Over the past pandemic-sequestered year, most of us have been primarily cooking at home. This has inspired some with time on their hands to start baking sourdough bread or scouring the Internet for chicken mole recipes. Others—especially those with children underfoot at all hours—have become streamlined at putting meals on the table.
This reality prompted the New York Times to recently ask their food editors and reporters to share their most prized home cooking tips. These included basics, like doing all your chopping and other prep work before you start cooking; it’s known as mise en place. Some tips were new to me, such as putting chopped garlic and oil into a cold pan before turning on the heat. You can read the whole list of 17 here, hopefully.
This got me thinking about what “hacks” I use to expedite my home cooking. Efficiency is my mantra, and I can usually get a meal ready in 15 minutes, unless it requires oven time, which generally needs no hands-on attention. When I see a recipe with 17 ingredients and eight steps, I definitely turn the page.
Here are my top seven cooking hacks, plus a recipe.
Good kitchenware will last a lifetime, so spend as much as you can afford… and then spend 25 per cent more. This certainly applies to cutting knives, the backbone of any kitchen. You’ll devote thousands of hours to chopping veggies, meats and fruits, so you might as well have high-end stainless steel knives that hold a sharp edge.
Amongst the Germans, I prefer Wusthof to Henckels. I do have one of those razor-sharp Japanese knives, but I’m always leery about lopping off a finger. Actually, you really need only two kitchen knives: a bigger chopping knife, with a rocker blade for fast chopping, and a smaller paring knife. Throw in a serrated knife if you’re slicing much bread. Plus a good sharpening steel.
Considering all the time we spend chopping, most of us are amazingly bad and slow at it. The best $50 I ever spent was on a two-hour knife skills class; we even learned how to cut up a whole chicken in under a minute. So sign up at your local kitchen shop, or at least check out a chef’s Youtube video or two.
One Pot/Pan Cooking
I’m a master of the one-pot stir fry. I can have a meal of sautéed veggies, meat/fish and sauce ready in 15 minutes from the time I open the fridge. The cooking is all contained, and there’s only one pot to clean.
I have more recently graduated to sheet-pan cooking, in which seasoned veggies, meats and even cubed tofu are scattered on a rimmed, heavy-duty aluminum pan and oven roasted, generally at about 400 F (a cast-iron frying pan also works). I usually line the pan with a reusable silicon mat or parchment paper to prevent sticking. The roasting takes longer and requires knowing when to add different ingredients i.e. beets generally take 50 minutes, potatoes 35 minutes and Brussels sprouts or cauliflower 30 minutes. Once you’ve tasted the caramelized sweetness of roasted vegetables, there’s no going back.
Bathed in Butter
When I do steam or boil vegetables, such as pea pods or broccoli, I drain them, add a pad of butter, and maybe a sprinkling of sea salt, and put the pan back on the still-hot burner for half a minute until the veggies are hot and lightly bathed in melted gold.
I’ve recently become a fan of blistered vegetables. Here, you heat a pan (ideally cast iron) to high and add a splash of oil, your veggies and maybe a bit of salt and red pepper flakes, pushing everything around for a few minutes with a spatula till things are nicely blistered and still a little crunchy. This works great with green beans and also with sliced carrots, broccoli or even grape tomatoes. Just remember to turn on your stovetop fan to disperse the smoke.
Make double the quantity of your usual meal recipe. Other than a bit of extra chopping, there’s no more work involved, and you’ve got a second meal of leftovers that just needs to be heated in the next few days. I know of people who cook their whole week’s meals on, say, a Sunday and then freeze them, but that’s a little too organized for me.
Clean As You Go
Use the energy you generate from cooking to clean pots, bowls, knives, cutting board, counters etc. while stuff is sautéing or roasting. That way you’ll only have a couple of things to clean at meal’s end.
Add Some Sauce
A stir fry needs some sauce. Near the end of cooking, pour on some cream, salsa or even jarred pasta sauce and cook till slightly reduced. I often make a quick, fabulous tomato sauce in my Instant Pot, though stovetop cooking also works fine. It takes about 30 minutes and lasts for several meals, including as a fine sauce for pasta or rice. Here’s the recipe.
Instant Pot Tomato Sauce
Fine chop some onion, bell peppers, a stalk of celery and a medium-large carrot and cook with a tablespoon of olive oil in the Instant Pot, using the “Saute” function. Add salt, pepper, fresh or dry herbs and maybe a couple of bay leaves. After about five minutes, you can add about a pound of ground hamburger, chicken or pork for a meatier sauce, stirring till browned.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, ½ a cup or more of stock or water (or even a splash of red wine), 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, mixing with a whisk. Pour over the sautéing veggies (and meat), and throw in a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes.
Turn the Instant Pot to the high pressure setting for 10 minutes and then let the pressure naturally release for 10 more minutes. Done.
Those are some of my favourite cooking hacks. What are yours?