Friday, September 13, 2002

Cooking Lesson Six: the Super Efficient Cooking Day!

Note: this is one of a series of cooking articles I'd started posting before I had the blog set up. I turned them into blog entries to keep them on the site.

How some time invested one afternoon can feed you for days.

I often find that I have very little time to spend on anything, much less in the kitchen. But I hate the idea of falling into the fast- and snack-food trap that gets so many people. So one of the things I've been working on over the past year or so is ways to have maximum good healthy home cooking with a minimum of time and effort, and my number one solution has been (fanfare) the Super Efficient Cooking Day! (Which is actually only an hour or two, but "day" sounds better...)

Some of these elements may not work for you, but the idea is still the same -- to spend a short but very organized amount of time in the kitchen which will cut hours of work from your week. Adapt as you like to the kind of foods you eat. What I end up with is: pre-cooked chicken which can be used about a zillion different ways; a load of clean, fresh, and prepped vegetable which can you can either snack on or use in dinners over the next several days; and a batch of hard-cooked eggs which are a great snack or ingredient as well.

In addition to everyday kitchen items (i.e. oven, timer, etc.) you will need a kitchen mallet; and either a jellyroll pan or a cookie pan that has a rim all the way around it.

Your shopping list:

a package of chicken breast, boneless (with or without rib meat is up to you; I go with)
eggs -- amount and type is your call
fresh vegetables, carrots and celery being the basics; plus whatever else you might like. I might go with carrots, celery, zucchini and mushrooms on a typical day.
optional: ingredients to make whatever dip (hopefully a healthy one) you like for your vegetables. I go for a low-fat sour cream or yogurt plus salad dressing mix (ranch is good).
additionally: whatever ingredients you'll need for tonight's dinner + however many meals ahead you want to shop for.

The Procedure: First, go ahead and preheat your oven to 350° or so (F) (my oven bites so I actually set it to 400°). Then get your eggs started -- put as many eggs as you want to cook into a pan that allows them to all fit in comfortably in a single layer, and cover with cold water (an inch above the eggs). You're going to bring them a boil over high heat, and immediately turn off the hear, cover and let sit for 20 minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

Next, we deal with the chicken. While you're waiting for the eggs to boil, get out your baking pan (line it with foil if you want easier cleanup), and give it a very light coating of vegetable oil. Take your chicken (using a large cutting board rather than the counter is a good idea here) and separate each portion. (At some point in here you'll be turning the heat off -- set a timer so you don't let the eggs sit too long.) Some pieces may be too large for one serving, just cut these in half. If you end up with some irregular pieces, don't worry, just plan on using those for stir-fry or something else where you'll be cutting up the chicken. Using your mallet (the smooth side), pound each piece to an even thickness of about ½". Lay the pieces on the pan so they don't touch -- you can optionally season the chicken at this point, depending on what you plan to do with it later. Some salt and pepper will be fine for almost anything though. Put the chicken in the oven and clean up your raw chickeny mess. (And if you aren't done before you handle the eggs -- wash those hands!) How long the chicken will take depends on your oven and the quantity of chicken. Just check on it every 5 minutes or so. (If you plan to use it without any further cooking, make sure it's well-done before taking it out -- if you'll be using in cooked dishes slightly underdone is okay. Just make sure it's cooked thoroughly the second time around.) Note: once we started buying larger packages of chicken at Costco, I still cut up and flatten all the chicken, but I separate all but a couple day's worth into dinner-size portions, wrap and freeze.)

Now, that your chicken is roasting and your eggs are cooling, it's time for the vegetables. Wash up your cutting board (or get out a clean one) and chop and slice away! I like to fill a bunch of Ziploc Containers (I like the "short square" ones) with cleaned, cut-up vegetables to grab and eat out of the fridge, and since I'm cleaning and chopping anyway, I will also chop up whatever vegetables I need for the next couple days at the same time (sliced mushrooms or zucchini, chopped peppers or onion, you name it).

At this point your chicken should be done -- and you should have a nice stack of containers full of ready-to-use-and-eat veggies, and a bowl full of eggs ready to put away. This is a rewarding moment. Store the chicken and veggies in the fridge, and either peel or store the eggs as they are. (Either way, they'll keep about a week. My method is to peel them and then store in a lightly salted water bath.)

But what to do with all this food?

Make a batch of whatever you like to eat raw vegetables with best and snack on them instead of junk.
Snack on the eggs, make egg salad, deviled eggs, or whatever you like best.
Use the chicken and vegetables in super-quick and easy dinners for the next couple days.
Make quick sandwiches from pieces of the chicken.
And after a couple of days (and before any of it goes bad) all of the vegetables and chicken you haven't yet used can find their way into a big stir-fry or soup! (Chicken shouldn't really be kept for more than about 3 days at most -- if you don't think you'll use it all, freeze it and use it later.)

Obviously, you may want a completely different set of prepped food at the finish, but the idea is the same, and the time saved will be the same too. As always, adapt to your own preferences!

Whew! Now make yourself some tea and take a break!

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