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Cooking at Home in 2008:
A Recipe for Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions
By Kirk Leins
Over the next few weeks, countless Americans will assemble their list of resolutions for the New Year. It's safe to say that many of us will choose goals like losing weight, saving money, or spending more time with family and friends. But what if I told you there is an even greater resolution, one that will not only help you to accomplish the aforementioned resolutions, but several others as well?
If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about increasing the number of meals you cook at home. For those of you who've read my articles, watched my videos, or made any of the recipes I've put forth, you are well aware of my passion for cooking and my drive to return the family dinner table to the institution it once was. This article will serve as a guide for doing just that. While I'm inspired to lay the plan, my real hope is that after reading this article, you'll be inspired to make cooking at home one of your New Year's resolutions.
That being said, I think the first area we need to focus on is the kitchen itself. If you think I'm going to suggest that you call a contractor for a quote, don't worry, you're wrong. As long as your kitchen's major appliances (i.e., oven, stovetop, refrigerator, etc.) are in decent working order, you'll be fine. I've cooked in some fabulous kitchens as well as more rudimentary ones. You'll be happy to know that the food always comes out the same.
What I will suggest, however, is that you familiarize yourself with some of the "stuff" that is going to make your life a lot easier. Over the course of the past two years, I have written a series of articles for YOU Magazine entitled, "Building the Perfect Kitchen". Each article tackles the various categories of said "stuff" - knives and cutting boards, pots and pans, small gadgets, and electronics.
The articles are written with both cost and applicability in mind, as I offer suggestions that will fit your budget as well as your specific needs. The goal of the series was not to create a professional kitchen, but rather a highly practical home kitchen instead. If you feel that your kitchen is not up to snuff, or if you're intimidated by the idea of building the "perfect kitchen", I beg you to read these articles. Utilizing just a few of my suggestions will make a big difference.
The following is a list of some of my favorite pantry staples. It's not important that you purchase everything at once. Rather, make it a point to pick up one or two of these items every week. Your pantry will be transformed in no time at all.
Assorted Oils and Vinegars
Assorted Dried Pasta and Rice
Canned Tomatoes (from San Marzano)
Canned Tuna (packed in olive oil)
Sundried Tomatoes (Dried)
Porcini Mushrooms (Dried)
Canned Beans (Cannellini, Garbanzo, Kidney, Black, and Pinto)
Panko Bread Crumbs
Assorted Sauces and Condiments
Assorted Dried Herbs and Spices
For me, shopping for fresh ingredients means stopping off at my local market every evening after work. I know what you're saying. Going to the store that often is crazy, and it requires more time than should ever be spent procuring groceries. The reality is that I pick up only a handful of products during my weekday visits, so my time inside the market is kept to a minimum. Besides, you don't need to go to the store every day. I do so because it is a convenient stop, and it's something I really enjoy. It actually serves as a place where I can decompress after work. Shopping on a daily basis also provides me flexibility in terms of what I make for dinner each night.
My frequent visits to the local grocery have some additional perks as well. Not only do I know the vast majority of the store employees by name, but they also know me, and my 3-year old son, Rocco. Aside from the friendly conversations this familiarity provides, I never have a problem asking for something I need. From special orders to requests for specific butchering or fresher produce, I have a contact in every aisle of the store.
When cooking for just yourself, or for one other person, don't stress out about the grocery shopping. I hear this concern all the time, and I have to tell you it's a real "head scratcher". There are several options available when it comes to shopping for just one or two people.
One option is to purchase enough meat and produce to feed four people. Prepare your meals in larger amounts, and utilize the leftovers a day or two later. Option two is to prepare the meal for two people and utilize the unused ingredients later on in the week, or, in the case of meat, freeze it for use down the road. Option three is to approach the appropriate clerk and ask them to sell you a smaller portion of an ingredient. I've had butchers re-portion packages of chicken breasts, and I've had produce clerks sell me a half of a head of cabbage. You'll be surprised at what these folks can do for you.
For starters, work smart. Do all of your prep work (chopping, slicing, grating, etc.) first and then cook. For inexperienced cooks, prepping and cooking at the same time can lead to either mistakes or accidents. Speaking of prep work, keep yourself in close proximity to a sink and a trash can. Doing so makes it easier to keep your workstation clean and organized.
Prior to cooking, think through the individual steps, taking note of any potential obstacles. During the cooking process, stay present and focused. If things go awry, remain calm and think your way out of it. Mistakes are part of the learning process and, when handled correctly, only serve to make you a better chef. Don't be afraid to jot down notes regarding both your successes and failures.
Enough with the chit chat, it's time to get cooking. Your first easy recipe is a classic dish hailing from Naples, Italy known as Linguini Puttanesca. There is a rather risqué story behind its invention, so for now let's just say that it's absolutely delicious and a must try.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over a medium flame. Add chopped anchovy, and sauté until anchovy dissolves into the oil. Add garlic, and sauté for an additional minute. Add tomatoes (along with juices), olives, capers, crushed red pepper, and season with salt and black pepper. Allow sauce to simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook linguini to an al dente consistency. Add reserved water to the sauce, and stir well. Add the chopped parsley, and toss with the drained pasta, along with an extra drizzle of olive oil. Serve in pasta bowls topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The next dish is a German classic and a favorite from my childhood. Trust me when I say that your family is going to love this.
Königsberger Klöpse (Meatballs in a white wine sauce)
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and mix thoroughly with your hands. If the mixture is too moist, add the extra bread crumbs. Roll out golf ball-sized meatballs (approximately 12), and reserve on a plate. In a large saucepot, heat the beef stock until boiling. Add meatballs to stock, and simmer gently (uncovered) for 10 minutes. Remove meatballs and transfer back to the plate. Add white wine and lemon juice to the stock, and reserve in a large measuring cup or pitcher. Over a medium-low flame, melt butter in the large saucepot used for cooking the meatballs. Add flour and, using a metal whisk, stir until it becomes a thick paste. Allow the roux to cook for a minute or so, continually whisking. Remove pot from flame, and add a cup or so of the seasoned stock, continually whisking. Return pot to stove and gradually add remaining liquid. Allow mixture to simmer for five to ten minutes or until it slightly thickens. Add capers, and season with salt and pepper. Add meatballs and simmer for an additional five minutes.
Note: This meal is at its best when served in shallow bowls; meatballs ladled with sauce and served alongside a healthy portion of steamed white rice. Garnish with chopped parsley.
So there's the plan. The only thing left is for you to execute it. Don't be afraid of preparing your weeknight dinners at home. Instead, embrace it as an opportunity to better your home. The worst-case scenario is that you eat a great dinner.
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at EGcuisine@gmail.com.
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