Thursday, January 31, 2008

Busy Mom Cooks: Top 5 Ingredients for Easier & More Delicious Meals

  • Coarse Kosher Salt
  • Slow-cooker
  • Mini Food Processor
  • Wines for Cooking
  • An Open Mind

Busy Moms, whether you enjoy cooking or not, you're probably doing it for your family. So why not make the food taste better, and the process easier on yourself? You don't need two hours in the kitchen to prepare a good meal.

When people ask me, "how did you get to be such a good cook?" I tell them, "I know how to read". Cooking is not hard, if you just follow the directions carefully. And being a good cook doesn't have to mean complex instructions or top shelf gourmet ingredients, either. A few, simple ingredients, a few minutes to prepare, and you can have a delicious meal on the table that will make your family happy. I've been practicing for many years, so some things come naturally for me. But they can for you, too, if you allow it.

If you don't have them already, I challenge you to add these few things in your kitchen, and you're on your way to chefhood.

Coarse Kosher Salt. I'm not sure where I picked up this tidbit (Sara Moulton, celebrity chef perhaps?), but it was the best cooking advice I think I ever got. She said [paraphrase]

"If you change only one thing about your cooking, it should be the salt."
Coarse salt brings out the best in the flavors of your food. Use it just as you would table salt for any recipes. Do this for a week, and I want to hear from you if you don't notice a difference in how your food tastes! Most supermarkets now carry it. Or you can get it here This one will last a long time. I like to keep mine in an old fashioned salt container on my counter (you remember, the ones with the wooden lids) so I can just reach my hand in and grab a pinch, handful, whatever. The only time you wouldn't use this salt, "of coarse", is at tableside :) Oh! and this suggestion goes for black peppercorns, as well. Get yourself a good pepper grinder and keep it near the cooktop along with the kosher salt.

Slow Cooker. This is just a fancy name for what our moms called the crockpot, but I guess the foodie Gods felt we needed to reinvent the name - for fear of being considered outdated by using one. Get it! There's only one dish to clean up, and stuff can sit in there for hours without you having to worry about overcooking or starting the house on fire. Before the kids, I was kind of a crockpot snob - but now, its my saving grace. This is the one I have. Its cute for entertaining and doesn't look like its from a garage sale, works great - not too pricey and excellent for parties.

Wine for Cooking. You'll notice I didn't say "cooking wine". Whomever concocted that atrocity was probably not the greatest cook. You're better off substituting broth, it tastes better. Seriously? Even if you've sworn off alcohol, using wine in your cooking will enhance the recipes tremendously by adding a woody, fruity depth you can't get elsewhere. If you are concerned about the kids or allergies to alcohol, no worries - in cooking, at a low boil, the alchohol burns off usually within the first three minutes.

You don't have to have a wine cellar - just pick up a four-pack of individual bottles that your supermarket now carries. They're suitable enough for cooking and you won't waste much, if any, leftover wine - since the bottles are so small. That being said, remember that the flavor left after the alcohol cooks out will remain - so the better the wine, the better the food will taste. Many a great chef have been known to nip at a glass of wine during cooking, so if there's leftover, I'm sure you can find a use for it ;)

Mini-food Processor - I like the Cuisinart Mini-Prep Plus. I have a bigger one for big jobs, but this one sits on my counter to be used almost daily for chopping garlic, onions, vegetables, nuts for recipes, making breadcrumbs, "shredding" fresh parmesan, you name it. It doesn't take up much space at all, and I swear it cuts down about 10 minutes of prep time almost every recipe. The key to making this a snap to use - give the reservior a quick hand washing immediately after use so it's ready for the next job. It won't do you any good sitting in the dishwasher for three days.

An Open Mind. My children eat almost (of course exceptions) everything put in front of them. Mainly, it's because I never assume they won't like something. Just because I didn't when I was 2 or3, doesn't mean they won't. Present your children's food with a positive attitude. Let them know it's okay if they don't like something, but don't give up after two times. Just keep putting experimental things in front of them. Set a good example, and try new things yourself. Food has come a long way in our culture in the last 10 years or so - and lima beans are not the same when they're cooked down, pureed with olive oil, and seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon juice and parmesan cheese (they're delicious, try it!) I never even saw asparagus until I was an adult at 27, because my mother just thought all kids hated it. Its now one of my favorite veggies.

Listen, I'm not above throwing a few canned goods into a crockpot for a quick meal occasionally - as you'll see in my realistic weekly menus at the One Stop Mommy But what you'll also see there, is a few recipes that incorporate fresh, new & interesting ingredients that you might not think of as typical family food. Using the five ingredients above is a great way to add time and confidence back into your kitchen!


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