Last night, I went to a book group at our local library about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In the book, Kingsolver and her family try to eat from their own garden and local farms for a year. I loved the book, and now we eat locally, probably 80% of the time. In our discussion, several people said they liked the book but didn’t think they had the time or money to cook like that. I, too, used to think it took too much time to cook, but now it actually takes me LESS time to cook than to go through a drive-thru or order a pizza. For example, after the book club, I made homemade crackers and a spinach, turkey, and black bean salad with a homemade mustard vinaigrette. I also put out the last of my canned sweet cucumbers, all in about twenty minutes. Our local pizza guy can never make it to our house that fast, even though the pizza place is only three blocks away.
However, it took me about two years of cooking most nights from recipes to get comfortable enough to venture out on my own. While I love fresh food and get a thrill out of cooking a fancy meal copied from Martha Stewart Living or Gourmet magazine, I’ve finally learned how to cook quickly and simply from day to day. To do so, I have five shortcuts that might make a true foodie cringe. These aren’t necessarily the cheapest options, but they save me valuable time in the kitchen. In the long run, having the confidence to whip up dinner at home rather than order a pizza or go through the drive-thru keeps our family healthy and saves us a lot of money!
1. Minced Garlic
I buy those jars of minced garlic rather than fresh. Yes, fresh garlic would be cheaper, and I do buy it once in a while for a roasted garlic dish. However, many of the meals I make start out with olive oil, onions, and garlic. The thought of getting my hands all garlicky and mincing up the stuff is enough to keep me from cooking, especially when I’m tired. But it’s great to grab the jar, measure out a half-teaspoon (the equivalent of one clove) and toss it in the pan.
2. Bottled Lemon and Lime Juice
Again, a foodie would say, “oh no, you must use fresh lemons and limes.” True, a real food snob could taste the difference, but I usually can’t. I used to throw out lemons and limes all the time, or not have any in the house, or be unable to squeeze enough juice out of one lemon for whatever I wanted to cook. Now, I always know that I have enough on hand. I also keep citrus peel in the spice cabinet to toss in when the recipe calls for lemon zest.
3. Chicken Bouillon Cubes
Almost every major cookbook has you boiling down your own chicken stock. I may try that this summer, but it’s not in my repertoire yet. Buying stock in those cardboard cartons drives me nuts, again because I won’t have enough or it’s past the expiration date. With cubes, I put on a kettle of water when I first start cooking. When the water boils, I measure out however many cups I need, plop in a cube for each cup, and I’m in business. This means I always have stock on hand, so I can make soups any night I want. Yes, the cubes are a bit higher in sodium, but it’s still way less salt than the typical fast food meal.
4. Canned Beans
I keep red beans, great northern beans, and black beans in the pantry. The purist has you buy dried beans, soak them overnight, and then cook them. With canned beans, I can whip up chili, make tostadas or tacos, or toss them in salads any night of the week. At 50 cents a can, it’s a great way to add protein to a meal. Now, I buy one organic cut of meat and one bag of frozen tilapia, salmon, or shrimp each week. On the other nights, we eat vegetarian, so I’ve come to rely on those beans. I also make 50 cent “humous” by mixing a can of great northern beans with salt, pepper, cumin, and a little sesame oil. It’s a very tasty version of the stuff that sells for $3 or $4 in the deli section.
5. Fresh Herbs
Now, the foodies of the world finally smile on me. In order to cook quickly, having herbs on hand makes a real difference. Last year, I grew basil, mint, and oregano outside and brought them in through the winter. This year, I’ve got a few more exotics, thanks to my biologist friend. Having herbs at home keeps me from buying those little $2 packets in the produce section. I never used those up in time, was always buying weird ones, and kept throwing them out. Now, if I don’t grow something the recipe calls for, I just substitute. For example, we substitute mint for cilantro in most Mexican dishes and love the result.
Bonus Tip: a Five-Year Supply of Hand Soap
The future husband came up with this one, so a big shout-out is in order. A few weeks ago, we ran out of my favorite Method brand foaming hand soap. I bought a big jug of the store-brand orange stuff and figured we could just put it in the container. I’d have to sacrifice the foam in the name of frugality. Well, the future husband figured out that if you fill the container with 1/3 soap and 2/3 water, it will foam! Now, we’re set on foaming hand soap for many years to come. And, we’ve figured out that companies are totally charging more for foam while giving us less soap!
So, there you have my five foodie shortcuts and a bonus. They keep dinners around our house going smoothly. What do you do to cut corners in the kitchen?