YOU Magazine - January 2008 - Cooking at Home in 2008: A Recipe for Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions By Kirk Leins
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Cooking at Home in 2008:
A Recipe for Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions
By Kirk Leins

Cooking at Home in 2008: - A Recipe for  Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions - By Kirk Leins

Part I: Chop Chop

Part II: Pots and Pans

Part III: Gadgets and Utensils

Part IV: Electronics

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.

Your Kitchen
The key with any resolution is to ensure that you set yourself up for success. Anything else will only result in frustration and the eventual abandonment of the goal. While this theory also applies to cooking, it's not to say that there won't be a learning curve. I've been cooking for nearly 30 years, and I swear to you that I learn something new every time I step into the kitchen.

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.

Your Pantry
Now that your kitchen equipment is in order, it's time to concentrate on stocking the proper ingredients. There is no better place to begin than your pantry. Canned and dried goods are extremely useful because they allow you to create meals using ingredients that are already in your home.

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
Nothing spices up your everyday salad like the use of different vinegars and/or oils in the dressing. Both of these ingredients can also be used for drizzling atop various other dishes. By including olive oil on risotto or poached eggs, or pouring a little malt vinegar into a pot of lentil soup or stewed greens, you will transform them into something special.

Assorted Dried Pasta and Rice
These starches serve as the backbone for many different meals. You can probably imagine their infinite uses, as well as the positive effect they'll have on your pantry.

Canned Stock
This product has improved significantly in recent years. It can be used as a base for anything from a soup or stew, to a delicious sauce or gravy.

Canned Tomatoes (from San Marzano)
Accept no substitute – tomatoes grown in the San Marzano region of Italy are simply unmatched. Whole or chopped, these tomatoes can be used in soups, stews, and a myriad of pasta dishes.

Canned Tuna (packed in olive oil)
Try to buy an Italian brand like Tohno. The taste of this tuna is superior to that of the tuna packed in water. It can be used for Salad Nicoise, tuna sandwiches, and a killer sauce for pasta (simply toss flaked tuna into warm penne, along with capers, cherry tomatoes (halved), parsley, olive oil, crushed red pepper, and salt and pepper).

Kalamata Olives
These can be used for Greek salads, Moroccan stews, and a quick Tapenade spread for toasted crostini.

Sundried Tomatoes (Dried)
Reconstituted in warm water, they're an awesome ingredient for pizzas and omelets.

Porcini Mushrooms (Dried)
With an incredibly intense mushroom flavor, dried porcinis (reconstituted) can be used in any dish that features cooked mushrooms. Be sure to save the broth that will be left behind after reconstituting them. This mushroom-flavored water can be added to almost any soup, stew, or pasta sauce for a boost of earthy flavor.

Canned Beans (Cannellini, Garbanzo, Kidney, Black, and Pinto)
While dried beans are always preferred, canned beans are great in a pinch.

Anchovy Filets
They are a must for my Linguini Putanesca (see below) as well as Caesar Salad.

Canned Chipotle Chilis (Packed in Adobo Sauce)
These are red jalapenos that have been dried and smoked. They are then canned in adobo – a spicy Mexican barbecue sauce. Chipotle chili is great for marinades, salsas, and even chopped and folded into scrambled eggs. But go lightly, they're spicy!

Panko Bread Crumbs
Panko is a Japanese bread crumb that's lighter and crispier than its American counterpart. Everything tastes good when it's breaded in panko and fried in a pan, especially chicken tenders. Panko can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets.

Peanut Butter
It is a necessity for Thai satays and dressings. Besides, who doesn't love the occasional PB&J? Here's a quick tip – put your PB&J in the microwave for about 15 seconds, and eat it warm. And yes, this ingredient will end up in the fridge after it's been opened.

Found in the baking aisle of your local supermarket, Wondra is extra-fine flour used for thickening gravy. It's also perfect for dredging meats and fish before frying.

Assorted Sauces and Condiments
Hot sauces, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, the list goes on. The bottom line is that products like these are great to keep on hand. They add a last minute zing to countless dishes.

Assorted Dried Herbs and Spices
Having one drawer or shelf dedicated to nothing but dried herbs and spices is invaluable to your success as a home chef. Enough said.

Your Shopping
There is no way to put forth a shopping list that will satisfy every person's needs; however, I do have a bit of grocery shopping advice.

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.

If going to the grocery store only a few times a week is more your speed, then it really comes down to mapping out several days worth of meals in advance. This is not impossible, but it does require a little diligence on your part. This type of grocery shopping is great for people or families with a fairly consistent schedule. I wish I could say that was the case for me.

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.

Your Cooking
Now that we've straightened out your kitchen equipment, your pantry supplies, and your grocery shopping, it's time to do a little cooking. Before I give out two easy recipes, I do have a few suggestions for executing your meal preparation.

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.

Linguini Puttanesca

  • 1 lb. DeCecco or Barilla dried Linguini
  • 5 anchovy filets, drained and chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • (1) 28-oz. can San Marzano whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 1/2 C large green Italian olives, pitted (you can use Kalamata olives as a substitute)
  • 2 Tbsp capers
  • 1/4 Tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 C reserved pasta cooking water
  • 1/4 C Italian parsley, chopped
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

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)

For Meatballs:

  • 1 lb. ground beef or turkey chuck (not too lean)
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 Tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 large clove garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 Tsp herbs d' Provence
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

For Gravy:

  • 4 cups canned beef stock
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup Wondra or all-purpose flour
  • 1 and 1/2 Tbsp capers with brine (optional)
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

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

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