Cooking as a cure for creative block?

not-pretty-pizza(Warning: This post is too long. It has profanity in it. And pizza. Fucking get over it.)

It has a been a rough week. The cause: an assignment that I should be able to turn around in a jiffy, but which has eluded me and, so, drags on. And on. And on. I’ve requested and received specific, clear, and helpful guidance from my editor, so the ball is in my court, so to speak. Still, I can’t wrap up this little shit.

Did you ever see the movie “How to Get Ahead in Advertising?” Richard E. Grant plays an ad exec who’s stumped trying to come up with the clever campaign for new pimple cream. The stress makes him develop a boil that grows into an evil twin that ultimately takes over his life until he becomes some kind of postnatal chimera.

It’s not that bad. Yet.

I would call this writer’s block, but I think everyone can fall victim to creative constipation, whatever it is they do. There must be times when accountants can’t get numbers to crunch, when lawyers can’t devise winning arguments, when salespeople can’t sell–fuck, I dunno–ice to eskimos.

So, after sitting at the computer, fussing with the story and making it worse with each pass and chanting “shit-shit-shit-shit” under my breath, I headed into the kitchen. Yesterday, a New York Times article about pizza caught my eye. The gist of it was that if you proof the dough a really long time–”at least 27 hours of resting time”–you’ll end up with pizzeria-like results. Heck, we like pizza, I thought, I should try this. I write about food, so I must try this. Right now. I had to be in the kitchen anyway, developing a couple of recipes for another project (another distraction, yes, but one that pays). As an added benefit, the pizza would be a helpful exercise in delayed gratification, something I rarely practice.

In all honesty, I wanted to make the pizza for “Real Housewives of New York” tonight. God, I love that show in all its incarnations, from the plastic Barbies of Orange County, to the low-rent crew in Atlanta, to the thick-as-thieves” inbreds in New Jersey. This season, my NYC bitches are particularly strident and menopausal. Well, Bethenny’s hormonal ‘cause she’s preggers (and oddly shocked that the news leaked to Perez Hilton after she peed on the pregnancy test stick in front of a camera crew). And I’m forever grateful to The Countess for her “hit” new single, which has become my new motto:

Money can’t buy you class. Elegance is learned. Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah, the pizza.

I exercised a little restraint and ignored the recipes that ran with the NYTs story, since they called for two kinds specialty flours and making your own sourdough starter. I’m saving those distractions for another day and another stumped project, when I can happily waste hours hunting down the flour and baby-sitting the starter. Instead, I decided to try this with my go-to pizza dough. It’s more scientific that way, see, since I could gauge whether the technique made a difference.

Whoa! That dough is alive!

So I pulled together the dough, and it didn’t take up that much time anyway, and plopped it into a bowl to proof on the counter for a three hours. I checked on it every so often and, my, it was robust and bubbly. Those little yeast were busy! Things were happening. Then I divided the dough into two balls, which went into the refrigerator to proof for another 24 hours. This was hard, because I really wanted to roll that dough out and make pizza. But, no, all I could do was visit it occasionally, pulling it out of the fridge to prod it and inhale its yeasty aroma and admire its bubbliness. Oh my god! It looked like the evil boil from “How to Get Ahead in Advertising”!

Pizza sauce, no cooking requiredI carved out some time this afternoon (OK, it was another distraction) to make the uncooked Pizzeria Mozza’s pizza sauce from the L.A. issue of Saveur. Mozza makes the best pizza in town (I think), and the uncooked sauce comes together in a jiffy so this thing wasn’t too much of a time suck. It’s good; not spectacular, but a great result for the effort.

When it finally came time to roll the dough, after letting it sit at room temperature for 90 minutes (now going on 29 hours of proofing time), it was snappy as hell. I should have let it rest a bit, but, shit, Richard was home from work, we were hungry, and the Housewives were bickering on that boat in the Caribbean, so I shaped it by hand (because, apparently, a rolling pin “abuses” the dough), tossed it around a bit, then slathered on some tomato sauce, cheese and prosciutto and slipped that fucker onto a pizza stone in a very, very hot oven.

OK, not the prettiest but, damn, it tasted good.

The outcome: Delicious crust that was airy and chewy, but tender, and definitely an improvement over the usual drill of making dough, letting proof for an hour, and then rolling it out. Next time, I’d crank the oven even hotter, and possibly hunt down that those specialty flours. Now I’m hooked.

So here I am, feverishly writing this, thinking, “Yes! This will help!” As if pizza and blogging will act like a creative enema. We’ll see about that.

Meantime, I’ve accomplished a few things:

  1. I’ve learned that longer proofing time does make a superior crust, but you have to plan your pizza, like, two days in advance.
  2. We had a really good dinner.
  3. I realized the world has officially turned upside-down, since on tonight’s episode of RHW-NYC LuAnn was the voice of reason (surprise!), Sonja was the smart one (didn’t see that one coming), and Ramona was the sane one (that’s crazy!).I put the words “enema” and “constipation” in a post about food. Yum! Hungry now?

Beyond breakfast: steel-cut oats

Steel-cut oats: good for breakfast and a whole lot more (photo by Alison Ashton)

Like, well, just about everyone else, as soon as the calender flips to a new year, I renew my pledge to eat better. As in more of the healthy stuff–whole grains, fish, fruits, and vegetables. A recent project got me reacquainted with steel-cut oats.

Also known as oat groats, Scotch oats, and Irish oatmeal, steel-cut oats are oats that have been hulled, toasted, cleaned, and cut, which renders them palatable to humans. (Cattle are fine munching on whole oats.) They have a wonderful chewy, nutty quality that makes them a beloved hot breakfast cereal. They’re rich in vitamin E, B vitamins, and cholesterol-busting fiber.

Shopping tip: Look for steel-cut oats in the bulk bins at the health-food store, where they’ll be far cheaper than the stuff sold in tins.

Steel-cut oats also have a starchy quality that lends them to risotto. Of course, we typically think of risotto as involving a starchy, medium-grain rice like Arborio or Carnaroli, but it’s a method that you can use to cook other grains and even pasta.

Steel-Cut Oat Risotto with Mushrooms and Peas

Possessed of leftover steel-cut oats, a yen for risotto, and a New Year’s desire to eat more whole grains, I made this dish the other night. If you use fresh mushrooms, skip the soaking step and increase the broth to 3 cups.

1/2 ounce dried mushrooms

2 cups hot water

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup steel-cut oats

1/4 cup vermouth or dry white wine

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

1/4 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese, divided

Salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

  1. Combine mushrooms and water in a medium bowl. Let stand 30 minutes. Drain mushrooms through a fine-mesh sieve over a small saucepan. Add broth to soaking liquid in saucepan; bring a simmer over low heat (do not boil).
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms to pan; saute 2 minutes or until tender. Set aside
  3. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion to pan; cook 2 minutes or until onion is translucent. Add oats; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add vermouth; cook until absorbed, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup broth mixture to oats, stirring constantly until liquid is absorbed. Repeat, adding remaining broth mixture 1/2 cup at a time and stirring after each addition until liquid is absorbed, until oats are tender (you may not need to use all the liquid). Stir in mushrooms, peas, and 3 tablespoons cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with remaining 1 tablespoon cheese. Yield: 4 servings.

Crepe maker


Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Neither my schedule nor my budget has room for a trip to France this summer. So if I want to enjoy my favorite Parisian street food–Nutella crepes–I’ll have to join the (very) long line for Acadie Crepes at the Sunday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market or make them myself. I generally avoid lines, so I was pleased when we covered crepe-making in culinary school last week. 

I’d never made crepes at home, and it’s easy–dumb easy–and fun. If I can do it, you can, too. I turned out a bunch of them for breakfast on Sunday, filled those puppies with Nutella (OK, Ralph’s cheapo house brand of hazelnut-chocolate spread) and sliced banana, and we enjoyed a touch of Gay Pareeeee in Marina del Rey. Hmmm, it went so well that maybe I could buy a catering truck and join LA’s current mobile food truck mania. So, in honor of Bastille Day, here are some crepes:

Nutella-Banana Crepes

You don’t need a dedicated crepe pan for this; any nonstick skillet will do. And use a rubber spatula to turn the crepe. The number of crepes you get depends on the size of the skillet. I used a 10-inch skillet and ended up with 9 (8-inch-ish) crepes. To freeze leftovers: stack cooled crepes between layers of parchment or waxed paper and place in a zip-top plastic bag.

4 ounces all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

1 cup 1% low-fat milk (or any milk is fine)

3/4 ounce butter

Canola oil

Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread)–use a lot, don’t be shy.

Sliced banana

1. Combine the flour, salt, and eggs in a food processor; process until well-combined. With the motor running, add milk through food chute; process until the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream. Strain the batter through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl.

2. Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet; cook until butter until is browned. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Whisk the browned butter into the batter. Cover, and let stand 30 minutes.

3. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Soak a paper towel in canola oil; rub surface of pan with oil-soaked paper towel. Use a small ladle to add 2 to 4 tablespoons batter to pan (just enough to coat the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of batter), swirling the pan to coat. Cook about 2 minutes, or until the edges are brown and the bottom is golden (use a rubber spatula to lift the crepe and peek at the bottom). Flip the crepe; cook another minute or so until the other side is golden. Transfer crepe to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with oil and remaining batter. If crepes cool too much, you can warm them in a low oven.

4. To assemble, spread Nutella (how much depends on how generous you’re feeling) on half of a crepe; top with sliced bananas and fold in half. Garnish with additional Nutella and bananas. Bon appetit!

(Adapted from Professional Cooking, 6th Edition, by Wayne Gisslen.)

My new love: semifreddo


Blueberry Semifreddo: a creamy treat just in time for summer

Blueberry Semifreddo: a cool, creamy treat just in time for the dog days of summer

A Facebook friend has been joking that she’s auditioning candidates for the role of her summer boyfriend. Well, I’ve found mine. He’s smooth, cool, and Italian. His name is Semifreddo. He’s a soft-serve style of ice cream that doesn’t require an ice cream maker, which in my opinion makes him an ideal low-maintenance lover.

Semifreddo requires nothing more than gently cooking some eggs and sugar on the stovetop, combining them with whipped cream and flavorings, and freezing the stuff in a metal tin. The result: A cool, creamy, rich dessert.

These days, I’m all about paring down kitchen tools. I gave away a lot of pans and gadgetry when I moved from Alabama back to Southern California. Not that my mate would believe me, given the amount of kitchen crap squirreled away in drawers and cupboards all over our crib. But, really, you can have too much of a good thing. I just jettisoned the curved torne knife (used to whittle annoying football-shaped vegetable tornes) from my knife kit, since a regular paring knife does the job just as well. Or, at least, not any worse.

Next up, I’m eyeing the ice cream maker attachment I purchased for the KitchenAid stand mixer last year. It works just fine, but I’ve used the thing exactly once. Ever. I’m not even sure I could find the bowl since I’ve moved. And in any case, there’s not really room for it to roost in the freezer, where it needs to chill for at least 12 hours before using it. That would involve moving the vodka, and why would we want to do that?

So on Sunday I was developing recipes for a story and ventured into the world of semifreddo, which requires nothing more than gently cooking some eggs and sugar on the stovetop, combining them with whipped cream and flavorings, and freezing the stuff in a metal tin. The result: A dessert that’s cool, creamy, and rich–just what you want on a summer evening. I’ll post my recipe for Blueberry Semifreddo when it goes live, but in the meantime, you can try Donna Hay’s tasty Raspberry Semifreddo.

Pro baking tricks for home cooks


Whole Wheat Rolls

Whole Wheat Rolls

One of the fun things about culinary school is picking up tips and tricks to share with friends. Last week, I completed week one of the Intro to Baking course, in which we focused on yeast breads. Like so many things, working with yeast doughs is a matter of practice. And, I’ve decided, yeast doughs are divas of the kitchen–yeast ferments and dough rises in its own good time. In a professional kitchen you can do a few things to manipulate the process, like popping dough in a proofing box to speed up fermentation. Ultimately, though, dough is ready when it’s ready.

Yeast doughs are divas of the kitchen.

That said, I picked up a couple of tricks anyone can do at home. 


Plastic wrap and a Sharpie makes it easy to monitor dough as it rises.

Plastic wrap and a Sharpie makes it easy to monitor dough as it rises.

 The first falls under the gee-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that category, and makes it easier to determine if dough as risen enough. When you put kneaded yeast dough into a bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then use a permanent marker to draw a circle the size of the dough. This makes it simple to tell at a glance if the dough has doubled in size. (You also can press two fingers into the dough, and if the indentation remains, it’s ready.)

The second trick is to use a digital thermometer to test the doneness of bread. This is especially helpful for yeast bread, like pullman loaves or brioche, that is baked in pan, since you can’t pick up a baked loaf and tap the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow. Instead, you slip a thermometer into the side of the bread and when it registers 200F, it’s done.

This is a variation of helpful tip I picked up from the instructor from my previous class to determine when fish is done: Slip the tip of a sharp knife into the side of the fish and hold for 5 seconds. If the tip is warm/hot when you remove it, the fish is ready. This worked like a charm every time, and I ended up with fish that was cooked just right and never overcooked.

Culinary school update


Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

I started culinary school this week. It’s exhilarating and exhausting to embark on what my instructor predicts will be “the best seven months of your life that you’ll never want to do again.” It’s five intense hours a day, five days a week, and each day is an opportunity to build on the skills we were taught the previous day. For example, on Tuesday we were introduced to the classic French knife cuts (and sent home with a potato and a carrot to practice) and prepared ratatouille, a dish involving plenty of knife work, on Wednesday.

I’ve been working with food for awhile now, and a friend wondered if maybe I already knew too much to really benefit from culinary school. Not at all. Although I’ve picked up a lot along the way, there are huge gaps in my knowledge and skills. For example, day one answered a question that’s been nagging me for awhile: What’s the difference between stock and broth. The answer: broth is seasoned; stock is not.

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Another insight occurred to me on day two, as I struggled to whittle my first tourneed potato. The tourne cut is the considered the most difficult, as it involves shaping a potato (or other vegetable) into a little football with seven equal sides. Mine resembled misshapen tumors. I am not, by nature, a precise cook. It will be an interesting exercise for me to learn the discipline of French cooking, one that will ultimately improve my results in the kitchen.

Much of culinary school is about practice and repetition, and I’ve already begun to reap the benefits of that. I was able to whittle my homework potato into better tournes–not perfect, certainly, but a far better shape.

There will be good days and frustrating days. Yesterday was a good one, as we prepared braised leeks and ratatouille. We bustled through the preparation, practicing knife cuts, sauteing, braising, and presenting the results–on warmed plates–to the instructor. My leeks were cooked just so, she commented, but the sauce needed a bit more lemon. She examined my ratatouille.

Ratatouille that works

Ratatouille that works

“Good knife cuts,” she noted before taking a bite. She sample a bit and paused to consider the results. “Good seasoning,” she said, giving a thumbs up. “Yes, it’s very good.” 

And as I took my dish to the back of the kitchen to gobble the results–culinary school makes you very hungry–I had to agree. Of course, every dish won’t be a winner, and there are bound to be some duds. But it’s a nice way to start.

Make pasta egg-stra good

This post launches a new, semi-regular feature called “Taste the Place,” which will focus on cuisine to enjoy on the road. The inspiration of new flavors are among the longest-lasting souvenirs you bring home from your travels. This feature may inspire you to take a trip. Or, if your budget doesn’t allow for much travel these days, it’s a way to bring far-flung flavors home.

Park Hyatt Mendoza

Park Hyatt Mendoza

Argentina’s cuisine has been greatly influenced by the Italian immigrants who settled in the country. Boris Davila, chef de cuisine at Grill Q at   the Park Hyatt Mendoza, likes to break an egg over very hot pasta and stir it with a fork for at least five seconds before serving. “The heat will cook the egg, and also add great texture and flavor,” he explains. Think of it as a quick take on traditional pasta carbonara.

Inspired by Davila, I made this pasta last night, using ingredients we had on hand. It’s easy, and the results are luscious.

Argentine-Style Pasta for 2

pastaStirring egg yolks into the hot pasta yields a silky, unctuous dish that makes a nice light dinner with a green salad. Adding a little of the hot cooking water to the yolks prevents them from curdling when added to the pasta. If you want to keep this dish really Argentine, use Reggianito Argentina cheese, the affordable Argentine version of Parmigiano-Reggiano, instead of pecorino Romano.

2 large eggs

6 ounces dry pasta (use any shape you have on hand)

1 ounce pancetta, diced

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) grated pecorino Romano cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Crack eggs and separate yolks from whites; reserve whites for another use. Place yolks in a small bowl; set aside.

2. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente. 

3. While pasta cooks, heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add pancetta, and cook 5 minutes or until crisp. Add peas; cook 3 minutes or until peas are hot; keep warm.

4. When pasta is done, drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water. Return pasta to pan. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons hot cooking water to egg yolks, stirring with a whisk. Add yolk mixture to pasta, stirring to coat pasta. Gradually add cheese, a small handful at time, stirring until cheese melts. Stir in remaining cooking water as needed to achieve a silky texture (pasta should not be watery). Add a generous grinding of pepper. Serve immediately. Yield: 2 servings.

Making dough

The editors at Epicurious must be reading my mind, because I’ve been thinking about bread-baking a lot lately and they just e-mailed me their newsletter with a link to a wonderful online guide to bread basics. How did they know?

Ever since I was a kid and enjoyed the homemade bread baked by my best friend’s mom, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who turned out yeast bread like it was nothing. But, like many, I find the prospect intimidating, from fermenting the living yeast to kneading the dough to proofing. It’s a time-consuming process, not suited to those (like me) who crave instant gratification. I’ve tried baking bread occasionally, but it requires practice if you want to enjoy tasty, consistent results.

But these current economic times have encouraged me to revisit my ambition. You see, bread is a staple of our household. Even during the height of the Atkins anti-carb craze, we never abandoned bread. It’s good for the soul. But we crave artisanal loaves with crunchy crusts and tender interiors, and we’ll go through a pricey ciabatta from the gourmet store in a day or two. That adds up.

So, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and try again. I’ve had some success lately with pizza dough, which makes me more confident about working with yeast. After trolling around the Internet for recipes, I turned to cookbooks and settled on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. Marcella never leads me astray.

Still, as usual I couldn’t resist futzing with the recipe. It calls for a total of 6 1/2 hours of rising time, which works if you start by noon, revisit it at intervals throughout the day, and then bake it for dinner. I was starting at 6:30 p.m. And I had a plan, sort of. Here’s the recipe, with many deviations from Marcella’s sage instructions. Experienced bread bakers, please chime in with any advice you have.

breadcloseupMantovana (Olive Oil) Bread

Adapted from Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Even with a few hiccups, it turned out OK, but practice will make it perfect.

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1/8 teaspoon sugar

1 cup warm water, divided

2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached bread flour (’cause it says it’s “better for bread” right on the label)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil


1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water. Let stand 10 minutes. Place 1 1/2 cups flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. With the motor running, gradually pour the yeast mixture and 1/4 cup warm water through the food chute. Process until dough forms in a lump around the blades. Remove dough from processor, and knead by hand for 1 to 2 minutes. Place the dough in a large bowl dusted with flour; cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place for 3 hours or until it has doubled in bulk.

2. Place 1 cup flour in the bowl of the food processor, add the dough and salt. With the motor running, add the remaining 1/2 cup warm water and oil. Process until the dough forms a lump around the blade, add more of the remaining 1/2 cup flour if needed. Remove the dough from processor, and knead by hand for 1 to 2 minutes. Return the dough to the flour-dusted bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rise in a warm place for another 3 hours or until it has doubled in bulk. [At this point, it was getting late, so I popped the bowl in the refrigerator and went to bed.]

3. Put a baking stone (a k a pizza stone) in the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 F.

4. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a floured work surface. [At this point, it was 6:30 a.m., I woke up, scampered downstairs and removed the dough from the fridge. It was very cold so I let it warm to room temperature. Sort of.] Slap the dough down very hard several times or until it stretches out lengthwise. Starting with the farthest edge, fold the dough 3 or 4 inches toward you, then push it away with the heel of your hand. Continue to fold and push, gradually rolling the dough toward you in a tapered roll. Holding the dough by one of the tapered ends, lift it high over your head and slap it down on the counter (this part is lots of fun); do this several times until it stretches out lengthwise. Repeat the folding-and-pushing maneuver. Continue working the dough–slapping, folding, and pushing–for 8 minutes. [Since my dough was chilly, I had to work it a bit longer.] Shape the dough into a thick, cigar-shaped loaf that’s thick in the middle and tapered at the ends. Place it on a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. Cover with a damp towel, and let it rest 30 minutes.

[I was just about ready to put bread in the oven when my mate toddled into the kitchen, started slicing an (existing) loaf of (fancy, gourmet-store) bread, and sliced his thumb in the process. It needed professional medical attention, so I turned off the oven, left the dough, took him to urgent care, and returned 2 hours later. It looked fine when I returned.]

5. Use a sharp knife to cut a 1-inch-deep lengthwise slash on top of the dough. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the dough with water. Slide the dough onto the preheated baking stone. Bake at 450 F for 12 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 F (do not remove bread from oven), and bake an additional 40 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. Yield: 1 loaf.

[Note: Yes, I have tried Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread recipe, printed in The New York Times a couple of years ago. The dog ate the dough that was proofing on the counter, which could happen anyway, but I’d also rather knead the bread and enjoy it the same day I crave it.]

Easiest pizza crust, ever


Impromptu pizza made with the easiest dough ever.

Impromptu pizza made with the easiest dough ever.

I’ve long aspired to make decent pizza at home, with varying levels of success. The trick for me has been finding a reliable dough. Reliable, as in easy enough for a so-so baker like me to pull together. Either the doughs I’ve tried have been too wet, or too dry, or I haven’t been able to get the right consistency after kneading (like I said, I’m no pro).

Well, I’ve found my grail in the Basic Pizza Dough recipe from the September 2008 issue of Cooking Light. It uses a food processor, which means it comes together quickly, though I’ve kneaded it by hand at least once and it still turned out just right. It rises perfectly and rolls out beautifully.  I’ll whip up the dough,take the dog for a walk while it rises, and then finish the pizza when I get home.

I threw together the pizza pictured above using this dough recipe, plus some leftover Pantry Pasta Sauce, pre-grated mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It baked on a pizza stone (you can pick one up for less than 10 bucks at Wal-Mart) in a 500-degree oven for 9 minutes.

Try it. If it works for me, it’ll work for you.

Resolutions that work, part 4: Plan ahead to eat well


Satisfying, healthy fare takes planning--not a lot, but at least some.

Satisfying, healthy fare takes planning--not a lot, but at least some.

Sometimes you get lucky and you’re able to improvise a tasty, healthy meal. But for the most part, eating well takes at least a little planning.  But life is busy, and it’s all too easy to overlook that key planning step. 

“I’m going to be more dilligent about planning and preparing healthy meals,” says Sara Floor Miller, communications manager for the Dairy Council of California. That’s a goal many of us share.

Planning is also a core tenet of eating cheaply, since it enables you to make use of everything you buy. I attended a seminar at the Culinary Institute of America’s Northern California campus last fall, where Chef Adam Busby  (he’s one of just 62 Certified Master Chefs in the States) discussed the virtues of “planovers.” This is not the same thing as making a massive amount of one recipe and eating the leftovers throughout the week. Instead, it’s  a matter of choosing recipes with similar elements to make your shopping and cooking more efficient. For example, on Wednesday, I made a batch of Pantry Pasta Sauce, which I used on homemade pizza that night and planned to serve over pasta on Friday. When I make roast a pork tenderloin, we’ll enjoy it sliced with veggie and grain sides that night; we’ll have again in quesadillas later in the week.

“Planovers” are not the same thing as making a massive amount of one recipe and eating the leftovers throughout the week. Instead, they’re  a matter of choosing recipes with similar elements so your shopping and cooking are more efficient. 

Here are ways to create your own planovers:

Designate a half-dozen or so dinnertime meals as your go-to recipes. We all have family favorites that we prepare in a more or less formal rotation. The more often you make them, the easier it will be to plan and shop efficiently. You’ll also become more comfortable with substituting different ingredients so you don’t get bored and more confident working in a new recipe every week or so to expand your repertoire. Free, online resources like Meals Matter offer meal planning tools, recipe storage, and shopping lists to make it easy.

Keep the pantry stocked with basics for your favorites. These might include chicken broth, pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, olive oil–whatever you use regularly. That way, you can pull together a good meal on the fly if you need to.

Plan your meals for the week, and create a shopping list. Be sure to check the pantry and fridge to see what you already have on hand so you don’t buy duplicates at the store.

When you’re cooking one night, do work for the next. Stretch prep work by cleaning and chopping extra vegetables for recipes later in the week. You can even cook extra food with little extra effort. Let’s say you’re fixing rice for a side dish. Double the amount, refrigerate the extra, and use it to make stir-fried rice another evening. If you have the grilled fired up, use all the space to cook extra food for another meal. Cooking Light‘s “Grill Once, Eat Twice” guide is a perfect example of this strategy. 

Previous posts in the Resolutions That Work Series:

Fruit of the Day

Pay Attention to What You Eat

Eat Your Greens