Home cooking advice?

soup stock

Our talk about the perils of added sugar this past week has reinforced to me how very important it is to cook at home, from scratch. It’s important for so many reasons, and big reasons, too. To name just a few, it’s good for our health, it’s good for the environment, it makes us civilized, it teaches kids what real food tastes like, it reinforces cultural traditions and forges bonds between family and friends.

Sometimes, though, it can seem hard to come up with a meal every night. It’s particularly daunting if you don’t have any experience in home cooking, and if you weren’t raised watching people cook. I was not, myself, so I had to figure stuff out as I went along.

These are a few things I’ve figured out. I hope you all will add any advice or tips you have in the comments, to help other people along on their journey into cookery.

1) Simple is good.  Despite all those over-the-top cooking shows they put on TV, good food can be very basic. A pot of soup and a hunk of bread. Done. Fiddlesticks to side dishes, much less courses.

2) Always make double batches if you can, then either freeze the other half for an easy meal down the road, or eat the leftovers for lunch, breakfast, dinner.

3) Shop with a list. Plan your meals for the week. It doesn’t have to be a tight plan, but maybe just a list of 5 main dishes you will make that week, and the ingredients you’ll need for them, along with the “usual suspect” types of food that you keep on hand for breakfast and lunch.  It really helps. Not just with organization, but also because it helps you set your intention to cook. This wakens your inner cook.

4) For bonus points on your weekly planning, consider how ingredients from one meal might transfer to another, and save you effort. Say you’re going to be making soup stock for something (or something you’re making will yield soup stock) — what else can you make which will use the rest of that soup stock? Same for cooking up a pot of beans, or a chicken, or a loaf of bread. Same goes for opening a jar of olives or splurging on a hunk of good cheese. Multitask those ingredients.

5) Pick a cooking style and try to stick with it. Some may disagree with this vehemently, but  I’ve decided that I can’t competently cook all of the world’s cuisines, nor can I maintain a pantry which will allow me to cook out of any cookbook a moment’s notice.

I’m lucky to have access to foods from all over the world, and have learned to love those flavors, but it’s not so good for my kitchen organization.  I’m sure my great-grandmother never stood staring at a shelf of cookbooks from ten different countries when she was trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

In short, to make my life simple, I’ve chosen to limit my home cooking palette.

I can go out and eat pad thai, waffles, bouillabaisse, sushi, pupusas, bahn mi, chile rellenos, dim sum, extravagant desserts….whatever.

At home now, I’m only cooking Italian and Middle-Eastern foods. (Of course there are many different Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines and cooking traditions, but these broad labels are enough for now.) I am neither Italian nor Middle Eastern–my native regional dish would be a steak with a corncob on the side–but I live in a Mediterranean climate, and the vegetables and herbs and fruits used in these cuisines thrive in my yard, and are easy to buy locally. This food just makes sense here. And we like it.

If I limit my choices like this, my pantry becomes functional. I use everything in it. Nothing goes to waste. Everything matches. It’s like a well organized clothes closet or a professional color palette. The flavors harmonize. The basic ingredients were meant to be together, so it’s easy to look at what’s in my fridge or on the shelf and pull something together without confusion or emergency trips to the store. Meals just happen. The tomatoes want to be with garlic and the chickpeas and the eggplants. They all get along. My spice shelf is starting to make sense.

Leftovers harmonize under this system. If we have a supper of leftovers, instead of the table resembling a low-end Las Vegas buffet at about 3 AM, I can just put everything I’ve got on hand in little bowls and announce, “Meze!”  It’s very impressive.

I like this simplicity thing so much, I’m considering booting the Italian food so that I’m only working with one palette. I love Italian food, and there’s plenty of crossover in ingredients with Middle Eastern food– but I love even more the thought of a perfectly streamlined, specialized pantry.

(I’m imagining some of you might be saying here, “What about the homemade tortillas you’ve been making? What about all that sourdough bread? That’s not Middle Eastern.”  Part of the answer is that the wonder of tortillas is that they’ll wrap around anything.  And another part of the answer is that we’re pretty freeform about what we eat for breakfast and lunch.

What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started cooking dinners from scratch?

trout and beans

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30 Comments

  1. I wish I had started embracing the crockpot sooner than I did. Soups, stews, beans, one-pot meals, it’s all so easy. 15 to 20 minutes of prep in the morning and I’ve got dinner for that night, leftovers to freeze for a handful of lunches, and possibly even the base of another meal later than week.

  2. A crockpot and/or a good cast iron dutch oven are your friends. They can handle everything from briskets to whole chickens to stews to baking (and my crockpot also happens to have a rice cooking mode to boot). These things are the basis for lots of my simple meals.

    Generally-speaking, good, but simple cooking tools are key.

    Spice/herb wise, fresher makes a HUGE difference in how meals taste. Whatever you can’t get/grow fresh, buy in bulk directly from a high quality herb supplier (and split with friends). It’s cheaper than buying from the grocery store and the quality is sooooo much better. Along the same lines, buy herbs in as whole a form as you can get them eg – buy whole cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cumin seeds, peppercorns etc – and grind/grate fresh. Powdered herbs degenerate/lose their oomph a lot more quickly.

  3. This was a pleasant article. I like how you take a practical approach rather than theoretical (this is why I like Ben Falk from Whole Systems Design, his approach to permaculture goes against the theoretical grain as well but it’s practical and based on experience).

    What would you say is a cooking style for the northeast? I live in PA and unfortunately we don’t have the range of veggies you do in CA. I know I can find specific dishes for the stuff we produce, but can you think of a name for a “cooking style” so that I could look more into that?

    • Hmmm…this is not my area of expertise! But I’d figure that in places with shorter growing seasons, you’d depend more on long-storing root vegetables, ferments and cured meats. I’d look into northern European food — for instance, I have a friend from Alsace, and have visited there. Wonderful food. Lots of sauerkraut! Also, Scandanavian food is very hip right now. But I’d also look around locally there in PA for inspiration.

  4. Hi! Love your website! Have to delurk to share. In Belgium, people have teeny fridges so we can shop for the day, maybe two at most. We tend to eat fresher food with less preservatives, which is nice. And I think it’s healthier to eat a variety of foods rather than revisit your leftover stew, say, for a week. But I am a transplanted American and I miss all those exotic foods you listed! So I’ve had to learn to make them myself. In the process, I’ve met like-minded people with truly diverse cookbooks. One such was on “what simple foods do poor people all over the world eat?” I think you’d be surprised how many meals people can make with (by our standards) not much, certainly less than you have in your pantry. So I wanted to cheer you on to keep broadening your horizons. It’s fun, or at least I think it is?! Insert shrug with awkward smile here.

  5. So my wife lived in London for awhile with a teeny fridge and got into a habit of getting fresh groceries everyday. Then we lived in Kenya with a 50 week growing season and had lots of truly fresh vegetables everyday and then moved to DC where our winter this last year was bleak.
    I agree with cooking one palette when you are stock but also say feel free to change up the palette.
    We eat Indian food for a week, then Thai, then tex-mex, then whatever.
    It is pretty amazing that you can make a lot of different types of food with some of the same few spices (cumin and coriander for example go in indian, thai, and tex mex really easily.)

    Starting out I wish someone would have told me to find a good bulk spice and herb place and told me it is ok to buy spices a couple tablespoons at a time. I now know what I like and I can buy big things at a time, but then I thought that fresh ginger and dried ginger were inter-changable (anyone who tells you they are has never tasted fresh ginger) and now I have a 5 year old bottle of ginger that I only use for baking.

    Learn techniques and then everything is really just an adaptation.

    • Sorry one other comment,
      buy a decent knife and keep it sharp. Also keep an old not sharp knife around that you occasionally pick up to appreciate how much better your sharp knife works and that you should really keep it sharp.

  6. Whenever anyone asks me this advice I have four points.

    First, I commend to you “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler. It’s an amazing book, luscious and practical and beautiful.

    Second, build a structure around which you have flexibility. You’ve already done this to some extent by choosing just one or two cuisines. Take it a step further. This is how I do it: On Mondays, soup and bread. On Tuesday, beans and grains. On Wed., pasta. On Thursday, I make eggs (which are a good place to use leftovers). I roast a whole chicken on Fridays and save the carcass for Monday’s soup. Saturday is eat-out day. Sunday is slow cooker freeze-for-later day.

    That way, I don’t have to think “What do I want for dinner?” I think “What SOUP do I want for dinner?” Within that I can be infinitely flexible — the asparagus looks really lovely at the farmer’s market this week, we can have asparagus soup!

    Third, and this may be obvious but skip any recipes or books or shows where the prettiness is more important than the taste. Choose your cookbooks wisely.

    Fourth, remember that cooking is a complex, subtle, and deep art. Many people spend decades of their lives learning how to manage a dynamic kitchen. Just because it’s an everyday need doesn’t make it easy or simple. This is a skill like any other and that it take work, time, and effort. Read books. Take classes. Hang out with other cooks and talk about cooking! I’ve spent 20 years learning the ins and outs of my own kitchen. I make everything from scratch — my own bread, my own stock, and my own condiments — but there is still so much to learn!

  7. I hate to think of you losing Italian food from the line-up. I once read someone describe the Italian food of her youth as being a cuisine born ‘of poverty and the sun’. There is a lot you can do with Italian, from scratch, and pretty cheaply, especially if you make your own pasta from backyard eggs, and then round out sauces from ingredients from your garden. One of our favorites is pasta with bacon, garlic, red pepper flakes and kale, finished with olive oil and grated romano.

    Learn some culinary skills from which you can make a bunch of different things: learn how to make a perfect pie crust so you can make pie, quiche, pot pies, and the like. Learn how to make a roux in its various stages of doneness- from pale roux you can make bechamel sauce, lighter gravies, chou paste for cream puff, eclairs, beignets and crullers, and from darker roux you can make darker gravies and gumbo.

    I’ve also heard that Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Anything is a great book for beginners as well.

  8. Growing your own veggies and herbs is the best way to figure out how to cook, but of course we all can’t do that…however, herbs most people can grow…and then making your own veggie and chicken stock once a week always allows you to a lot of flexibility and healthy- from-scratch cooking. I used to watch the PBS cooking shows for techniques and inspiration, and then read all those cookbooks you buy (and then use just a couple of recipes from!)

    • Yes! High quality soup stock is a key thing. I make some, but also buy some from our local grassfed guy. always have a container or two of that in the freezer. Add whatever veggies, some key spices, beans or grains if you like, meat or other protein if you like and instant hearty meal. I also use it when cooking rice to boost up the nutrient content and/or for making a congee. And just plain is handy to have on hand if someone is sick and needs the easy nutritious liquid.

  9. I second the ‘have a schedule’ idea. For example, last night was chicken night in our house — so we knew at our last grocery run to get chicken, and when it came time to cook, there were a few recipes that we regularly make to choose between, rather than an infinity of possibilities. Much less brainpower wasted trying to come up with each meal.

  10. I grew up watching my parents cook from scratch, using no recipes. Some of Daddy’s creations were mysterious and scary. Every meal had meat, beans, and gravy and potatoes. That pot of beans would last a week! There were other vegetables, fresh and delicious.

    Now, my chicken is not fried. The potatoes are not the same and on the table fewer times. Gravy is practically non-existent. We ate much differently if Daddy were not present at the meal.

    For 50-years, I have cooked mostly without recipes. Spices are too much trouble. Fresh celery, fresh bell pepper, fresh onions, and garlic season most anything. I rarely use salt; pepper makes me sneeze too much. I hold my breath, use pepper and run from the kitchen!Okay, I sometimes freeze all of my vegetables used for flavor. Now, I dehydrate. I have a bag of Vidalia onions bought on sale ready to dehydrate right now.

    Your post was a comforting post. Sometimes, I feel a bit stressed when I see “menus for the month” blog posts with recipes included. I can go into my kitchen and cook a good meal anytime I want without a trip to the store for anything about 99% of the time because I just buy food I like and cook it during the week.

    When there was a family here with three young children, I was limited by husband and child palates. He was from NY and declared corn on the cob as food for pigs and blackeyed peas and cornbread as only for poor people. Hotdogs and cookies and chocolate milk were his idea of a meal. No, not on the menu.

    This small town has no opportunities for any exotic experimentation in the form of restaurants. In much of the South, Southern food prepared very well is often the fare most sought out.

    By the way, I love Italian food.

  11. 1. I agree with the other commenters crockpots are awesome. Plus they don’t heat your house up in the summer.

    2. Freezing is great. Keep that freezer stocked with leftovers and well labelled. Package leftovers in a serving size appropriate for a meal for both of you. Make sure to pull stuff out of the freezer and into the fridge to defrost on a regular basis so you aren’t stuck with a case of the hangries when your dinner is still a lump of ice.

    3. Don’t be afraid to try new things… just do it in moderation. I usually try one new recipe per week, usually on the weekends. If it doesn’t work out, feed it to the chickens and nuke some leftovers. If it does work out, it can help keep you from feeling burned out about eating at home all the time.

    4. Indian food can be really easy if you buy pre-made spice mixes. I’m pretty sure you’ll have an Indian grocery store near you in LA. Where I’m at, I can buy a 1 lb bag of garam masala or curry powedr for $4-5 and it lasts forever. These make simple meals, just add lentils or chickpeas and some onions and other veggies. I think it would fit in with y’alls lifestyle pretty well. (Bonus, the Indian grocery store has staples like cumin and ginger for $2.50-$3/lb so you can stock your kitchen for super cheap.)

    5. If you keep masa around, you can make awesome casseroles with it. Follow the directions as if you are making tamales, but instead of rolling them up individually, mix beans and veggies in altogether, stir it up, and put it in a casserole dish in the oven for 30-45 min. This is super good topped with a little salsa or guac and you can cut and it and freeze it really well.

  12. (1) Make your peace with leftovers. A healthy dish that tastes good when reheated is a night where you don’t have to cook. Soups, stews, dal…
    (2) Last night’s main dish is tonight’s side dish. A progression with complementary dishes allows for more variety every night. And variety goes a long ways towards staving off boredom and the urge to ‘cheat’ by going out/ordering a foodbomb (pizza).
    (3) Simple side dishes! I love variety in a meal. Side dishes provide contrast and complement in textures and tastes. It’s one I really appreciate about japanese cuisine, even though I mostly apply this to other cuisines. So cut up some fresh vegetables. Cucumbers, carrots, radishes, whatever. Maybe dip them in yogurt. Eat some fresh fruit, too. Have some kind of pickles… This helps make the meal feel gourmet without much effort, and staves off the one-dish blues.

    • I am totally with you on the little side dishes of pickles, radishes, fruit, etc. I modify my statement banning side dishes! ;) This is different, though, because these sides tend to be things already in existence, as opposed to things you have to cook up that night.

  13. Thanks for this post–I agree that it’s very comforting. I’m a lifelong cook whose mother was a passionnate and skilled cook. But even she believed in the value of “peasant food”: the recognition (shared by Rick Bayless, whose cookbooks are also worth reading for anyone interested in Mexican food) that peasants all over the world eat simply, in season, often but not completely vegetarian. Bayless advocates that these simple rotations rest in balance with the “feast” days that are also traditional in every culture; where you break out of the rut, cook fancy, rich food shared with other people. So this is our routine too.

    I love your description of choosing palettes to keep things simple. This has happened to me by default, the more I keep and eat from my homestead. We’ve half-subconsciously defaulted to English (pot roasts, casseroles, salads, roast chickens, hot and cold sandwiches, etc), Mediterranean, and a little Mexican (rice and beans! home-canned salsas, etc). These are the cuisines that fit our climate and what grows here, as well as our comfort-zone palettes. For day-in, day-out cooking, this means that the meals are filling and tasty, uncomplicated, and require little brain power from us to either make or eat. They are also meals that either me OR my husband can cook, which is important for our busy and sometimes unpredictable schedules. If I (the main cook) get hung up somewhere, I can always say, “I was thinking pasta tonight”, and DH can carry that through.

    We don’t really meal plan, but I always have a good idea of what’s in the garden and pantry (and I’m throwing out old jars of spices–I use so few these days!) and I match those with basic rotations. We do a roast (pork-from a friend’s farm-or chicken-from ours) every couple of weeks, with leftovers in meals for the following days. The in-between weeks we have salmon, crab, and tuna (local) in the freezer, eggs (ours), and beans. These get rotated with pastas, soups (in the winter), and the occasional stir-fry. Add salads, roasted vegetables, sauteed vegetables, and a fruit dessert every couple of weeks, and there’s ample variety as well as leftovers for lunches. We never feel deprived, and our grocery bills are going steadily down. Every couple of months, when we’re in a big city, we gorge on an Indian buffet or Thai feast out, and then are very satisfied to come home to our simple, fresh food.

    Thanks for this post; it’s so nice to have a little pep talk!

  14. Great ideas and article.

    I would also encourage people trying to live within a budget to give themselves occasional treats and make the most of your high dollar foods – meats and cheeses. If you can buy meat directly from a farmer who uses natural (I hate the misuse of that term) and sustainable practices your meat will taste even better. Don’t buy the preshredded/sliced cheese in the megamarket. Go to a cheese shop and check out their odd and ends bin. Ask for samples to find what you like and then buy a moderate amount that will cover your needs. Cheese shops can also be a source for very affordable gourmet sandwiches using ingredients that you might not have on hand.

    I like the recurring trend in the comments on finding out what is consumed on a regular basis in other cultures. I have developed a love of lentils in the last few years and often can eat a meal of lentils with no meat and be very happy.

  15. Loved your #1 suggestion: Simple is good.

    As for what I wished I knew earlier that I’ve learned–prepping vegetables a day in advance. It could be onions, carrots, whatever, but it makes the actual cooking more enjoyable and less stressful.

    Another thought: cooking for kids can sometimes be complicated–they don’t always like those ‘simple’ meals that adults seem to enjoy.

  16. Enjoyed this post and the comments. I am a single person who has a fairly limited budget, I am very good at food and the following are things I do on a regular basis.
    Like others – I love my crockpot. I make stock, freeze it and so always have a base for soup.
    Grow my own veg, buy and freeze cheap seasonal, make pickles and jam in small usable lots so I can have a jar and gift a jar.
    Make my own yoghurt, make dough in the bread maker and then cook in the oven.
    I have a go-to spiced vegie stew that my guests can’t get enough of.
    I make a little meat go a long way.
    If I have some extra money I buy treats like fish – smoked salmon is my favourite!
    I always have fresh fruit.
    Happy and healthy!!

  17. Knife skills! Not hard to acquire, and practice leads to rapid improvement. Cooking with fresh ingredients is so much easier with a sharp knife wielded properly.
    I also love my crockpot (have a chicken carcass in it right now, slow cooking its way into stock). I do a full week of menu planning every week, but try to have some things stashed in the pantry and freezer that will give me flexibility if the schedule changes.

  18. Great post. I read you blog all the time, but very rarely comment. I thought since it seems most of your responders don’t have kids, I would chime in this time. I also aim for simple and schedule a week of meals at a time. Scheduling and then making sure you have everything for that schedule is so important. Then when you come home from a busy day with hungry kids, you don’t have to think about it. But simple with kids can be tough as another poster wrote. I aim for simple meals that can be broken up while cooking to please everyone. So if I am making rice and beans with roasted veggies, I will have at least one vegetable on hand that each kid likes, roast them all together and they can pick out the ones they will eat. One kid likes beans one doesn’t, but they can sort out their own meals. Rice with cheese sprinkled on top works for one, rice and beans mixed together, no cheese for the other. Then my husband and I will make bowls with the rice, beans and veggies stacked together with salsa or guac and cheese on top. simple and everyone is happy. The same can be done with pasta dishes, etc.

  19. As a mom with three kids, I’m always trying to think three days ahead. I make my own instant oatmeal, make ahead and freeze pancakes, waffles,and French toast. There is a spaghetti night, and if I have a chicken carcass, it becomes soup or stock. All leftovers have a new life in another dish, and as many have said before I couldn’t live without my crockpot. I grew up eating simple food, and as we have cut out the processed and dyed food I find we are all enjoying eating more. Also to get on my own soapbox.,turn off your Tv phone etc and eat together! To stuff down delicious food then run is a shame, in my humble opinion. Rant over :)

  20. I buy cookbooks, I toss/giveaway cookbooks. Just can’t seem to work with them. I do cook. 3 meals a day on weekends, 2 on weekdays. Our main meal is at noon, even though we are working. DH is fussy as any 3 year old. He examines his food carefully before eating; each and every mouthful. He does not like certain combinations strictly on principle. He must have potatoes at least 5 times a week, more often is better. Before I started cooking at home I never considered how much of a struggle it can become. after 29 years of pretty much doing all the planning, thinking, cooking, deciding (lets see 29 years x 50 weeks – we do eat out a couple of times a month – 7 days a week, 2 meals/day = approximately 20,300 meals) I’m so done with food prep! But what is the alternative?

  21. When we first got serious about home cooking, we recorded our meals on a calendar we printed out as we were planning them for the week. Now we can flip back through and see what we were eating this time last year, or the year before, or so on. We tend to cook a very diverse slate, so it’s great to have a record of all the great things we’ve made. It also helps us cook more seasonally.

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  24. I’m an American living over in The Netherlands the whole concept of having to shop each day for one’s food drove me bonkers. The stores are cramped,the shelves are empty by mid afternoon and one can only eat so making Indonesian based meals..haha I went to a kitchen store and bought an American based fridge so that I could do what I do best..cook and bake from scratch and freeze as much as I could.

    I am a list maker and plan our meals each week. We have a very small food budget and planning things out is a must. We eat all sorts of different things though..stir fry one night,burritos the nest,finally learned how to make seitan so we are eating that a lot. I bake all of our breads and things so sometimes it’s fresh bread and a salad. I have stepped away from the need to have a chunk of meat with potatoes and a veg. We eat simple from scratch meals.

    I wish I would have learned to scratch cook earlier on. It wasn’t until I left the U.S. that I really started learning..and I dropped 142 pounds in two years from all the biking and eating non processed food. I have learned a ton since moving here. I’m heading home again with all my new bread baking and cooking skills and hope to stay clear of the grocery store as much as possible!

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