, I can almost always predict my husband’s response: “You don’t use the cookbooks you have.”

Yes, I do. I use them all the time to get ideas and to learn new techniques.

And my husband does have a point when he reminds me that I don’t follow recipes. Of course, I don’t, at least, not in the heat of getting dinner on the table night after night. I don’t have time to start and stop as I check amounts, measure out and otherwise make sure I’m doing what the writer intended. Not to mention, there are plenty of times when I don’t care what the writer intended, I want something that’s a little different.

That doesn’t mean I don’t learn from cookbooks or that I don’t enjoy having them. Which is why I have quite a few. Some are old classics that I stole from my mother. (Yeah, Mom, that’s what happened to your copy of The Joy of Cooking.) Others are books that I’ve either picked up through the years or received as swag from various TV networks, back when I was doing the TV critic thing. Some I’ve even bought.

Dring my Thanksgiving vacation, while I and my folks  waiting for our lunch reservation, we were hanging out a bookstore. I found a new cookbook on sale. I talked my husband into buying it by making a new suggestion. Each week, we would choose a cookbook off the shelf and cook one or two recipes from it.

This is more hobby cooking – stuff we do for the fun of it. But the results have been very good. I’m also taking notes – something I’m not generally good at. The bottom line is that my husband and I are having fun. And we’re getting new ideas and trying new foods. Can’t do worse than that.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Six Reasons For Cooking Your Own Meals

cooking your own meals, cooking for yourself, how to cookA few weeks ago, I got a flyer in the mail for a home meal delivery service. This seems to be the new big thing. Either you get your meals already made and ready to heat. Or you can get all the ingredients for a meal and cook it yourself. It seems like between services, restaurants, and supermarket pre-made items, there’s no point in cooking your own meals.

The advantages of these services are pretty clear. There’s less time hassling it out at the supermarket. Less time actually having to plan and cook. Less clean up. The service that I just mentioned even sent the meals in compostable containers to minimize the trash.

So I signed up. I’m no fan of cooking, any excuse to get someone else to do it for me will do. I abandoned the service after two months and, I think, five meals. I didn’t use it. Part of that is my very strong cheap streak. The prices weren’t that bad, but I could still do better on my own.

What really did the service in, though, was that I had to go on this rather restrictive elimination diet. No lactose, no gluten, and among the forbidden vegetables was onion. Onion is the base of just about every dish out there. I can cook my own food and use onion powder, which is allowed. But I’m pretty well out of luck when it comes to anything commercially prepared.

As it turns out, there are a lot more reasons for cooking your own meals than there aren’t. So here are a few of them.

Reasons for Cooking Your Own Meals:

1.) It’s healthier. Forget my crazy elimination diet. The more I eat out rather than cook my own, the more weight I gain. It’s that simple. Fats and high-calorie additives make food taste good. Restaurants, food services, and pre-fab commercial food producers can’t stay in business if their food doesn’t taste good. So guess what ends up in the food offered by these folks – fats and high-calorie additives. And if you do happen to be on some kind of restrictive diet for health reasons, say, you have to limit sodium or something else, that makes eating out insanely hard.

2.) You get a better variety of foods. Granted, there are a lot of options out there, but if you hook up with a service, you’re pretty much limited to what they feel like cooking and/or prepping for you. Also, depending on your personal palate, if there’s a hot new ingredient, you can bet everybody will use it and if you don’t like it, you’re stuck. I, for one, loathe cilantro, and everyone loves using it. Blech.

3.) It’s a lot cheaper to make your own. Well, not if you’re eating strictly fast food, but check out the film Super-Size Me to see what a disaster that is for your health. If you shop carefully, you can eat a lot more economically if you buy lots of fresh veggies, a minimum of meat, and even fewer pre-made food items. And see above about the whole health thing.

4.) You’re not as limited. I know, with bazillions of restaurants out there, that sounds a little silly. However, it’s more about being able to decide whether you want to eat out or just hang at home with some personal comfort food. If you don’t know how to cook, you can’t recreate your favorite childhood dish on your own. You can’t make something you really love that the restaurants just aren’t making because it’s not in style. You can when you are cooking your own meals.

5.) If you have a picky eater in your family, it’s a whole lot easier to get the young ‘un to try something new if the rule is eat what’s in front of you or don’t eat. Depending on the service, or if you get your food from restaurants, said young ‘un can simply eat only what he or she wants, also really bad for their health.

6.) Cooking your own meals can be fun. I do get tired of the cooking grind, but I also really enjoy cooking dinner with my husband. It’s a lot more relaxed way to get dinner on the table and helps us talk to each other. When my daughter was still living with us, our family night was all about the three of us making dinner together, which gave us lots to talk about, especially during those awkward teen years, and it was fun. It can also be fun just to create a dish out of your own imagination. Cooking can be very creative. And there’s just a good feeling knowing that you can take care of yourself.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Surviving the Grocery Store

grocery store, grocery shopping tipsWe have a grocery store near us that we absolutely love, yet we generally refer to it as The Gates of Hell. Why? This place is chronically crowded, and deservedly so. They have excellent prices. The produce is good and not the same old you find at other stores. Oh, and the service deli. I don’t even want to think about how many inches on my hips that deli is directly responsible for. Or, more accurately, waiting in the service deli for my number to be called because I always find something else to add to my order while waiting.

And, often, while waiting around for my number to be called (and it is always a wait), I am often reminded how most advice about grocery shopping is pretty lousy. They tell you things like don’t shop with your kids but don’t tell you who’s going to watch the squids while you’re at the store. Go when it’s not crowded, and yet, the whole reason stores get crowded is that most of us are at work when they’re not. And I love the idea of mapping your store so that you have your list items grouped by aisle. You may be that organized, and if you are, I salute you. I most certainly am not. Besides, I usually go to at least two different stores because not all of my stores have the same items at the right prices. That’s a lot of mapping and I do have better things to do.

But there are some things you can do to make life easier at the grocery store. Such as keeping a running list with you at all times. I use a grocery list app on my phone, which believe me, helps a lot. That way, when I see that I’m running low on granulated sugar, I just pull out my phone and quickly type it in, instead of trying to remember later that I need to add sugar to my list. I’ve also had a notepad with a magnet on the back stuck to my fridge so that I can list things as I see them running out, like crackers or Worcestershire sauce. With the app, I can also add toothpaste and shampoo because I have my phone in the bathroom, or in the bedroom, and don’t have to cross the house in a state of undress so that I can get those items on the list before I forget.

You may prefer adding your items to what mystery author Donna Andrews refers to as The Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe, and I’m reasonably sure you have one. Most of us do. Whether we use it or not, well, that’s another issue. But the nice thing about putting your list in your Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe is that notebook tends to be something we keep with us all the time. It’s always there. You can put your menu in it, too. I have my menu on my phone as a Google calendar. Again, it’s always with me because my phone is and when I’m shopping and think I’ve forgotten something or can’t remember why I put tater tots on my list, I can check my menu to find out.

The advice folks recommend a list to help you control spending – and that does help. However, a list saves me boodles of time. Why? I’m not running back to the store after forgetting some key item nearly as often as when I don’t keep my list up to date. I’ll still forget things sometimes. That’s why keeping the menu with me helps me remember that I do need pork chops after all.

My other cardinal rule is to eat before I get to the grocery store. This is one of those bits of advice that is not always practical. But if you’re trying to control your spending or your waistline, an empty tummy and lots of ready-made junk right in front of you, placed there on purpose so you’ll buy it, is not a good combination. Grab that protein bar out of your purse or the glove compartment and eat it before shopping.

I also make a habit of tracking my spending as I put items in my cart. I used to have to do this just to make sure I could afford everything. I still do it because I don’t want a lot of food going to waste, and if I did forget to eat, it helps keep me in check. If I’m conscious of how much I spending, it’s easier to stop and ask myself if I really need that stick of goat cheese.

Because sometimes, the answer is yes. Which is my final tip. Don’t forget to get a small treat for yourself, whether it’s indulging in a cranberry goat cheese log (thank you, Trader Joe’s) or a bar of chocolate to be broken up and parsed out over the next week or two. You remember stuff for your kids or for your spouse. Don’t forget yourself, even if it’s indulging in a trashy romance on your phone while you’re waiting in line. Or for your number to be called at the service deli.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Menu Planning Made Easy

menu planning, how to plan a menuIt’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking blog post, but I’m still very interested in teaching folks how to cook, rather than simply follow recipes. Which is why I’m looking at menu planning today.

Here’s the thing – there are lots of reasons not to cook for yourself. Certainly, there are tons of good services out there, some that won’t expand your waistline too badly. But there are more reasons to do the cooking yourself. You reduce waste, you keep better control of what goes into your food and, hence, onto your hips, it’s a great family activity. I could go on. But let’s assume that you’ve already decided that you need to cook more at home. Where and how to begin?

That’s where menu planning comes in. Having a plan makes it a lot easier to come home and start cooking, maybe after a short rest or other decompression ritual. On the other hand, if you come home at a dead heat and find that all you have in your fridge is a pound of frozen chicken breasts and no clue what you were going to do with them, then it’s all too easy to hit the drive-thru again. Also, if you have a plan and you forgot to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer, you can still cook because tomorrow night’s dinner is a salad and all you have to do is put the chicken breasts in the fridge, then make the salad, instead.

A menu plan, basically, plots out a week or more worth of dinners (and lunches and breakfasts, if you want to go that far), so that you can go to the grocery store once a week or so, instead of daily. You don’t need anything fancier than a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I have used calendar pages in the past – they worked great. But now I use a Google calendar, which means I can look up what’s for dinner before I get home, or if I see something at the supermarket that might work well with what I’ve chosen for a dinner. There are apps that will help you with this but in my experience, they’re very tied to using recipes – which we are trying not to use here – and you have to game them to get a simple list of items you want to prepare. Seriously, you don’t need a recipe for a basic side salad, and if the app is going to insist that you use one, why mess with it?

Menu planning steps

It always helps to start menu planning by looking through your fridge and pantry to see what’s already there. I’ll often write down a list of which veggies didn’t get used up the week before, and maybe thumb through the freezer compartment to see what meats I’ve already got and need using. I also think about the rhythm and flow of my week. For example, in the picture below, you’ll note there are no entries for Tuesday and Thursday nights. We’re not going to be home those nights, so no point in planning a meal. (I also tend just to plan dinners, though I should plan lunches, as well). Sunday nights, I like to have something a little more special and since we have a tradition of the Mid-Week Break, Wednesday nights are generally going to be a bit more involved and/or special.

menu planning, how to plan a menu

Next step is figuring out what goes where. Now, if I’m using a piece of paper that doesn’t already have the days of the week on it, I write them in. Sundays also have the advantage of generally being more open time-wise, so I’ll often cook a roast or a whole chicken or something fairly large so that I can use the leftovers during the week. Usually, that’s just sandwiches or chicken salad, but that also means another meal on the menu that I can schedule and not think about. Or a couple lunches. Most meals in our household involve a protein and two vegetables (side salads count as one veggie). For example, if I’m making lentil chili, I’ll either count the lentils as a protein and/or add some cheese. Then I’ll chop up a veggie or two to cook as part of the chili. Or we’ll have a bit of roasted pork tenderloin, with broccoli and salad, and maybe some sweet potato oven fries as an extra treat. You’ll note protein does not necessarily mean meat. I’ll often use high-protein grains or legumes instead, and I don’t often combine meat with high-protein grains. It’s not necessary.

Now, if you’re not certain what you want to cook, you can look through your cookbooks or online for ideas. There’s nothing wrong with using recipes, especially if you’re new to cooking. Just be aware that it’s a lot easier for something to go awry, such as forgetting to put a key ingredient on the shopping list.

After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in what goes where. So, say that bit of roasted pork tenderloin is scheduled for Sunday. There will be leftovers, which can become Cuban sandwiches on Thursday, along with some coleslaw and green beans. We try to practice Meatless Mondays and also abstain from meat on Fridays, and it looks like the weather is going to be fairly warm Monday, so I’ll throw together a gazpacho for that night, and gee, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good for Friday, maybe with a cucumber salads, since I’m doing coleslaw the night before. That leaves Wednesday… Hmm. Haven’t done a chicken piccata in a while. That sounds yummy and with my beloved and I working together, not nearly as much trouble. That leaves Tuesday. We’ve done chicken and pork. Maybe a skillet lasagna, with spinach and chopped kale (the two veggies) for Tuesday. Boom. We’re done.

Now, all I have to do is look over my menu, figure out what I need to buy, put it all on the grocery list and go shopping. But that’s next month’s post.


How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Organizing Your Kitchen

kitchen organization, cooking, how to cookIt has been a while since I’ve done a Dark Side of the Fridge (how to cook) post. But I’m working on a whole new scheme to post regularly and…

I’ve got my fingers crossed, too.

In any case, if we are going to talk about learning to cook, rather than simply read recipes, then we’ve got to think about the space in which we do it. Okay, even if we mostly prepare recipes, how our kitchens are organized will have a massive impact on how easily things get done. Which if we’re not wild about cooking, in the first place, is not generally something we want to be thinking about, let alone spending money on.

But, but, but. A reasonably well-organized kitchen can make it a lot easier to get in and get out before you go nuts or die of hunger. Seriously. Some folks come to this conclusion quite naturally. Some folks ain’t me. I have to think about these things, such as realizing the reason the damn circuit breaker keeps blowing in the mornings is because the toaster oven and the coffee maker are on the same circuit and both draw a lot of power.

Now, the thing the so-called experts recommend is to look at your kitchen layout and imagine the Food Prep Triangle. That’s the triangle made by your fridge (where most of your food is kept), your sink, and your stove. You want to line things up so that they’re included in this magic triangle to reduce steps. Sounds really nice and can help get you started thinking about how you move in your kitchen. But it doesn’t always take into account how kitchens are really laid out. Or that maybe it makes more sense for your pantry items to be in the pantry, which is just outside of your kitchen. Or that, as the diagram of my kitchen shows, the stove needs to be in the far corner because there are a bunch of kitchen cabinets in positions 1 through 6 and the port for the gas line is in that far corner. Or that directly across the kitchen from the door to the dining room is the door to the utility room and pantry and the back door to the house.

Movement in my kitchen is profoundly affected by that back door because we have to go through the kitchen to let the dogs out, get the laundry hung out on the line, hang out in the back yard, things like that.

The fridge is in the opposite corner because there’s nowhere else to put it.

That being said, even with the supposedly bad layout, my kitchen is pretty darned efficient. Why? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where and when I use things and putting the appropriate tools and/or dishes near those locations. For example, I have a stand-up mixer which I keep on my counter at position 5. All my baking ingredients are in the cupboard underneath. My pots and pans are on the baker’s rack next to the stove. My dinner dishes are in the top cupboard at position 1, where I can grab them and head straight to the dining room, where I will use them.

Not everything is perfectly placed. I had to put the toaster oven on a different circuit and that ended up being on the counter at position 1 because the coffee maker, at position 4, is next to where the water for it is. But most things are where I can get them easily. Knives in blocks on the counter at position 6, close to the fridge, where the veggies I will chop are. I also have my cutting boards next to my knives. Wooden spoons and whisks are in a jar on the baker’s rack, next to the stove where I will use them to stir soups and sauces. The microwave is next to the fridge, so I can pull something out and heat it quickly.

So, when you have an off day and a lot of extra time, look at your kitchen and ask  yourself if the tools you use all the time are out next to where you use them. Ask whether the ingredients you use are stored near the place where they are prepped. Can you shift something around on your counters so that you can get to it when you need it, rather than having to shuffle through a drawer or two first?

These may seem like minor things, but making your kitchen as efficient as possible does make it a lot easier to get the cooking done. I promise.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Cooking with Wine

So last week, my kid asks me about cooking with wine. Namely, she was trying to figure out how to interpret a recipe calling out dry white wine, and couldn’t figure out which white wines were technically considered dry. Well, that in and of itself is the current post on our wine blog Wine recipe, Dry red wines, dry white wines, cooking with wine recipes, dry cooking But while few recipes are about the wine, cooking with wine is a major part of building flavor into a dish.

When we’re talking about wine in recipes, we’re generally talking about a dry wine, one that doesn’t have sweet flavor from leftover sugar in the wine. That’s because what wine generally adds is acidity. Now, that may sound pretty icky – acid is that awful sour flavor you get in lemons. But when you add enough sugar to lemon juice, it tastes pretty good. That’s because the sugar counteracts the sour acid and the sour acid balances out the super sweetness. In other words, the two flavors balance and play off each other.

The same thing happens when you add wine to a dish. In addition, when you cook it for a longer time, that acid softens and adds an interesting note to the whole thing, rather than just taking over. If you’ve ever eaten a musty-tasting pot roast or a stew that just seemed rather flat and flavorless, then some sort of wine or acid was missing.

When Cooking with Wine is good

You can add wine any time you want a brighter flavor in a dish, not just when the recipe says to. For example, you’re making some gravy for a meatloaf or some steaks you’ve cooked. Adding a bit of wine after you’ve made your roux  (check out the How to Make Gravy post here) will make your gravy taste rich and lively rather than just okay. Say you’ve fried that steak or pork chop and you want to get all those tasty stuck on bits up. Pour in some wine, maybe a quarter to half a cup and bring it to a boil, then scrape all those bits up. It’s a technique called de-glazing and it’s wonderful for making sauces and gravies, plus it makes your pan a lot easier to clean. Once you’ve cooked your wine for a bit, you can add some butter or cream or even just some extra broth (beef broth for beef or pork, chicken broth for chicken or even fish, although there is such a thing as fish stock or broth, too). Reduce it by boiling it down a bit, and bingo, you have sauce.

Another time you want to add wine is when you’re making a stew or a braise. In two classic French recipes, you add a whole bottle or two to braise the meat – coq au vin (chicken) and boeuf bourguignon (beef). Braising is cooking meat or vegetables at low heat for a long time with liquid in the bottom of the pan, as opposed to submerging them in liquid and cooking on low heat for a long time, which is stew. You may not want to go as far as using a whole bottle of wine, but even a half cup or so will add a lot of flavor.

The trick to remember is that the less time you’ll be cooking the dish or sauce, the less wine you want to use. Wines, especially dry red wines, can be pretty strongly flavored. It’s one of our mantras, right? You can always add more, you can’t add less.

When Not to Add Wine

Basically, you don’t generally want to add wine to anything that is already pretty acidic. I once made the mistake of adding white wine to a chicken picatta sauce, which already has lemon juice in it. That was a bit on the tart side. Tomatoes also have a fair amount of acid in them, so unless I’m making a tomato-based sauce that’s going to cook for several hours, I’ve stopped adding wine. Instead, I add vodka, and boy, does that kick up the flavor.

So go ahead and experiment and see what happens. You might even have a glass to drink while you finish dinner. It’s one of the things that makes cooking with wine fun.