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cooking at home, part 4: my favorite appliances

My last post in this series is devoted to some of my favorite kitchen appliances…

The freezer. I get rather embarrassed when a friend comes over and wants to stick, say, a pint-size tub of ice cream in my freezer, and I don’t really have space for it. I’m afraid I look like quite a hoarder if you peek in my freezer! When I’m good about it, I try to keep a rough inventory of what’s in my freezer, to make sure I don’t neglect something that’s stored way back in the corner.

Growing up, my parents always had a separate deep freezer at home, even when we lived in a small apartment. That’s because they always stocked up on sale items, hard-to-find ingredients (like Asian ingredients when you’re living in, say, Saskatchewan), and meals prepared in advance. I’m lucky to have space for a normal-size fridge at all, let alone a deep freezer, so I try to make use of every square inch of the freezer I do have. My sister likes to make fun of the way I organize my freezer like a bookshelf ’cause I like to freeze things flat in quart-size Ziplock bags and stand them up for easier access. :)

A peek inside my freezer, organized "like a bookshelf" according to my sister.

I freeze everything from pre-made meals, to homemade stock, to chicken carcasses (for making more stock), to shredded cheese (bought in bulk during sales). I also like to use the ice cube tray for freezing ingredients you might need in smaller amounts in certain recipes (like tomato paste or stock for sauces). After the cubes are frozen, I take them out and store them in Ziplock bags. My sister’s in-laws have a lemon tree, and they like to freeze lemon juice in the ice cube trays for months when lemons are out of season.

The rice cooker. When I went abroad to France for nine months during college, I actually made room in my two allowed pieces of luggage for, that’s right, my rice cooker. I blame it on my parents. When I was growing up, they often brought a rice cooker on family vacations. We cooked meals in motels, with the rice cooker sitting next to the sink and plugged into the outlet meant for blow dryers. How Asian of us, right? :)

My first rice cooker was a cheap, simple model (and I actually left it behind in France so I could make room for all the souvenirs I was bringing back), and it was the same one I used when I lived in the dorm my freshman year of college (particularly useful there because hot plates were not allowed in American dorms… unlike in French dorms). I cooked so much more than rice in that thing. I made instant noodles. I steamed and boiled veggies. I even tried to stir-fry in there (ok, that didn’t work too great). I also made congee in it by leaving the lid off (it was a one-function rice cooker that was not meant to make congee like the fancy ones these days). You can basically make anything in there that you’d normally boil water for. Many of my dorm meals consisted of rice plus veggies and marinated meat, which all cooked in the steam created in the rice cooker. I didn’t even use the steamer insert — I just threw it all in there and let it cook together.

Nowadays, I don’t make use of my rice cooker nearly enough. The fancy Zojirushi model I have now takes a while to cook rice, so I end up making a big batch of rice all at once on the weekends. The rest of the time, my rice cooker, sadly, sits in my cupboard. What I do use every day and reserve valuable kitchen counter real estate for is…

The toaster oven. You can make anything in the toaster oven you would make in a real oven, just in smaller portions. But this makes it perfect for daily use. I’ve had my convection Euro-Pro toaster oven since grad school, and even though it’s almost died on me several times, I’m still holding onto it because I haven’t been able to find a good-size model like this available anymore — big enough to hold more than two slices of bread, but not giant and boxy the way they make them to bake pizzas these days. I make room in my teeny tiny kitchen for this one appliance because I use it every day. I bake eggs or make toast in it for breakfast and roast veggies and meats in it for dinner. I’ve even roasted a whole chicken in it many a time. Given that my actual oven is miniature in size, used to store pots, and is really temperamental temperature-wise, my toaster oven is indispensable in my day-to-day cooking. Chef Eric Ripert even has a video series called Get Toasted that’s dedicated to this little appliance.

What appliances do you use every day at home? If you were going abroad for a year, what kitchen tools would you bring with you or invest in during your temporary stay?

This post concludes my Cooking at Home series this week, but I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my weekly meal preparation go more smoothly, so feel free to send tips my way any time. :)

cooking at home, part 3: meal preparation

After all that meal planning and grocery shopping, the real fun begins…

Saving time with prep work. I have a certain system I like to follow each week. Upon returning home from the grocery store, I make sure the dishwasher and sink are cleared. I go through the fridge and toss out anything that’s gone bad. I also take this opportunity to do a wipe-down of the fridge if it needs it. I then wash and chop most of my produce, storing things in containers or in Ziplock bags lined with a paper towel to soak up some of the moisture. If necessary, after washing and spinning, I’ll lay greens out on kitchen towels to dry before storing, as the moisture makes them go bad more quickly. I often keep containers of chopped scallions, fried shallots, chopped onion, and other often-used ingredients ready in order to speed up cooking later on. For example, it’s easy to cook up a quick omelette in the morning by grabbing the pre-chopped onion and scallions and tossing in some prewashed spinach leaves.

Viet herbs and squash blossoms, washed and spun, now laid out to dry on kitchen towels; ready for Vietnamese wraps, noodle bowls, and soups later in the week.

Batch cooking. If it weren’t for the cleanup that ensues (and, oh, all the other non-food-related work I have to do), I could easily and happily spend every moment of the day cooking. What actually happens, though, is that I have one or two cooking sessions each week — a more involved one on the weekend and a less involved one about mid-week. On an average weeknight, I’m either repurposing leftovers, reheating a pre-made meal, or using ingredients prepped ahead of time to cook up a quick dish or two. One of the greatest advantages of batch cooking, I find, is that it not only makes cooking more efficient — it also makes cleanup more efficient.

While I’m doing prep work on the weekend, I cook up large batches of certain things for the week, like oatmeal, rice, and steamed veggies. I know my sister likes to boil a bunch of eggs to throw into salads or have for breakfast. I also like to make a jar of vinaigrette for the week’s salads.

In addition to cooking several meals at once, I also increase the portions. Whenever I make a dish, I usually make enough of it to last at least two meals. I find that four meals is my limit for eating the same thing (and it has to be something I enjoy in the first place), and it’s helpful if those aren’t all in a row too. An easy rhythm to get into is to always double your dinner portions, so that you can bring the leftovers for lunch the next day. This doesn’t work so well with things like fish (and other smelly items), in which case it’s helpful to have some alternative ready-made meals to bring instead. For things that freeze well, I’ll quadruple the portions, saving enough for two meals now and freezing two meals for the future.

One of my husband's packed lunches this week, made up of leftovers -- brown rice, steamed broccoli, poached chicken, and ginger scallion dipping sauce.

Repurposing ingredients and leftovers. I try to plan for dishes with overlapping ingredients in the same week. For example, if I’m getting cilantro and lime for some Vietnamese dishes this week, I’ll also work in some Mexican dishes, where those ingredients are prominent as well. I also mentioned earlier this week how I like to plan my menu around base meals and leave room for variation. We often use our poached chicken later in the week for noodle soups, salads, or chicken enchiladas. Meats are always easy to repurpose into things like wraps, sandwiches, and to add to salads and soups. Certain veggies can work this way too, like spinach or mushrooms, which often act as meat replacements in vegetarian dishes.

Do you cook every day? Do you have a process to make weeknight dinners more effficient? How do you handle breakfast and lunch?

cooking at home, part 2: grocery shopping

Grocery shopping is always a challenge when you live in a big city. The grocery stores are smaller, prices are higher, parking is more of a hassle (and if you’re not driving, well, then you have to deal with hauling groceries home), and kitchens are teeny tiny. My own kitchen is outfitted with an apartment-size oven and dishwasher, which is to say — miniscule! It’s a challenge to cook from home even if you wanted to. Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly learning how to make do here, and it’s always an evolving process.

Spring haul from Eastern Market.

Stocking up. If you don’t cook regularly or don’t have a household to feed, cooking can feel like a special event, and grocery shopping can often revolve around only what you foresee eating in the immediate future. But instead of planning a grocery list around a couple dishes you feel like this week (don’t get me wrong, I do plenty of this, but it’s hard to sustain on a daily/weekly basis), it can be helpful to try planning your regular menu around what’s available — what’s in season, what’s on sale, and what’s near you. You can always store things by freezing, canning, or putting away in a dry, cool place for the colder seasons or simply busier weeks. Cooks are always touting the benefits of having a well-stocked pantry, which makes it easier to cook last-minute meals, which in turn means it’s easier to eat at home and to eat more healthily.

When I was growing up, my mom scoured the weekly grocery store circulars for sales and coupons. For particularly good sales, she often made special trips out to that store just to buy that one sale item in bulk. Advertisers never got the better of her — she often was there for that sale item alone and then got the rest of what she needed elsewhere. These days, I’ll only make a special trip like that when I come across a particularly great deal. And although I’ve always been in awe at master coupon-clipping folks, I find that most coupons are for things I don’t usually buy.

Since distance (and traffic!) can negate the advantage of a good sale here, and space is limited in my apartment anyhow, I’ve instead come to rely on a rotation of grocery stores I frequent for various reasons. I usually limit myself to only one grocery store each week, which means I know I’m not getting the best price on everything, but it’s a tradeoff that I make. I offset this by not going to the same store every week. I alternate between more general grocery stores and more specialized ones, stocking up in advance on items I know won’t be available at the store I visit the following week.

Most weeks I actually go to Costco (more on this later), and that is one place I often do pair with a general grocery store, where I can get things that we don’t need in bulk. Luckily, there’s a Harris Teeter just behind our nearest Costco, so I sometimes hit up both when I have time. But when I don’t, I can make do with just a Costco run and what I have in my pantry and freezer. Some of what we buy in bulk at Costco will last two weeks (or more), so the following week I’ll often go to one of my other stores. Sometimes it’ll be Shopper’s, which I started frequenting because it’s next to Target. Shopper’s is not your fancy grocery store, but I was actually surprised to discover what a wide selection of international and health food items are available there. And their prices tend to be lower than, say, Harris Teeter. Target also is a great place for food-shopping — I find their dry goods are well priced, but for produce I stick to grocery stores. About every month or two, I’ll make the trek out a bit farther to Grand Mart, which is one of the larger Asian grocers that’s closest to me. I stock up on all my Asian ingredients as well as cheap produce. While I’m there I pick up things like lemons and limes, carrots, potatoes — basic pantry items that cost more elsewhere and that last a little while. Every now and then I’ll go to Trader Joe’s, which I love and would frequent much more except that it’s a bit out of the way for me.

Veggies from our CSA share this past summer.

This past summer, my husband’s co-worker convinced her CSA to start delivering to their workplace if they could get together enough interested people. So I finally got to give CSAs a try! It was pretty fun opening up our box each week to see what we’d find — a nice change from my well-worn weekly routine! We’re also lucky to live close to Eastern Market, so many Sunday mornings you can find us walking there for coffee and people watching. In the spring I love to pick up fresh herbs and fruit there. It’s nice to get in some support for our local farmers to help offset all the Costco trips I make. :P Which brings me to my next topic…

Favorite prepared items. I have to confess that I generally love Costco so much I dearly miss it whenever I am in China for long periods of time. I have to be careful when I’m there, though — because things are sold in bulk, your bill can quickly add up after just a few items! The reason why I go to Costco many weeks is hands-down because of all the precut, pre-washed, sometimes even organic produce you can buy in bulk. Not everything is a great deal, but my regular items include broccoli, spinach, berries, organic milk, eggs, whole chicken, and salmon. I also like to get cheese there. It’s a lot, but it lasts a while (and I love cheese). My other favorite place for stocking up on both cheese and ready-made meals is Trader Joe’s. The cheese selection and prices are just unbeatable there. And I particularly love TJ’s dry boxes of Indian Fare curries. I always stock up on these, as well as naan that I divide into one-meal portions and freeze — these make such great packed lunches during busy weeks. Lately, I’ve also been wondering about Amazon for things like whole wheat pasta in bulk too.

So there you have it, my weekly grocery shopping process. What stores do you frequent, and what are some of your favorite items to get there?


cooking at home, part 1: meal planning

When I think back to childhood, I tend to think of my dad effortlessly filling the dinner table every night with an array of home-cooked dishes. Weekends were even more elaborate, some Saturdays devoted entirely to cooking together as a family. I always knew our meals didn’t just appear out of thin air, but I don’t think I fully understood just how much a labor of love it was to provide us with a homemade meal three times a day. Even now, whenever I visit home, on the mornings I get up early to catch a flight, my mom or dad will still get up before me to make a hot breakfast and a packed lunch for the trip.

I’m still learning these lessons of sacrificial love. And as I’m continuing to grow into my roles as a wife and a mother, I’m always looking for ways to not just feed my family, but to put the same amount of care in the meals I make.

In reality, this is less about making every meal a feast and more about striving for balance in time, nutrition, budget, and taste. And still leaving room for spontaneity, creativity, and leisurely meals around the dinner table (or coffee table in our case :)!

This series of posts is devoted to some of the ways I try to make weekly meal preparations go more smoothly in our home. It is also an excuse to ask readers to share your own tips and tricks with me!

Here’s a look today at how I typically approach meal planning…

Meal planning. We eat most of our meals in (and usually bring lunches to work), so planning out the week’s meals in advance definitely helps me see how busy of a week it’ll be, which meals we need, and when I’ll have time to cook. I’ve come to rely on a couple of tools to help with this: I create Google spreadsheets to plan out a schedule and adaptable menu for the week. I keep running grocery lists for various stores on Things (a task-management tool). And I’ve recently been experimenting with Mealboard, a recipe-storage app that allows you to import recipes, generate grocery lists out of the ingredients, and create weekly meal plans. Since I’m going to be relying more on repetition this year, I thought I’d try using this app more often. Even when I’m not using recipes, it helps to have an ingredient list so I don’t forget to pick up anything.

Rotation of dishes. I try to keep several favorite dishes on rotation, which helps streamline the grocery-buying as well as the cooking process. The system is flexible, and there are some slots in there that I leave open for whatever we may be feeling like that week. I find that a two-week rotation works well for us — short enough to get into a rhythm, but not so repetitive it gets monotonous. I also like to use base meals as a starting point, leaving room for variation. For example, whole chicken is something that is always in our rotation — oftentimes I like it poached (which yields broth in addition to chicken), but I’ll vary it up some weeks by roasting instead, or, on a busy week, we’ll just pick up a rotisserie chicken from Costco (I find theirs the tastiest, and it tends to be the cheapest too). I also have a couple easy fallback dishes, like steamed egg, that use ingredients I usually have on hand and are quick to make.

How do you typically approach cooking for your family or yourself on a regular basis? If you have any favorite timesaving tips, resources, and products, please do share them in the comments this week!

Stay tuned tomorrow for a glimpse into my grocery-shopping process…