Thrift in the kitchen

IMG_4748(Note: you should read this post as if you are mimicking Nigella)

My enduring and long-standing passion for food and cooking has recently turned to improving our kitchen efficiency. This sounds awful and not about deliciousness, but it is. It is about reducing waste, using smart ways to cook more efficiently and most importantly turning left overs from worthy but not that satisfying meals to truly special dinners. Just because there are only a few of us, doesn’t mean we can’t make meals as if we were a huge family, I just need to be clever about it. It takes planning for a small family to cook well without wasting things. Sure I could just buy portions, rather than a whole chicken, and I could forgo food like slow roasted lamb shoulder, but I won’t. Essential to my recent efforts is the idea that I could do better. Cook better, plan more successfully and have routine dishes that follow on from one another. I am less successful with a strict menu planner with a week’s worth of recipes to shop for and cook. I need more spontaneity than that. I need to be able to see bargains at the markets, then plan around what I’ve sourced.

While I usually make everything from scratch, stock, tomato puree made by my indefatigable husband who processed hundreds of tomatoes over summer, home grown veg and herbs, with very few processed foods, I have improved on this lately by creating meals in a series. This works particularly well in cooler weather. I will be working harder in summer to continue this project. Let me give you an example. (Look away vegetarians).

Our family is small. Three people, one of whom may or may not eat dinner with his parents. A leg of lamb feeds 6 or 8 people. Lamb is expensive, you can reduce costs by buying from the farmer, which we do. What I really needed was a way to use the leftovers in a more sophisticated way. I hate cold lamb, hate it with a passion and will not eat lamb sandwiches. Introducing lamb pilaf – I started with recipes that were designed to use up leftovers, but a bit of research lead me to Azerbaijan’s national dish, delicious and fragrant with saffron. What I did then was modify the recipe. The roast lamb is already cooked, so I add it – scattered on the top of the cooking rice – only at the last moment, so it is warm but not more cooked. I also force myself to cut up the lamb straight away after dinner (or more frequently, ask my lovely husband to do it) and put it in the fridge ready to go. Planning, planning, planning. Roast lamb Saturday night. Pilaf Sunday night and lunch Monday. Tick. Tick. Tick. Thrifty and low effort.


Lemon and Curry Leaf Rice – Ottolenghi

Some of my more recent meal series are more elaborate. There is a rice recipe in Plenty More, Ottolenghi. I could eat it every single day of the year, I love it that much. It’s easy, a few ingredients, some of which can just live the freezer until it’s time. Then I discovered this chicken dish, Lebanese Chicken and Rice. This dish has similar flavourings to the Lemon and Curry Leaf rice. The Lebanese Chicken is made by poaching the chicken and the resultant stock is not all used in the final dish. Saturday night make the Lebanese Chicken, a family winner. Reserve the left over stock – measure it exactly for the rice recipe. Freeze. When it is time for Lemon and Curry Leaf rice, use the frozen stock as the base for the rice rather than water. It has an improved depth of flavour and takes no more time and makes full use of the chicken. No wastage.


Roast Lemon Chicken

Roast Lemon Chicken is another dish on high rotation in my kitchen. Without a chicken, the weekend is fine, but it just feels a bit off kilter. Roast a chicken. I like to use lemon and thyme, perhaps sage, or tarragon when I have some. I also like to roast chicken with a pool of white wine in the base of the casserole. Enjoy delicious chicken for dinner. Then straight after dinner, strip the remaining chicken from the bones and put in the fridge, then make stock from all the bones in the pot you cooked the vegetables in – be careful to remove all the herbs and lemon from the cavity or the stock will be bitter. Then leave the stock quietly simmering on the stove while you watch a movie or RockWiz or what ever it is people watch on Saturday night.


Left over roast chicken soup

Next night make this soup with noodles, some corn, coriander and chilli or indeed if you want the chicken to go even further make Chicken, lentil and kale soup. You have already cooked the chicken, you have made stock while you watched tv, and the lentils take a short time to cook. The left over chicken will make two dinners – or even soups for two grown up people and one small person’s chicken noddle soup – as well as two lunches.

Less waste, more taste. Less work in the kitchen. My newest favourite idea which is gaining momentum is a pasta bake on Thursday nights. We shop at the markets on Saturday. By Thursday night, the fridge is often full of odds and ends, a few of this, a bit of cheese, a handful of this, handful of that. Most of that will go with pasta, particularly if it is then topped with left over bread made into crumbs and topped with parmesan or better yet other delicious melty cheeses. By Friday night I am aiming for a near empty fridge, ready for the next day. Last week it was a small amount of bolognese based sauce (one serve for small boy for dinner) with silverbeet and kale added to it and stirred through pasta elbows and topped with bread crumbs and cheese. I aim for a single two person serving. Use all leftover vege and other ends but not too much pasta or sauce so it fits neatly into a small pyrex baking dish. This week it was mushroom, kale and cheese sauce with tiny bit of left over bacon. Topped with primo sale – which is a fresh cheese that softens rather than melts. Left over stale bread turned into rough crumbs – I didn’t even bother to dry them first.

Pasta bake

Pasta bake now on for Thursday nights

This new addition to the routine gives me something to work towards for the end of the week. Soup of veges and lentils is also a good way to turn nothing into something, particularly if there is stock and pulses on hand, you can make anything. I am working to increase my base recipes made from what is to hand repertoire so I can use everything up. Feels satisfying, will make full use of costly protein and other nutrient dense foods, and is simpler that trying to think through options when I’m busy. I now have options for post roast meat dishes, I have ideas for Thursdays, I have lunches at the ready. While I love the idea of Nigella’s pantry, particularly that scene from the early series of her throwing open the enormous space full to the ceiling with glass jars and natty bits in snap lock bags, it is wasteful. It uses too much plastic for one thing and it encourages shopping for particular specific meals. This is fine for special celebrations but for every day more thrift is my new goal. Use what is on hand. It takes water to grow food. It takes effort to make a garden. I am working to make full use of my resources.



How to menu plan

Planning is ever so important

Planning is ever so important

Buy deliciously cute weekly dinner plan pad from fancy stationers.

Think about what you are doing in the week or two weeks ahead.

Write a sample menu for a week.

Invite people over, then make sure they change the day at least once. Then immediately forget the new arrangement and fail to write it down on your super cute new planner. Colour yourself surprised when they turn up with champagne while you are collapsed on the couch. Send man out to get pizza. Read More

Cooking and Love

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10, 000 hour rule. No matter how clever you are, if you really want to be good at something, you have to practice. And practice. And practice. In short, according to Gladwell and others, you need to accumulate 10, 000 hours of time at a task to really master it. 10, 000 hours is over 400 days straight. So by ordinary application, it’s full days for a few years. Or some practice, every day, over several years.

My 10, 000 hours are accumulated in two things. Cooking and writing.

First to the writing. It is the easier to account for. Two degrees one after another, both involving a great deal of writing. One involving a ‘substantial contribution to scholarship’ and a big fat dissertation. Collectively, this took over 12 years of writing every day, almost. There were a few days when I didn’t write, but not many.

The second of my 10, 000 hours, cooking has taken longer to accumulate. I started when I could reach the bench. My first cook book was a large format 1979 Ladybird book called We Can Cook it featured animal character cartoons as illustrations. It had a fruit cake recipe, which I made and foisted on people.

We Can Cook (Board Book)

I wish I still had that book. I cooked often for my whole family and by my early teens could be relied upon to turn out dinner for us all when required. We had a fuel stove, so before you could cook, you had to attend to the fire. This taught me a lot about preparation.

Yesterday, I was reading Charlotte Wood’s food blog How to shuck an oyster and I read two great pieces that I wanted to comment on, but was concerned about essay length blog comments. The first is about a book I really want to read by Julian Barnes and the second, is about Conflict in the Kitchen and power struggles between couples when cooking for other people. These two pieces resonated with me together as much as separately.

Cooking as Conversation is a ‘review’ of sorts of Julian Barnes’ book entitled, Pedant in the Kitchen. Charlotte quotes from the book;

‘The result of all this…is that while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination. I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook.’

What is interesting to me here, is as Charlotte says, he is expressing his true nature. Barnes is a pedant, a nick picker and a bit not self-sensoring. It struck me right there that this what Robert is like when he cooks. This is how he cooks. Not so much the lacking in imagination, but more the requirement for precise instructions, and everything exactly as it says in the book. Almost always, when he cooks, it looks precisely like the picture. It is delicious and wonderful. But it is not fast, it is not spontaneous and there is always a mountain of washing up.

It is also, the complete opposite of how he does almost everything else. And it’s not like he doesn’t have his 10, 000 hours up. After all, years of working in cafes, sandwich shops and making pancakes for a living, as well as cooking for his family, have easily seen him meet the challenge. Perhaps it is this experience of cooking on a large scale, of the necessity of getting it right to earn money, that lead to his technique and approach.

In fact, in the kitchen, it is like we both are our mirror selves. Robert gets precise, and adheres to a script as if the meal depends on it. Even recipes he has made hundreds of times, he nearly always looks it up. I am completely the opposite. And this is in some way the opposite of myself too.

I make it up. If you open the fridge and want something for dinner, I am your woman. I can pull stuff together out of seemingly thin air. Robert would be off down the shops, with a list in his hand. And in that time I could have made the pasta. Spontaneous, making do, cutting corners to get a more efficient result, adapting recipes as I go to shorten the time taken, to chop out the faffing around.

This brings me to a second piece from How to shuck an oyster, Conflict in the Kitchen. We have, as a couple, had some conflict about who is going to cook when, who cooks the show pieces and who does the work-a-day meals. In our house we have very difference approaches and different skills, most of them complementary. I never have to make pastry again, for to do so would be a total waste of time, so good is Robert’s. But when it comes to the crunch of churning out weekday meals, it is just easier and faster if I do it. I am fond of spending a relaxing few hours on a Sunday making dishes for the week to keep things easy. Robert would just head to the shops every day.

Dinner parties cause conflict, especially in the planning phase. We fight over what to have. We disagree about the menu. We argue about the tried and true versus the opportunity to make something new or different. It would be nice if we could work together, share, make love on the kitchen floor, but our competitive natures won’t let us. Our egos fight it out. We argue. We clutch our favourite books, shouting menu suggestions across the house.

And then Robert trumps me. ‘I’ll get the fish kettle out.’ As soon as he says that, I opt out. I go and find candles and polish glass ware. ‘What am I supposed to make if you are going to poach a whole bloody salmon?’

All of it comes from love. All of it comes from the joy of making something delicious. But make no mistake, it’s a fight to the death. Whose cuisine will reign supreme?

9 February 2008 - Party Salmon photo Robert Gotts

To buy Charlotte’s new book Love and Hunger click here - Australia's #1 online bookstore

Work together; just add salt.

I just used the last jar of preserved lemon that Robert and I made in 2008. We made maybe 10 size 20 Vacola jars of preserved lemon. We had kilos and kilos of lemons. It was our first large cooking project together. In 2008 I rented a house in Curtin. It had an old garden that was full of treasure. Read More

Black and White biscuits

Why am I posting biscuit recipes? Well today I was going to bake them for tomorrow’s play date. I shared that on Twitter. Then I was going to scan the recipe and send it to the lovely Naomi. She made Anzac biscuits with chocolate in them today. Then I discovered that my seven year old multi-function device won’t talk to the new MacPro. Jealous much of new computer are you printering thing-o? That discovery took all the time and energy I had this afternoon, so here we are. I typed it. A recipe for everyone to share, no biscuits for tomorrow and a new scanning, printing thing-o to buy. These biscuits have oats in them. They are practically health food Read More