Many people are shocked that I cook dinner every night and entertain on weekdays between school and 4 times a week at the gym and being married. So, I’m going to show you how I do it. But first, I feel the need to explain my cooking “philosophy” – why I cook and what I use to do it.
I LOVE to cook. So I can justify the time (and expense) spent as not just sustenance, but a hobby. I look at food as a way to connect, to care for and love people. Cooking with family and friends is one of my favorite activities. I get inspiration from everywhere – reading blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows and restaurant meals. I rarely make a recipe verbatim (unless I’m baking) and that’s what I love about cooking. I’m going to start the blog with what I consider “staple” meals – that is, I will always have the ingredients for these meals on hand at any given time.
I will never spend more than 45 minutes consistently cooking on a weeknight (and often, won’t even spend 30) – while things are cooking I’ll do other things. An hour in “true” preparation is about my limit if I’m cooking alone, even on the weekends. How do I do this? For starters, I own three crock pots and can make a variety of recipes from what’s in my pantry, in about the time it takes noodles to boil. Plus, as you cook more, you get faster at things like chopping.
The “how much?!”
Our grocery budget is $100 a week including paper products, toiletries, and often, wine and liquor. I shop the sale ads every week and plan my menu around them. I stock up on stuff when it goes on sale and my pantry is NEVER empty (we have 21 pounds of pasta at last count). This might seem high to some and low to others – it works for us. We rarely eat out unless it’s planned, entertain at home and eat leftovers for lunch (mostly). I will not drive around to 15 different places and rarely clip coupons, as I find most of them are for pre-prepared stuff that I don’t use.
I shop at Horrocks and Meijer mainly, with trips thrown in at GB Russo’s and World Market for specialty items. I cook in a standard apartment kitchen with a nice sized pantry but a smallish fridge and freezer.
I cook a lot of Italian and Mexican – enchiladas are one of the few meals I could eat every week. I run the gamut from crock pot to one pot to many pots. I’m not a huge Asian fan (bad experience with chicken stir fry in college) but nothing is really off-limits. I love Indian food. I try to keep it healthy but don’t get caught up in calories.
We don’t eat a lot of red meat because the cheapest ground beef is still more expensive than boneless, skinless chicken breast on sale. I use a lot of chicken, tilapia and pork loin, with things like steak, lamb and salmon thrown in as treats. I buy meat on sale and freeze it. We go meatless sometimes, but I love carbs enough as it is – I would survive on bread and pasta if I could. So I must have the balance of meat.
I dislike frozen veggies (personal preference) so most everything we eat is fresh. I once made squash as a side for every meal, 2 weeks straight, because it was on sale for 15 cents a pound. David begged for mercy, but I found I could get pretty creative. We eat a veggie with every meal, even if it’s just salad.
Below are some of the things I always have on hand.
The pantry list
- Pasta – Ronzoni Healthy Harvest in the pink box b/c David hates whole wheat and I want the nutrition. I only buy when it’s on sale for $1 a pound and have a variety of cuts.
- Rice – Jasmine or basmati. David loves these and hates brown rice. I concede because we eat way more pasta. I got a 25 bag at Sam’s for less than $25 two years ago and it still isn’t gone.
- Canned tomatoes – I prefer the big (28 oz.) cans of crushed because it’s thicker, but also have paste, sauce and San Marzano (bought on sale, and yes they really do taste that much better.)
- Salsa – I use at least a jar every time I make enchiladas (which is a LOT, I love them) and I buy it on sale for $1.
- Chicken/beef broth/stock – I boil rice in it and use for soups. I could make my own, but I don’t have the fridge or freezer space to store it.
- Canned artichokes – one of the exceptions to my fresh rule.
- Sun dried tomatoes – great flavor.
- Capers – yum. 🙂
- Olives – see above. Technically these are in my fridge since I get them from the bulk cart, because they are cheaper there.
- Canned beans – again, could do dried even cheaper, but I don’t have the space to store. I always have Great northern, garbanzo and black beans.
- Varied grains – risotto rice, quinoa and couscous.
- Dried cranberries – I use these on salads.
- Baking items – flour, sugar, baking powered and soda, cornmeal, semolina flour (for pasta), bread flour, etc.
- Crackers – great for last-minute entertaining as well as a quick snack.
- Wine – again, technically not a pantry item, but I cook with wine a LOT and always have a dry red and dry white on hand. Cooking wine is disgusting and full of salt. I don’t handle salt well. Wine, on the other hand…
- EVOO and Pam – I use these interchangeably, and also use butter on rare occasion (but when I do, it’s real.)
- Spices: Kosher salt, fresh pepper, garlic and onion (fresh, not powder), Italian spices like tarragon, sage, oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme (both individually and mixed); Indian spices like curry, coriander, turmeric, cardamom and garam masala; Mexican spices like chili powder, paprika, cumin and cayenne; cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, and various blends. I built this up slowly and buy spices in bulk because it’s cheaper.
The cheese list
I have a cheese obsession, so I try to use 2% most of the time – but I also make my pizza with fresh mozzerella. Life is a balance. I will always have the following cheeses in stock:
- Fresh parmigiano-reggiano (no green can)
- Sharp cheddar 2%
- Colby jack 2%
- Part-skim mozzerella
- Gorgonzola (Blue cheese)
- Goat cheese
The kitchen gadget list
Starting with what I wouldn’t live without:
- Wustof Santoku knife (and an assortment of other quality knives, with a sharpener) – I will never buy another after this, it is the sharpest and lightest I own. I like the santoku because I gave myself stitches once stabbing my pinkie with the end of a chef’s knife. But that could just be me.
- Good pots and pans – I have non stick right now, a Christmas gift from my mom right before I got married, but will probably switch when they die. In specific pieces I would recommend a pasta pot, huge skillet with deep sides, smaller skillet and sauce pan (with lids) to start.
- Food processor/blender – I have a combo and couldn’t tell you the last time I used my blender, but my sister loves hers. I also have a huge food processor, which is nice for bigger things. Don’t forget, this will slide and shred to, and I use mine to shred cheese a lot.
- Huge cutting board – right next to my stove, so I can cut and cook as needed. DO NOT use glass, it will dull your knives beyond repair. I just got an awesome bamboo one as a gift, but had a nice thick plastic one before. I have a few smaller ones for raw meat.
- Microplane – shred cheese, nutmeg, garlic, zest – I use this thing at least every day and had to get two. Sometimes – often – they are both dirty.
- Various spoons and spatulas – Wooden and plastic are good for all pan types, and I have high heat spatulas.
- 9×13 baking dish and pan – I have stone ware, which I love, but invest in at least one good quality cookie sheet and baking pan – maybe two.
- Crock pot – I have three. A daddy for lots of stuff, a momma if it’s just four of us or less and baby for dips and snacks. I cannot stress how much time this thing saves me – it is truly amazing.
- Wine opener – this needs no explanation if you have spent 5 seconds with me.
- Coffee maker with bean grinder – see above.
Things I love but know are frivolous:
- Mandolin – FINALLY figured out how to use this after a year of having it, and it is nice – slices uniformly.
- Kitchen Aid mixer – Firstly, if you are going to bother with a stand mixer, just splurge and buy this one. No imitations will do. I don’t bake a lot, but I love love love this thing and also have the pasta attachment – which I also love.
- Bread maker – say what you will about gaining weight, I love bread and saved money by buying this thing, because I can make good bread at home instead of buying artisan bread at $5 a pop. We don’t eat sandwiches – unless it’s a panini or a grilled cheese for dinner – so this is super helpful. Like a crock pot for bread, really.
- Electric skillet – David uses this more than I do, but good for breakfasts.
- Pizza stone – would not make pizza without one.
- Baking pans, rolling pin and cooling racks – I have a loaf pan, bundt pan, spring foam pans and muffin tins. Not used a ton, but good to have.
- Measuring cups and spoons – I really only use these when I bake. 🙂
- Meat thermometer – I have one that stays in the meat and beeps when it’s done. No more overcooked chicken for this girl!
So in 1633 words (or so) there’s my manifesto. Check out the Mac and cheese recipe above for a start – I’ll keep posting more (and will try to remember photos – but no promises).