July 16, 2007

Speed up dinner preparation - a few of my tips

Lifehacker posted an article from Real Simple, and readers also posted their comments & suggestions on how to speed up dinner preparation. Here are a few of my tips.
  • Plan what you're cooking in advance Let's say if you're going to make stir-fry, and the rice takes 20 minutes to cook, you can start the rice first, and while it's simmering, chop the veggies and make the sauce. If you leave the rice to the last minute, you'll have the stir fry ready, but have nothing to serve it over. Then you wind up waiting around for the rice to cook while the veggies get cold and then you have to heat the veggies again, wasting more time.
  • chop chop chop If you're cutting stuff up, cut up twice as much. This may sound like a contradiction, but since you've already got the cutting board, peeler and knife out, chopping an extra couple of veggies saves you from doing that mise en place a second time, and now you only have to wash the cutting board once. This works best for veggies like carrots, celery, onion, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, snap peas, cabbage, cauliflower, squash & green beans.
    A few things will suffer from advance prep. In general, don't prep things that shouldn't be refrigerated or bruise easily. 1 tomatoes, which, if they're properly ripened, turn to mush once cut. Also, if you refrigerate your tomatoes and i find out about it, i'm coming after you. 2 Potatoes oxidize, but keeping them submerged in water to prevent browning changes the quality of both texture and flavor. Also, refrigeration turns the starches into sugars. Also not desirable. 3 Basil is so fragile that it starts to go bad as soon as it's cut. It's something that should be done as last minute as possible. 4 Garlic gets its pungent garlickyness when the different substances in the garlic combine. the more you crush it, the more intense the flavor... but it also dissipates quickly. It's another 'last minute' thing. Add it to recipes twice: once at the beginning of cooking, and again, just before the end of cooking. Another garlic tip: If you chop/crush garlic and give it a 10 minute rest before using it, you get the most health benefits from it.
  • Use recipes as shopping lists. Let's say that you've decided on the 3 things you're going to cook this week (double batches of course, so that you can eat the extra servings for lunch or freeze the leftovers) Find the recipes, whether online, or from your cookbooks, or your mom's old recipe cards. Then, go on an in-home shopping spree. Do you have the cornstarch you need for the stir-fry? How about the soy sauce? Did you use the last of the breadcrumbs? Do you have enough olive oil? Do you even have dry mustard? You can avoid buying stuff you already have, and be sure you will buy what you don't have. Seems simple, but it's SO easy forget if you have something, and it's much easier to avoid the time-sucking roadblock of missing ingredients.
  • Know which corners are worth cutting. Buying canned beans saves you LOTS of time over soaking & boiling dry beans, and without losing much quality. Frozen, pre-chopped broccoli is (usually) just fine in certain recipes. Frozen, pre-chopped carrots are AWFUL pretty much no matter what. 3-minute microwaved idaho potatoes or sweet potatoes are nearly as good as 45-minute baked ones. Microwaved corn on the cob is almost as delicious as boiled, but frozen corn on the cob is horrific...even though bagged frozen corn kernels are quite nice, and much better than canned.
  • Time is money, even in your own kitchen. Yeah, you can save a few cents by buying a brick of cheese instead of the pre-shredded stuff in the bag. BUT - You're not saving money if you throw out half a brick of dried-out or moldy cheese. Keep that pre-shredded bag in the freezer and it will last forever. Smack it on the counter a few times before opening it, sprinkle out what you need, then chuck it back in the freezer. Another example: If chopped bagged lettuce is more likely to be eaten than full heads of romaine and iceberg (which need to be carefully washed) then pay the premium for the bagged stuff.
  • Clean up time counts, too. It takes a lot longer to take apart and clean the food processor than it does to wash a knife. If you can't put something in the dishwasher, and must instead wash it by hand, are you factoring that into your cooking time as well? In my case, for example, i'd rather use 3 small cutting boards than one big one, because i can fit all the little ones in the dishwasher. Will you destroy what you're making if you stir the pasta with the same spoon as you're using to stir the sauce? Can you maybe throw a few broccoli florets into the water that the carrots have been cooking in? Do you REALLY need to use a steamer basket, EVER? Try to use as few cooking & serving things as possible, short of eating from the same pot you cooked in. (I'm guilty of that one...)
So, my dear readers, got any other tips?

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